June 25, 2008

NBC Series Shows Teens the Reality of Being Parents

One of the slickest, most innovative forms of birth control may be a new reality TV series.

In "The Baby Borrowers," premiering tonight at 9 EDT on NBC, five young couples, ages 16 to 19, provide round-the-clock care to kids of various ages, a challenge that forces them to face real-life fear factors like dirty diapers, sleep-deprived nights and temper tantrums.

Before you speed-dial Child Protective Services, keep in mind that the real mothers and fathers monitored the taped experiment from a neighboring house in Boise, Idaho, with the ability to pop over anytime they felt matters were sliding downhill. In addition, professional nannies served as silent security guards just yards from the makeshift family.

Unlike other reality shows, which are primarily interested in putting its players on the edge of a hot tub or a nervous breakdown, "Borrowers" appears to be genuinely sincere about its mission: show teenage viewers that parenthood is a very grown-up grind.

"We saw an opportunity to not only tell really good stories about teenagers that weren't superficial, but also address a really important issue," said executive producer Tom Shelly, who previously worked on "Survivor.""We're doing something unique to television that has a purpose."

The experiment takes place at a time when teen pregnancy is resurgent in the news and in pop culture. Last week's Time magazine included a story about a group of teens in Gloucester, Mass., who supposedly made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Jamie Lynn Spears, 16, star of "Zoey 101," last week gave birth to a daughter. The film "Juno," about a pregnant 16-year-old, earned four Oscar nods. According to a 2007 report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, nearly one-third of American women get pregnant by age 20, the highest rate in the industrialized world.

No wonder most of the "Baby Borrowers" cast seem nonchalant about being young parents. At least initially.

"The media has played a big part in that," said Kelsey Lampman, an 18-year-old from New Hampshire who appears in the series. "We see teenage girls having children and they seem to be doing OK. I keep tabs on Jamie Lynn's pregnancy and think, 'Oh, I can do that.' We don't recognize the responsibility that comes with it."

At the top of the first episode, Lampman swoons over the prospects of becoming a parent, confident that her street smarts and baby-sitting experience have properly prepared her. Her boyfriend, Sean Graham, is reluctant and hopes the experiment will give her pause. He appears to get his wish.

By the second episode, Lampman is curled up in bed in tears, unable to cope with feeding and changing the baby, while Graham turns out to be the better equipped caretaker.

"It's totally what we didn't expect," Lampman said months after the taping. "I think all of us that participated now want to wait longer. You have to be with the right person and it has to be the right time. There was no other way to learn all that."

Lampman's reaction is exactly why Natalie Nichols agreed to lend the show her infant, Etta, and her toddler, Benjamin, each for three days at a time. The Idaho woman was a 17-year-old honor student when she gave birth to her first child. As a result, she had to graduate from high school by mail and abandon her plans to go to college. The relationship with the child's father eventually fell apart.

"I didn't get pregnant by accident. I did it on purpose," Nichols said. "I thought I knew everything. I didn't realize until later that I was just coming into my own as an individual. Once you have a baby, you don't get to define who you are."

Nichols said some of her friends wondered if she was being irresponsible by turning her kids over to strangers, but she was swayed by both her belief in the project and the show's safety precautions. At one point during the taping, Lampman and Graham, who were supervising Etta, couldn't get the infant to sleep. Graham _ half jokingly, half wearily _ suggested they let her cry all night.

Nichols, watching on a television in a nearby house, immediately stormed over to the couple's home and sternly pointed out that the baby was unlikely to hit the sack without getting a bath and a change of clothes, both of which the teens had neglected to do. Later, Graham noticed strange marks on Benjamin's body. According to Nichols, producers immediately stopped everything until it was determined that it was just a case of diaper rash.

"It was top of the line, the kind of attention you wouldn't even expect at day care," Nichols said.

Richard McKerrow, who originally created the series for the BBC early last year, said educating the public was always the intent, especially in England, which has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe.

"We borrowed some tools of reality TV, but we were looking for genuine moments of documentarian life," said McKerrow, who also supervised the American version of the show. He points out that nobody is eliminated in the series, nobody wins a grand prize and nobody was paid for their participation.

"I'm reminded of the old Bob Dylan lyric, 'I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," McKerrow said. "Teens think they know it all. But with life comes responsibilities, and parenting is not quite as easy as you think it is."


(c) 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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