Monday, 6 October 2014

Teenage parents: moral problem, social problem or no problem at all?

Dr Sally Brown from Durham University recently visited CRFR to present a seminar on her qualitative research with teenage mothers and mothers-to-be. She recounts her findings in this blog.

Many people will be familiar with headlines and newspaper stories about the UK having high teenage pregnancy rates; they may be less familiar with recent statistics showing that rates have fallen dramatically and are now at their lowest since records began. Indeed, when Tony Blair made his famous comment about teenage pregnancy leading to “blighted lives and shattered futures” in 1999, teenage pregnancies were at their lowest for 30 years. Nevertheless, teenage pregnancy, and teenage parenting, are still perceived as problematic, either a moral problem or a social problem, or possibly a combination of both. The paper I gave recently at CRFR focusses on whether teenage parenting is a problem, and if so, who sees it as such. Hilary Graham and Elizabeth McDermott have shown how quantitative research on teenage pregnancy and parenting highlights the “problem” side of the argument, demonstrating that teenage parenting is a route to social exclusion, whereas qualitative research shows the opposite, that it can be a route to social inclusion.

My paper is based on qualitative interviews with teenage mothers and mothers-to-be from different generations, from one who had her baby in 1955, through those who had their children 15-20 years ago, to some who had their babies in 2013. What was interesting in the interviews was how almost all of them talked about the shock of being pregnant, being upset, and being scared of telling their parents, but happy about having a baby. Almost as if the pregnancy and the baby were two different entities, the parents talked about having “wanted more” for their daughters, but also about the joy of new life being brought into their family, and how they were looking forward to, or enjoying being, grandparents. The context of these young women becoming mothers, then, is a context where they are part of a loving family where a baby, although unexpected, is welcomed. Some of the young women described situations where they had been estranged from their parents, or grown up in very challenging circumstances, and the baby in these situations had brought families back together.

It seems, then, that there is a mismatch between the way policy-makers, politicians and the media view teenage pregnancy, and the way the families experiencing it view it. From a policy point of view, teenage pregnancy still leads to blighted lives, and life on benefits. For young parents whose college careers were interrupted by pregnancy, there was a determination to go back to studying; for those who had been unsure of where they were going in life, a baby provided an incentive to get qualifications and a good job. Instead of pillorying young parents, we should be supporting them to make the best of their lives for themselves and their babies, which is, after all, what they said they wanted to do.

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