Today on the podcast we have Leslie Hope Holthoff, author of a new autobiography about her life as a teen mom and growing up.

The good news is, in America, teen pregnancy has steadily declined since the early nineties. The bad news is there are still girls raising children, and fifty percent of them won’t graduate from high school.

Leslie was a scared little girl, overwhelmed by shame and self-hatred, whose tools for understanding sex and knowing how to stop it simply didn’t exist. By the time she was staring at two pink lines on a pregnancy test when she was just fifteen, her life already felt like it belonged to someone else.

Not Mary Not Roe is Holthoff’s stereotype-shattering story that explores the nuances of social mores, family upbringing, and religion that can become unwitting contributors to teen pregnancy. Her narrative begs the question: If we don’t teach young people about sex, how can we force them to bear the consequences?

Listen to her Story:

Watch her Story:

Read her story:

Alice: Okay I’m gonna do that again. Welcome. Leslie Holthoff and welcome to the show. We’re so excited to have you on Weekly Woman.

Leslie: Thank you. I’m proud to be here.

Alice: Yeah. So, where are you calling in from?

Leslie: So, I am in Suffolk, Virginia, which is Southeastern Virginia. We actually border North Carolina. So, not far from Virginia Beach, not far from the Outer Banks.

Alice: Oh, that’s so lovely. Oh, so you’ve got like both of those like great places to vacation.

Leslie: Yeah, I love living here and we can be up in the mountains to go skiing in two hours, I can be in, D.C. in about three hours. It’s just a cool place on the coast. You get a good taste of everything.

Alice: That is cool. I lived in D.C. for four years during my University. I loved it there. It’s such a beautiful city.

Leslie: I also love DC, so fun to go up and visit.

Alice: Oh, my gosh, I missed all of those restaurants and all the museums that are free, I can’t believe it’s free.

Leslie: Yeah, it’s an awesome place to be there.

Alice: Yeah. Can you tell me what you’ve been up to in the pandemic?

Leslie: A couple of things actually. So I had started writing a book. I feel like I started writing decades ago and it was one of those things that got picked up and put down and picked up and put down and actually, during the pandemic, my oldest son or my youngest son was a junior, I guess when things started. So he and I decided I had to keep him engaged. So his hands had Hatteras and I was going to call Hatteras hour. And so for two hours every day, we would work on a book. So we actually wrote and self-published a children’s book. And then I was like, I just worked harder to write a book with him than I’ve even worked towards my book and that inspired me to really double down on the book that I’ve been working on, which is basically a memoir and it covers the first sort of thirty years of my life. But there are two really big events. One of them is that I had a baby, I got pregnant at fifteen and I had a baby at sixteen and then I got married really young. I think I was twenty-two and then I almost very quickly got divorced at twenty-six. So the book really focuses on those two events, how they changed my life, and how they set me up for everything after that.

And then here recently over the past, we’ll call it six months or so, the book really took a different turn and really started focusing a little bit more on those challenges that I faced as a teen mom. And what the options were and why they weren’t options for me, and how important, I believe, those options are for everyone to have. It’s a different turn and then here as the book is getting released we’re in such a strange climate here. I wake up every day and I’m just not sure what’s happening but as a woman, things are changing pretty quickly. And all of a sudden my book became a little bit more relevant and gave me, I hope, a place to speak for him as somebody who went through some of these challenges and had to make some tough decisions.

Alice: Yeah. And can you tell us the title of your book? We haven’t heard that yet.

Leslie: It’s called Not Marry, not Row. The Survival Story of a Reluctant Teen Mom. And I named it that because whenever you talk about unwed mothers you got the Virgin Mary, everybody knows that story, and then it always ends up being about Jane Roe. And there are very few stories in the middle there that are quite so drastic, right? I certainly wasn’t a Virgin Mary but I certainly wasn’t Jane Roe either and it’s a story about all the people in the middle. I think it’s really easy to throw stones at faceless people and say I’m against this and that and it’s easy to do that when you can’t put a face to the name.

So my book was really like, hey look I’m just a regular girl. This was my story, and I just want people to understand sort of who I was. And how the decisions that I made or didn’t make really affected everybody in my life and were not a one-time decision that was just like, okay, it continues to affect my life every single day and my son’s life. So that’s what the story is about. I just wanted to sort of put a face and a name for somebody who was a teenager, who was a pretty good teenager at that and was still faced with these decisions. I just want people to have somebody else they can relate to somewhere in between some of the most drastic stories that we hear about.

Alice: Yeah, I think that’s wonderful. Because we definitely hear the Virgin Mary idea. There’s even that show that was on CW.

Leslie: Yes.

Alice: She’s like artificially inseminated but that was the story that we get as the single mom. And that’s not the story that we need told because there are, like you said, so many in between or we have like the MTV Teen Mom version which is definitely not like most people’s experiences because that is like totally dramatized and like crazy to watch on TV. Can you give it a little snippet of your story and what you’re talking about?

Leslie: Sure. I have just incredible parents who would have been married for 50 years coming up. My dad passed away about five years ago, but I had this incredible family. I was the oldest of three daughters and I still found myself pregnant at fifteen. We went to church every Sunday. I was very religious. Did not want to have a baby. Did not decide one day that I was going to start sleeping with my boyfriend. It is just something that happened. I felt very ill-equipped for being in the situation to say yes or no. I didn’t know. I went to my school library and sat there with an encyclopedia to try to figure out what was happening to my body.

I didn’t even really know that I’d had sex. My friends actually laughed at me when I recalled the story and they were like, “Oh my God, you didn’t have sex. That’s so cute. That you think that you did.” And so I was floored. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening to my body. I couldn’t believe any of it. My parents were equally shocked but because I had been brought up… I was in the youth group. I was brought up religious. So abortion wasn’t something that I thought was an option. I had been taught that it was wrong and was murder.

And so it wasn’t something that I ever truly considered and later as I became more educated, I got a little angry that that wasn’t something that anybody had a serious conversation with me about, as an option. I was a fifteen-year-old kid who had no understanding of what it meant to have a child. I mean there’s the physical aspect, like, okay, this is what is going to happen to my body. And I mean, let me tell you, it was pretty terrifying. Then, I sort of skipped the adult body part, right? Most people go through puberty and they love their body and then later, they might decide to have kids and they’re like, “Oh man, I was so cute when I was 18.” Like no, that didn’t happen to me. Like I went straight from barely through puberty to a post-pregnancy body. Nobody really talked to me about what that meant.

Then there’s the psychological. I mean my God. I’m currently forty-four years old, I think. And still, I’ve been in and out. I’m a huge supporter of therapy and all these things. But I still struggle to deal with the fact that I’m forty-four. I have a son who just turned twenty-eight. I was not equipped to be a good mom to him. I still struggle to communicate with him. There was just absolutely no resources. There was nothing out there to say, “Hey Leslie. This is what’s going to happen to your body. This is what’s going to happen to your minds. This is what’s going to happen to your future. These are what your choices are going to be or probably what they’re not going to be.”

And it was just feeling a lot of things out for myself. My family didn’t know where to turn. We didn’t know what even happens with insurance. You know what I mean? It was just all these questions and there were just no resources and of course, it was so incredibly shameful. This is 1993. We didn’t know anybody else. Who had been through this, there wasn’t some knowledge in the hotline to call. It was just stumbling in the dark trying to figure it out. And since then, I have just wanted to scream through the rooftops, like I want to help other people in this situation. There should be more resources, there should be more support, and there’s just not.

And even now all these years later they’re still not that. I just tried it the other day. I was like, okay let’s just pretend like I was pregnant and I needed some help and I was a teenager and you immediately get pushed to these resources that look like they’re helping, but ultimately, they’re very religious-based. and I’m not anti-religion in any way, but there should be some non-religious black and white, very simple, we’re here to help you and these are your options. That just doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It certainly doesn’t exist here, and on many fronts, we still lack general sex education and that is one thing that my book talks about. I was just taught you don’t have sex, you don’t have sex until you’re married. It wasn’t that you could and you shouldn’t, it was that you just didn’t. I didn’t even really understand…

Alice: What it was.

Leslie: Right? I didn’t know that that’s what they meant. I didn’t know that I could if I wanted to, but I shouldn’t, it was just you don’t. And so I get really angry when we’re taught as girls that sex is something that’s taken from us. That it’s something that if we do have sex before marriage, clearly, we’ve been sort of bamboozled, right? We’ve been taught that it’s something that I wasn’t smart enough to understand or say no or I wasn’t strong enough and then we’re just taught that sex is something for men from us. I was never ever told that sex could be something, one day that I would enjoy, that I might want, that I might get pleasure out of, that I might like. I just never taught that.

And then all of a sudden, you’re a girl and you’re taught, don’t do it, and it’s shameful if you do, and all of these things. Then you get married, and it’s like, now, you should love it every day. Now, you should go on and do it, now you should feel comfortable in your body that you’ve been taught to hide all these years. And it just doesn’t make sense. We’re just we’re doing you wrong. I don’t have an answer on how to change that but sex education is certainly…

Alice: Definitely. I am ten years younger than you but still, I grew up in the California school system super liberal but I didn’t even have health class. My health class was I took dance instead of PE so our health class option that we could take was through Brigham Young University. So the Mormon church, and had nothing about sex in it. Nothing. So basically, I learned sex education from my girlfriends in college because they were like, “What the hell! You haven’t learned about this? This is bad Alice.” And so they had to teach me themselves about what this thing was. But it just shows the lack of education that we have in California, Virginia anywhere in the United States, were just not taught about what this thing is.

Leslie: We’re not and we’re also even taught not to talk about it, and I mean, I know in my house, I wasn’t allowed to watch rated R movies or movies or movies [crosstalk]. So I’ve literally had nothing. I was like, okay, I think I understand kissing now but like, that was it. And it just is awful. Then, again, in health class we, and that’s very important too, but it was more like these are your ovaries and this is a fallopian tube and it was very scientific. This is how kids are made, but nobody put the pieces together. I mean for example like how old was I when I found out that you had sex for pleasure, a million times in your life and only to procreate maybe once, two, three times. It’s just not addressed, it’s just not talked about, and then all of a sudden you’re just supposed to know. And of course, back in the early 90s, I didn’t have the internet and it’s a whole different problem now. If that’s where we’re teaching kids, we’ve gone no access except for the encyclopedia to what is way too much access, and we’re still not having these conversations.

I thankfully have tried really hard with my kids to have those uncomfortable conversations and I’ve tried really hard to teach them that if you want to wait till marriage, that’s good for you, but if you don’t that’s okay for you too, like, this is your life and your decisions and I want to tell you to be educated about it and this is how it happens. I’ve tried to be a little bit more open with them. They’re boys, so I think that’s helpful. But it’s just something we’re not doing, right? And it is, I believe our daughters that are paying a price. As someone who’s been divorced and I’m remarried, when you have a problem in your marriage that’s like the first thing they ask. Are you guys having sex?

Alice: Yeah.

Leslie: How’s the sex life going? It’s so indicative often of a healthy relationship. It’s, someone said, the most important part of a healthy relationship. We don’t teach anybody that. We just don’t teach anybody that. Then you just are trying to figure it out and you don’t know how to talk about it because nobody talked about it with you. Now you’re supposed to talk about it with your husband and I’m like, this is crazy. This is just conversation. This is a problem that can be solved with a conversation.

Alice: Yeah. And a conversation that everyone should be having throughout the centuries, we’ve all been having sex to like decree poor people forever, but then…

Leslie: We’re literally all only here because somebody had sex.

Alice: Yeah. But what’s so exciting is the idea of like having sex for pleasure too, now, which wasn’t an option fifty years ago and now which is kind of changing again with Roe v Wade in what we have access to. Can you talk a little bit about your reaction to the dismantling of that?

Leslie: Well, as I said before I mean, abortion was legal, but I had been taught it wasn’t an option and I feel like I’m one of those rare people that I had this baby and it makes me really angry when I talk to other people who had kids out of wedlock or as teenagers or whatever and they’re like, “Oh my God, my kid is my best friend and it was the greatest gift.” And I’m like, “Okay good for you. That’s not what it was for me.” Had I truly understood my options, that probably would have been the best option for me, I mean, I had a kid, I turned sixteen in May and he was born on July 4th. I was barely sixteen years old. I was a lucky one, right?

Because I had two parents who, we cried every day for nine months, but at least they didn’t kick me out and they did help me figure out how to get insurance. And they went with me to the pediatrician’s office and they really supported me, and I was really lucky. But when I found out, I have boys but all my friends have girls and I have these little girls and they’re 9, they’re ten, they’re 6, and they’re 3. And they’re little girls that I spend time with every weekend, and I love them and they’re my nieces, and my best friend’s kids, and their faces, showed up, in my mind. And I was just frozen. I would never wish what happened to me on anyone because even though I was lucky, I was not lucky. I was not lucky.

The decision that was, again, I guess I made it but I was a fifteen-year-old girl, making a decision based on like 10% of the actual information that was facts or what the consequences would be. So I don’t really feel like I did make a decision and as I said, it changed the rest of my life, it is a life sentence. It is a life sentence. You’re a mom for the rest of your life. And your needs become secondary but long before my needs ever became primary. I lost the ability to have that. And every decision that I made for decades, still is based on my kids. This is where I have to live because this is the best school system and this is where I’ve got to get a house and this is the job that I want to get. And I want to get that job because it pays more money, but I’d have to work more hours and I can’t do that because I got to pay for daycare. It’s this cycle that you can’t get out of. And so, when I heard about, well, I mean the reaction, when it got leaked was that was probably the big whammy and I was expecting it.

But even though I was expecting it, it was one of those moments where I’ll always know exactly where I was when I found out and all I could think about were these girls. And it’s crazy. Like, when I was a “little girl” a girl started her period around twelve years old and now, girls are starting their period. I like 9.

Alice: Yeah.

Leslie: I know of people and their daughters are going through this at 9 and ten years old, and it’s just sort of like, oh my God. That is so heavy. And the science behind that is a whole different thing to talk about. But the bottom line is, how can anyone think that a ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, you know, you get to sixteen, seventeen, you start having a little bit more, but you don’t have that. You do not have the mental capacity, to understand, to even say yes to sex, right? Under any circumstances, if you get pregnant at those ages, it’s not something that you understood what you were doing and made a choice.

And so you’ve got these girls who when they find ourselves, and it’s nobody’s business whether it’s a boy that they like, who’s older or a boy, that’s the same age, or their stepdad or their dad, it’s nobody’s business how they got in this situation, it shouldn’t be. It should be our business what we can do to help these kids be able to have a shot at having a real life. And we’ve taken that off the plate in many states.

I’m terrified that that number will grow. And of course, being able to go to a different state is better than not being able to go to any state. But it’s limited to people who have that ability.

Alice: Yeah.

Leslie: As we talk about now eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-old girls, driving yourself to another state, who are they supposed to talk to? Who are you supposed to talk to? I mean, it’s great that you have great parents, but even great parents as we just discussed, don’t know what to do in this situation. They don’t know where to go. They don’t know who to talk to. They may not have the resources to help you, and we’re making it hard for kids that were supposed to be looking out for. And oh my God. And then these kids are not going to have kids and be great parents. They haven’t even seen enough parenting from their parents to be able to mimic it. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

And I feel the same way about anyone who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be whether you already have five kids, whether you’re married, whether you’re 25, I feel that way. But I personally have [crosstalk], such a young age, that’s my passion. Just watching us turn kids into Moms is just a nightmare. I call myself a reluctant mom because I was a reluctant mom. I didn’t want to be a mom. I did not want to be a mom. I was never even the kind of mom that loved being a mom later when I chose to be a mom. I’m still not.

I love my kids but I’m still just not a mom’s mom. I am not the mom who did grab, again, birthday cakes and couldn’t wait to throw birthday parties. I was like man. It’s another birthday party. All right, we’re gonna do it. I am I’m a reluctant mom all the way through and through and just to not have that choice is awful. And you just don’t get over it.

Alice: And it’s amazing that you’re able to write this book and to have something that sheds light on this really taboo subject. Have you been able to discuss this your whole life? Have you been talking about your life or is this the first time that you’re starting to open up and share your story?

Leslie: This is the first time talking about it publicly. It took me…I remember the first time I told the story of getting pregnant, telling my parents and the first time I told it, and I was able to tell it without crying like it was so traumatic to me that it took me years to be able to talk about, and I’m talking at least a decade. Then after that to be able to talk about it, where it didn’t put me in such a spiral that I would not be able to recover. For example, for years if I was say having some beers with my friends and it came up, I would break out in this red that I looked like a tomato. It was just like a stress response and I would have to just leave and go to bed. I couldn’t get out of it. it would look like I was having an allergic reaction. It took me so long to be able to just talk about it without it physically making me worthless. It would take so much energy out of me that I just would have to go lay down. I couldn’t even tell the story because it was that traumatic to me and that upsetting. I’ve never, “Oh hi, I’m Leslie. It’s nice to meet you.” And as a woman, it’s like, “Oh my God. Are you married? Do you have kids?”

Alice: Yeah. Those are the questions.

Leslie: I don’t start that conversation. I’m never one. That’s like, “Oh my god. Do you have kids?” Because I know you’re going to ask me if I have kids and I don’t want to answer because the second question is, how old are they? And as soon as I say that my kid is however old, you’re going to start doing math and you’re going to be like, “She doesn’t look old enough to have a kid that age and it’s just like, “Wow!” And I’ll say, “Let me save you the time I was sixteen.” I hated it. I mean this is not a conversation you want to have in job interviews, it’s not a conversation you want to have when you’re in college, and it’s not the conversation you want to… It was never a good time to have that conversation.

Alice: And that’s not a good conversation that men get asked either like, “Oh are you married? Do you have children?” No, that’s not the conversation that they’re having when you first meet someone.

Leslie: No. And my kids are two different dads and that’s something I’m not proud of, but it’s something that you have to talk about. Because it’s like, “Oh, you had it in high school, or did you marry him with?” I’m like, “No, I married someone else and then I had another kid and then I got divorced and it’s like, okay well within three seconds you know the worst three things about me. With no context and no storyline. And we live in America and people immediately judge you for these things. I’ve had to fight that judgment my entire life and I fought it in ways that only make sense to me, you know, like, for whatever reason, I started off thinking, I couldn’t have a college degree.

And then it was, I can have one but I’m gonna have to work harder than everybody else, which was true. I didn’t get to live in a dorm and I didn’t get to have college parties and I didn’t get to do any of that stuff, and I did not get my bachelor’s degree until I think I was 32. But to me, that was the hardest thing that I had to work for. It was homework at 5 a.m. and it was online classes and night classes. And making people help me with the kids, and it was hard, right? And so now I’m super proud of myself but also when somebody says, “Oh, where did you go to college?” I’m like, “Oh I went to I went to ODU.” And the story stops, everyone just assumes. “Oh well, she probably graduated at 18 and she went to college and four years later, she walked out with a degree.” I don’t get to say no, it was really hard. It was something that I fought for it was something I thought against. There were people that were like, what do you even need this for? You already have a job and two kids. Isn’t this too much to take on and I was just I’ve got to find something to counter the first half of my story, right?

I need my second story to be amazing. And for me, that meant proving that I was smart enough to get this education like so many other people do without even thinking about it.

Alice: Also telling your story too, especially when the world needs to hear it the most. I think that is an amazing part of your story that you’re able to help so many people just by talking about this taboo thing.

Leslie: Yes. It’s just conversation. I now have a master’s degree in public policy and I’m working on my Ph.D…

Alice: Oh my God.

Leslie: Thank you. I’m super excited. And there are so many… Public policy is hard. There are so many solutions that cost so much money and you’ve got to figure out how they’re going to be funded. And it’s like, this isn’t one of those things. This is something that can be so much better based on conversation. Our kids are already going to school and we already have health classes. What if we told them the truth? What if we stopped pretending like abstinence was an incredibly easy thing to do and it was the only way. I mean I don’t know. What if we talk to them like sex was an important part of relationships and we really helped them focus on how beautiful it can be but also how bad it can be and just give them facts.

Because we don’t arm them with anything and then when they do get pregnant it’s, “Okay. You weren’t adult enough to know the truth about sex but now that you are an adult. Why don’t you decide if you want to have a baby or not? Great. How are you gonna go to school? What religion is that baby going to be? Is it going to get baptized? Are you going to marry the Dad? We know you don’t even really like him. I mean, you went through this horrible sex experience, you’ve got serious traumatic responses, but I guess you got to marry him. I know you’re only fifteen and the rest of your life could be seventy-five years but hey, that makes perfect sense. It’s just conversation and it’s more than just talking to kids, it’s as adults. I saw my parents’ friends’ reactions, and I had friends that didn’t really want anything to do with them anymore. Other friends were, we love you, we love Leslie, what can we do to help?

We need to support the parents. Having a daughter that gets pregnant doesn’t mean that you failed as a parent. Turning your back on them means you failed as a parent. That’s it. We need to give them the resources to support their daughters. I mean, obviously sex education. There are so many ways we can get ahead of this so nobody has to have conversations about pregnant teenagers. That’s step 1. And step 2 is when you do have these kids, let’s just talk to them. Let’s talk to the parents and let’s get them the resources they need. We don’t have to use this as an opportunity to turn them into Christians. We can just use it as an opportunity for them to understand what’s going on with their body. What their choices are and help them.

Alice: Yeah.

Leslie: I’m all for adoption, but it is just not that simple. I wish that it was. that would be a beautiful little box we could tie a bow on and be like this is a great solution. Yeah, it’s not. It’s not always a great solution. It is a beautiful thing for some people but it’s just not for everyone.

Alice: And when does your book come out Leslie? When and where can we get your book?

Leslie: September 20 is when it comes out. You can buy the e-book. You can pre-order the e-book now and I hope to have a hardback and paperback available any day now, but again, they will be released on September 20. I’m really excited to be able to tell my story and I hope that it will just be of comfort to somebody out there.

Alice: Amazing. And one thing that we always ask on this podcast is what is your definition of Womanhood?

Leslie: It’s a really good question. The term gets broader the more and more I learn about it. Womanhood. I think we’re putting a position where… That’s a really good question.

Alice: I think it changes moment to moment of someone’s life which is why I think it’s so interesting because everyone has a different idea about what it is and each second it changes in your head. So I think this is your definition at this moment on Wednesday, July 6 at 2:25.

Leslie: I think in this moment womanhood to me is roughly half of the population right now has to come together and fight for our rights to be moms if we want to be moms. To not be moms if we don’t want to be moms, that our bodies are not vessels to be used and tossed around lightly. And I think that Womanhood is, right now, this second, absolutely anybody who wants to fight for or against that right. Period.

Alice: Yeah. Thank you so much, Lesley. It was such a pleasure to get to talk to you today. Do you want to add anything else to our listeners?

Leslie: I don’t think so. I know I just went on a little bit of a couple of rants.

Alice: I loved it.

Leslie: I’m happy to have the opportunity. This is such a weird time that we’re in and I hope that everyone out there… That we can come together. I also started a non-profit. I’m in the process of starting a non-profit to just get those resources together. I mean, for parents, when you find yourself with your child boy, or girl, in this situation, to help you try to have the resources, you need to make some educated decisions. Resources for teenagers in this situation. So I’m working to do that and I hope that obviously there’s Planned Parenthood and there are all these other resources that are out there to try to help you and I encourage people to do the research and find them. And to come together in womanhood and humanhood. [crosstalk] it affects right now and let’s figure out a way to just love each other and get through this.

Alice: Thank you so much, Leslie. And again, for everyone listening, her book comes out, on September 20th, and you can pre-order it now, Not Mary Not Roe: The Survival Story of a Reluctant Teen Mom. Thank you so much, Leslie.

Leslie: Thank you.

About the author

Alice Cash is the Marketing Manager for Jubilance by day and an award winning Theatre Director by night.  Leading the podcast Weekly Woman, she loves her candid conversations with women from all over the world about how they live and the amazing things they are doing to make a difference. Alice is also the editor of the bi-monthly newsletter the Jubilee, a blog dedicated to the power of female wellness especially concerning menstruation.  She’s worked in France creating theatre pieces and taught drama and filmmaking to women and children in Haiti.  She graduated from Georgetown University and holds two master degrees from NYU and The New School.  Alice has traveled to  40+ countries, including Tibet.  She is a New Yorker and can often be found in Central Park, searching out the best bubble tea, or directing a play, you never know where she’ll show up. @alicesadventuresinwonderworld
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