Teen parents- especially teenage mothers- are stigmatised.
“Pregnant girls are viewed as either poor immoral victims who need fixing, or manipulating devious sluts who need punishing,” says Prym Face, Telegraph blogger, researcher, former young mother and founder of Promoting Respect for Young Mothers. “Support for teen mums is sometimes couched in a context of changing and teaching them, rather than listening to what they want. The notion of being a ‘teenager’ does not sit well with our ideals of ‘motherhood’, so the term becomes a social construction. We don’t use ‘teenage’ to describe young carers, or young offenders or any other people professionally, yet teenage mother has continued to be used to label young mothers, reinforcing stereotypes and stigma. The reality is that young mums have to work hard to create their own paths and scripts, often with very little support. And then when their life isn’t the car crash it was meant to be they are told they are the exception to the rule!”
We all know this. When was the last time your gaze lingered over that fourteen year old pushing her pram? Were you surprised to discover a successful twentysomething whom you know actually has a child? I do these things. I do them even though I know that as a feminist I’m not meant to. I do them even though I know that the surprise and othering comes from the stigma. Just because I don’t feel disgusted by teen mothers doesn’t mean that my reactions, though internal, don’t help prop up society’s disgust. And just because I don’t stigmatise young mothers doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for these reactions. The BBC recently reported on the stigma- as if we needed them to tell us it exists. As a feminist what interests me is the wider issues of how feminism can be inclusive of and help fight for the rights of adolescent and young mothers, the reasons behind the stigma, and how the lived experience of stigma impacts on some of the most powerless people in our society.
Lucy V Hay is a script editor, author of two books and was previously a teacher. But the mere fact of having once been a young mum means people judge her educational status and career goals. “ If they see me with my son (himself a teenager now), they will assume I am badly educated, on benefits, a scrounger,” she says. “[T]oo often the subtext is, ‘I would have thought you were too posh/too clever to get knocked up as a teenager’. But it can happen to anyone who has sex — at any age!!…Sometimes people are openly admiring and say it’s great I have still achieved and I appreciate the sentiment, but again it’s that subtext: often they see me as achieving *despite* my son, when the reality is, I have achieved despite society’s lack of support and even blatant sabotage.”
“[M]edical professionals have been some of the worst for me, even becoming blatantly hostile to me on occasion. Teachers are usually fine, though a couple have treated me like an idiot or as if I’m hysterical or whatever; I soon put them straight – I’m a trained teacher myself, for God’s sake! Of other parents, women have been the worst to be honest; Dads usually barely notice my age, but the Mums at the school gates have in the past been openly aggressive to me […] It’s the age-old chestnut of women doing patriarchy’s job for it by policing other women I reckon. I learned a long time ago to NEVER look at any other woman at the school gates or in the street long when with my kids, for fear of confrontation. It’s smile, avert eyes quickly — and only strike up friendships if the other woman initiates it.”
But it’s not just marginalisation and social rejection that we use to punish young women for conceiving or for choosing not to have abortions. We actually withold vital medical care from them, too. “I had severe mental health issues as a young person and I was not taken seriously by medical professionals at all. The help offered to postnatal mothers was not offered to me, despite my repeated attempts to get help. It never needed to get as far as it did, yet I was patronised constantly, told ‘Oh we all get down after having a baby, dear’ and given a pat on the head and prescribed some antidepressants and sent on my way[…]Yet when I had a baby at the “right” age…everyone was much more interested in me. Funny, that. It’s like we reward women for being “good” and withdraw everything when they’re ‘not’.”
I’ve always considered the stigma against teenage pregnancy and young motherhood to be related to, or a form of, slut shaming and misogyny more generally. But I’m not a young mother so what would I know? When I asked Lucy, though, she does share this view: “I have no doubt the stigma against young mothers is an intense dislike of teenage sexuality, especially young women’s – so yes, it’s connected to misogyny. Young women who have sex young, who have babies or abortions are considered “tainted” or “spoiled goods” and that’s just disgusting. Also, the double standard is ludicrous: contrast the negativity of names like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ etc with ‘stud’ and ‘Jack the lad’!”
Tracy Engelbrecht, founder of the South African social support organisation Young Mom Support, still gets asked questions 21 years after she became pregnant. Questions like “I get that you love him, but I’m sure you wish he wasn’t born, hey? I’m sure you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a teen mom, would you?” People also tell her “You’re not like ‘those other’ teen moms. You’re the exception” and “It’s good that you’ve made the best of a bad situation,” “I’m sure you think you’re happy, but you could have been so much more,” and of course “At your age, you should be *insert-debauched-activity-here*”. Through her work with young mothers, as well as her own experience of young motherhood, she understands just how damaging the stigma can be. “A mother who feels encouraged and valued in her parenting will always do a better job than one who feels judged and vilified by her community. Every parent needs support, no matter their age. If we insist on treating teen parenting as a punishment for sexual activity, we will continue deal with:
a) children raised by parents who hate themselves
b) the consequences of unsafe, illegal abortions instead of safe, legal terminations in a medical setting
c) babies abandoned and dumped at birth because the mother is too afraid to reach out for help. (this is a HUGE problem in SA and happens every day).”
As an intersectional feminist, I feel that the mainstream feminist campaigns have done little to address the stigma against young mothers or even understand their lived experiences and issues. Reproductive rights and reproductive justice seem to revolve around the availibility of abortion and contraception. In the UK where women over the age of 12 can have free abortions and contraception without parental consent, it appears (to me, at this time) that the reproductive right to have a baby while you’re a teen is more threatened than other reproductive rights. The stigma against young mothers is ludicrous. Everyone thinks teen births are skyrocketing when actually the conception rate for under-18s is at its lowest level in 40 years. Teen motherhood has been falling since the 1970s. In the 1950s teenage pregnancy was far more common than it is now, but was not seen as a social problem as long as the parents married before the birth, and teen marriage was tolerated.
So what can we, the childless young people and the older parents, do to stop the stigma against adolescent and young mums (and dads)?
“Well first up, it would be great if young women could walk around with their kids without hostility and even open aggression directed at them!” Lucy says. “Just smile for God’s sake, it costs nothing – and stop staring. It’s just a baby, not the Antichrist. Secondly, consider WHY you find teen mothers so distasteful: if it’s because you don’t like your taxes paying their benefits, ask yourself why that’s such a big deal to you when your taxes also pay for really nasty shit like bombs. If it’s because you think that teen mother won’t do anything with her life now, again, consider this: a) how do you know she won’t and not ‘pay back’ those benefits by contributing to society? and b) why isn’t raising a child ‘contributing to society’ anyway? The birth rate is going down, remember. Most of us grow up to be useful members of society.”