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Teen Pregnancy Rates Are Falling—Now We Need to Work on Our Attitudes Towards Young Mothers

Telling young mothers that they've "ruined" their lives can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when abuse from strangers makes it frightening to even leave the house.
February 26, 2015, 1:30pm

Image via Flickr user Duskin Askins.

According to numbers released this week by the Office of National Statistics, teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest since 1969, when records began. Most people agree that this is a good thing, because a lower conception rate points to better contraception use and, probably, a healthier culture around talking about sex. But what the statistics don't show is the harmful stigma still attached to teenage mothers, to having a baby "too young."

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"Despite the falling numbers of teen pregnancies, there's a lot of misconception around about young moms," says Phillippa Newis, policy officer at Gingerbread, a charity that supports single parents. "We know from our work with young parents in Manchester that they can be shouted at in the street and that people can make derogatory remarks about them and their children."

I wanted to talk to someone who had experienced the stigma of being a teenage mother firsthand, so I contacted Mary Hannagan, a young woman who had her daughter, Freya, when she was 17. I asked her what it was like to be visibly pregnant and visibly very young. "When I was pregnant I didn't actually leave the house for quite a while because I was worried about what people would say and how they would look at me," she says. Prejudice, however, seeped into Mary's home-life and social circles, where only a few people were really supportive. "A lot of people told me it was probably going to ruin my life," she says.

Four years later, having Freya clearly hasn't ruined Mary's life—she's at university in Brighton studying to be a social worker. But the unsupportive, judgemental attitude prevalent in society definitely hasn't helped. While Mary accepts that having a baby early realistically means "you are going to have to sacrifice an awful lot," she also firmly believes the experience would have been far easier if she had received more support.

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Given the prejudice teenage mothers experience, it's frustrating to see the new statistics about teenage pregnancy reported on as some kind of epidemic the government is heroically battling—"Any complacency now and we will see a knock-on effect in years to come," say the Telegraph—and in reality, yes, it's probably easier not to get pregnant accidentally at 16 or 17. But for those who do, it's not always the end of the world, and they often do a bloody good job of it.

"What the single parents we work with tell us is that, actually, becoming a mom is a really positive experience," says Phillippa. "Just like any other parent they will tell you how exciting it is when they see their child smile or walk for the first time. They feel, rightfully, that becoming a parent and raising children of their own is a huge achievement." Phillippa, too, believes that one of the most challenging aspects of being a young mother is the stigma. Telling young mothers that they've "ruined" their lives can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for example, when undermining strangers made it frightening for someone like Mary just to leave the house.

"What's most concerning is the impact that this kind of stigma can have on these women's lives," says Phillippa. "It means that these young, single parents—who are often doing a really great job of looking after their kids—can have low self-esteem. It means that, when they do need some help, it's harder to find the courage to go and ask for it." Mary agrees. "I think it's damaging," she says. "It makes some mothers feel like they can't do anything. That's not supporting them at all—it's just making things worse."

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I asked Mary to describe the kind of prejudice she has experienced. Most upsetting of all was the two occasions she has been to hospital with Freya when, like young children are inclined to, she became ill or hurt herself. On both occasions, Mary felt accused of being abusive by staff, to the extent that they questioned her extensively about whether she'd ever had any dealings with social services (she never has—other than in studying to work for them), rather than figuring out what was wrong with her child.

Outside of health services, Mary says she got a lot of "funny looks" when she was younger, and that people would regularly ask invasive questions about how old she was. "I don't see why it's OK to ask somebody how old they are because they have a child with them," she says, explaining that people were often openly shocked when she told them that she was 17. "Also, the reaction you get if your child becomes stroppy is very different to if it was an older woman. People give you withering looks that say, 'Oh, look, she can't handle it.'" Then there are the people who are explicitly discriminatory, she says, like the bus conductor who refused to ask people on the bus to move out of the buggy area and blocked the doors to stop Mary and Freya boarding.

"Not everyone's like that, though," Mary says. "Some people do tell me I'm doing a really good job." But even this can appear condescending, especially when people sound surprised by her competence. "It's a bit like, what did you think I wouldn't do well just because I am young?"

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Mary believes there is a stereotype of young mothers being inherently neglectful of their children, not to mention the idea that they're all just benefit scroungers using a baby as an excuse to do nothing with their lives. She uses the Baby P case as an example of how pervasive the stereotype of failing, clueless teenage mothers is—during the case, David Cameron made the mistake of describing Baby P's mother as "a 17-year-old girl who had no idea how to bring up a child," when in fact Baby P's mother, Tracey Connelly, was in her mid-twenties when he was born.

People respond better to Mary now, but she thinks it's because she's at university—not because people have become more open-minded in the last five years. "Because I've gone to uni and am getting somewhere, people seem to give me a lot more positivity," she says, as if higher education somehow automatically becomes a stamp of worth. Incidentally, Mary is about as far from the benefit-scrounging, system-abusing stereotype as you can get. "I'm on placement working with young people at the moment, trying to get them back into work or education," she says. "I've just done a community project so I'm covered in paint. I love it. Hopefully in a year's time I'll be qualified and be able to practice."

Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author, spoke of the narrow-mindedness of societal attitudes to teenage mothers in an interview with TIME magazine in 1989. "The child's not going to hurt them," she argued. "Of course, it is absolutely time-consuming. But who cares about the schedule? What is this business that you have to finish school at 18?"

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The fact is, young women are still frightened about what it means deviate from The Schedule—going to university at 18, starting a good job in our twenties, and finding ourselves coupled-up and ready to bear children at 30-ish. Existing outside of these parameters, or finding yourself having to take a step out as a result of an early pregnancy (something that is actually historically very normal), can leave women feeling like they've free-fallen to the bottom rung of society. A society that tells them it's their fault for having "ruined" their lives.

There is a stereotype of young mothers being inherently neglectful of their children, not to mention the idea that they're all just benefit scroungers using a baby as an excuse to do nothing with their lives.

The mainstream media, ironically right alongside demonizing teenage mothers, is full of stories about women realizing they can't "have it all," about leaving it too late to have babies or finding it difficult to afford the childcare necessary to go back to work (not going back to work is, often, a financial impossibility for some). We hear from women feeling isolated, stressed, and exhausted, or worrying about missing their children growing up. It's 2015—we need to become more open-minded about radically different schedules and family structures.

If Morrison's "you need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child" arguments were true in 1989, they're even truer now. As she said, "The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn't work. It doesn't work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don't know. It isolates people into little units—people need a larger unit."

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At the moment, the thing restricting teenage mothers is a the lack of community support and welfare resources dedicated to helping them—not the babies. Incidentally, this is the same thing that often restricts older women when they become mothers. It's just often worse for young people who "face quite a unique set of problems," Phillippa explained. "They can be socially isolated, and are often in financial hardship, too."

"They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons," Morrison famously said of teenage mothers. "We have to help them become brain surgeons. That's my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, 'Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me I will take care of you, baby.' That's the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don't want to pay for it."

Blaming young women for their reproductive choices feels like a very convenient way to justify not paying for more resources—particularly the women's shelters that can be a lifeline for young, struggling mothers—and only serves to help the government to quietly hack away at those provisions for young mothers that do exist. Take, for example, the closure of the Focus E15 Foyer in East London, which sparked the hugely successful Focus E15 Mothers campaign last year.

Focus E15 was a specialist hostel that housed young single mothers and was supposed to help them get back into education or work. But Newham Council decided it wasn't a "vital service," and chose to close it down, attempting to send the occupants to live in isolation in different cities. Without the strong, articulate and measured campaigning of the young mothers in question—doing a fantastic job of making the old male councillors who immediately dismissed them very red in the face—they may have got away with it.

The numbers of teenage mothers may well continue to fall, which is positive because it means good conversations are happening with young women everywhere, that they're educated and informed about their options. But let's be clear: a teenager becoming pregnant is not a life sentence—whether that pregnancy happened by accident or not is irrelevant, so long as she is supported and feels confident that she can go on to do whatever she wants with her life. There is progress in numbers, but any real progress for these young women would involve a change in attitude.

For the time being, teenage mothers like Mary are doing a pretty good job of defying stereotypes, and there are thousands more like her. "I wanted to prove them all wrong," she says. "It made me want to go out and do something even more, so that I wasn't that person who just did nothing."

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