Academic journal article Social Alternatives

'Your Age Don't Determine Whether You're A Good Mum': Reframing the Discourse of Deviance Ascribed to Teenage Mothers

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

'Your Age Don't Determine Whether You're A Good Mum': Reframing the Discourse of Deviance Ascribed to Teenage Mothers

Article excerpt

Across the developed world, pregnant and mothering teenagers are the subject of public concern and debate. Initiatives which target these young women, such as the UK's ten-year national campaign to reduce teenage conceptions and increase participation in education, employment and training (Social Exclusion Unit [SEU] 1999), has ensured that they have remained high on the policy agenda and consequently, also in public consciousness. Alongside this, sensationalised media coverage of exceptional cases, as illustrated above, also ensures their high visibility. This paper challenges common perceptions about teenage motherhood by highlighting important aspects of young mothers' experiences that are marginalised within dominant representations. Drawing on the experiences of a small group of teenage mothers in England we examine how they responded to dominant discourses about teenage motherhood and what impact it had on their day-to-day lives. We reveal how their motherhood experiences were made more difficult because of these stigmatised representations. We show that they are not the feckless, unmotivated young women that they are portrayed to be but rather, are often doing the best they can in circumstances that are far from ideal. We use the notion of discourse to situate our argument and we begin by briefly outlining how we use this term.

Discourse and Young Mothers

We understand the term 'discourse' to be a culturally constructed representation of reality, not an exact copy. Discourse governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, what it is possible to talk about and what is not (the taken for granted rules of inclusion/exclusion); as such, it re/produces both power and knowledge simultaneously. Discourse defines subjects, framing and positioning in terms of who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do (Foucault 1977).

The discourse ascribed to young mothers is that of deviance. Within research and policy, teenage pregnancy and motherhood is represented almost exclusively in negative terms. Adverse social, educational and health correlates of teenage pregnancy derived from large-scale epidemiological research construct teenage pregnancy as costly to the individual as well as to the welfare state (see for example SEU 1999). Despite research which highlights clear links between teenage pregnancy and social disadvantage and inequality (Carabine 2007; Wilson and Huntingdon 2005), the 'problem' of teenage pregnancy and motherhood is located with a particular group of girls who are judged to be ignorant about contraception and to have low aspirations (SEU 1999). Teenage mothers are seen as being in the fast-lane to adulthood - beginning a family prior to securing the educational qualifications that will supposedly ensure their economic self-sufficiency (McDermott and Graham 2005; Selman 2003). In not conforming to current norms about the appropriate age to begin childbearing, they have become moral scapegoats who are seen as having the 'wrong' values, the 'wrong' aspirations and making the 'wrong' choices. Media representations that focus exclusively on exceptional cases while ignoring much of young women's actual achievements and everyday experiences do little to challenge these dominant, one-sided constructions of teenage pregnancy and motherhood.

Individualised, pathologised discourses such as these marginalise the part played by wider social structural inequalities and invalidate alternative meaning-makings associated with motherhood for these young women. First, there is little acknowledgement that women are society's child-bearers. In the developed world, 'rational economic man' assumptions prevail and both men and women are expected to be economically active. Childbearing becomes an inconvenience to be fitted around employment which is deemed to be more important. Productive labour is afforded high social status while reproductive labour is not. This creates an invisible source of tension for many working mothers (Lee and Gramotnev 2006). …

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