STIGMATISATION: DOES LESS MEAN MORE?

I love to read the blogs on this site, to drop in on #youngmumschat, to browse the Young Mamas website, and to think that someone had the insight to come up with the Young Motherhood exhibition and others had the bravery to be participants. They’re important because these are all honest and strong accounts of becoming and being a young mother in a society that frowns upon and tries prevent teenage mums.

I feel a sense of connection with these women because I was (am?) a young mother.  I put ‘am’ in brackets with a question mark because age-wise I’m not young at all now.  I’m still a young mother in that I’m younger than most people I know with kids the same age as mine.  But nobody tuts at me or says ‘you look too young to be a mum’ anymore. Actually I’m not sure they did that very much when I was younger either. I’m starting to think that the young mothers who blog and make themselves visible in other ways have a far tougher time now than I did.

I became a mother in my late teens at the start of the 1970s. That was at the peak of teenage motherhood, when the birth rate was 50 out of every 1000 women aged 15-19.  Nobody got their knickers in a twist about being a young mother then, it was fairly common. The average age of first time motherhood amongst all mothers was about 23. What would have stigmatised me was if I hadn’t been married – but I was (however short lived).  So I happily went off to the maternity ward, the health clinic, the mother and toddler group etc., without being aware of anyone eyeing me and sniffing or assuming I would be a rubbish mother because of my age.

But the rate of teenage motherhood has gone down – it’s now nearly half the early ’70s birth rate.  And the average age at which a woman becomes a mother for the first time has gone up – it’s now just over 28. So being a young mother is no longer commonplace.  It’s not doing things at what’s supposed to be the ‘right’ time.

I think that the fewer young mothers there are, the more they get stigmatised.  And that means that young mothers today may well feel the need for support that’s specifically targeted at them in ways that I didn’t. But some of the professional services aimed at young mothers are based on the assumption that, by virtue of their age, they don’t know what they’re doing, are damaging their babies’ development, and need to be taught how to be a good mother.

I returned to education after I became a young mother, went on to study in the social sciences at university and now I’m a professor (could you tell – all those figures about motherhood?).  When my co-researchers and I undertook a study of young mothers we decided to listen to what they had to say about their lives. We ended up calling our report ‘Teenage parenthood: what’s the problem?’ because – as the mothers themselves often pointed out – they were just another mum like any other, and being a good mother has nothing to do with age.

Friends of my age are just becoming grandparents now, while I’m grandmother to an 18 year old. I think the way round I’ve done things is quite sensible actually – have children in my late teens and then get on and establish a career. It’s society that has the problem with young mothers, not young mothers who are a problem.

Ros Edwards

December 2014

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