It is unfortunate that the debate about teenage mothers is always triggered by something negative…last year it was the teen parties.
Earlier this year a seminar on poverty ended up with an article entitled Teenage births are unfair on the baby, and now it’s the recent tragedy of Roselana that has fuelled the crusade against young ‘unmarried’ mothers.
The ‘unmarried’ part is important since although it is the age of the mother that is seen as transgressing parenting norms, it seems that people fail to remember that the rates of teenage pregnancy were much higher than today in the 60s and 70s, however nobody seemed to bat an eyelid since the majority used to be married.
The idea that the rates of teenage pregnancy are at an all-time high and increasing dramatically is a myth. In reality, the numbers have remained stable over the last 12 years, and the majority of teen mothers are in fact adults of 18 and 19. What has changed is that even as recent as 10 years ago, 40% of these young mums used to be married by the time the baby was born. Last year, that percentage stood at 5%. Which in my mind is not such a bad thing considering that nowadays young mothers, rather than being pushed into a ‘shotgun’ marriage in their majority continue to live at home where they can be supported by their families.
But moral panics aside, shouldn’t we still try to prevent young girls from thinking that becoming a mother at 16 is OK? Shouldn’t young women be able to live their youth in a carefree way, take their own time to continue their education, establish their own independence and form a stable adult relationship before embarking on the journey of motherhood? Shouldn’t we equip them with knowledge and information so that if they can’t be good, at least they can be careful not to get pregnant? It is this discourse of ‘good choices’ that permeates the media today. Teenage mothers are seen as having made a series of ‘bad’ choices, from becoming sexually active, to not using contraceptives and choosing to raise their babies as ‘single mothers’.
Yet what we tend to forget is that often in the world they grow up in, the choice of young motherhood makes sense. It is a reality that the majority of teenage mothers come from socially and economically deprived areas, both locally and on an international level. In their social networks, the identity and social worth of women is still centred around motherhood rather than career. Motherhood is a viable arena for personal power, independence and meaning.
International research from the past ten years and my experience working with teenage mothers have both shown that motherhood, rather than being a negative life option, often serves as a catalyst for becoming more mature and redirecting one’s life. Often, the motivation to provide a better life for their children results in teenage mothers’ increased aspirations for educational achievement rather than the contrary as is often portrayed. Also, I know through my personal and work experience, how hard the majority of young Mums are working to be good Mums, and how their life is affected by negative stereotypes and judgements. Far from becoming laissez faire, our society has become more judgemental towards them and so it pains me when I read articles or hear views that fuel this public image of young Mums as irresponsible or a social problem.
So, am I promoting teenage pregnancy? Of course not. But while I believe in sex education for its own sake, prevention of teenage pregnancy is far more complex. It requires broad and structural changes that are not as easy as teaching girls about pills and condoms.
Just this morning, I read an article in which a priest in a parish in Malta is saying that the current trend is for teenage pregnancies to be planned. This strengthens my argument. If we want to prevent teenage pregnancy, we need to provide economic and educational opportunities for all, especially marginalised young women so that having a baby does not look like the most attractive option on the horizon. In the meantime, the best we can do is respect young mothers and support them as they balance motherhood with the tasks of adolescence.
Being a young Mum is not always the tragedy that society portrays it to be and when provided with opportunities and support, teenage mothers and their children do well. It is only in this manner that we can break the cycle of social deprivation.