Teen Pregnancy & Motherhood: One Woman’s Thoughts

I’m bursting with pride over today’s post. It’s a guest post from Liz Crossen, a woman that I am honored to call a friend. I’ve known Liz for many years, and I’ve had the privilege to watch her journey from a teen mom of two beautiful sons to a young mother working toward a degree in Women’s Studies.

Liz & Her Sons

When Liz told me about her upcoming thesis project for her major – focusing on the issue of teen motherhood in the US, I was immediately enthralled, and asked her to do a small write up about it for the blog. I just knew that there would be others that would latch on to her research, just as interested and excited by it as I’ve come to be.

Synopsis of Undergraduate Thesis (1 of 2) for Women’s Studies Major, for The Mamafesto Blog

 Liz Crossen

October 11, 2011

One core principle of feminist scholarship is acknowledging where we are situated as researchers and scholars in our research. This challenges the long-standing goal associated with male dominant academic ideologies that for credible results, research and researcher be as objective as possible. To the contrary, feminist scholars insist that both cannot be anything but subjective; that we insert our biases, privileges, epistemologies, identities, social and historical contexts into our work at every stage.
They argue that when we conduct research, there is an interesting dichotomy between how we identify ourselves, which is typically strongly connected with who and what we study, thus impacting our constructions of the who and what and then there is our position of researcher, being the one interpreting the information and ultimately having the most to gain.
So, what is the significance of me saying this? I am an undergraduate student in the process of writing a thesis for one of my majors at Penn State, Women’s Studies. I am graduating in May and will then attend graduate school to essentially become a life long student and these principles of feminist scholarship are necessary for the work that I am doing now, that I will do for my other major’s thesis, sociology, beginning in January, and for all future research projects I will conduct.

Everything just said seemed to me an appropriate preface to the reason why I was asked to contribute on this wonderful blog by the amazing Avi, which is to share the thesis that I am working on. It is a yet to be titled piece exploring teenage motherhood in the US, a subject that I am intending to continue on with in graduate school. Teen pregnancy is considered to be one of the greatest social problems facing our country today. It is often contextualized as the root of poverty, our severe educational gaps, welfare dependency, etc all of which, implicitly or not, illustrate this problem as positioned within class and race based frameworks. I will elaborate more on that later on.

After reaching an all time low in the 1990s, where teenage pregnancy rates of young women from all demographic spheres decreased by about 50%, the rates began to rise significantly (about 1% per year) around 2005. There has been a great deal of speculation of why this is happening and equally as much thought from policy makers and scholars alike on how to once again reverse the trend.

Conservative perspective places the bulk of blame on the young women, who they argue are amoral, reckless, sexually and socially deviants using pregnancies to remain stagnant on social services. These ideologies are used to support restrictive access to reproductive services, abstinence only education, severely limited welfare distribution, etc. To oversimplify their solutions, they seek to maintain the status quo if not intensify it.

More liberal thought on the issue is that the increase can be attributed to widening socio-economic gaps, demolished funding for education and comprehensive sex education, and decreasing access to reproductive and abortive services. This side proposes stopping the problem before it starts, primarily through reinstating comprehensive sex education in all schools starting at younger ages.

Now, what does this have to do with feminist scholarship and how is my thesis different from predominant scholarship on this topic? First, true to feminist scholarship, I have a very strong connection this issue. I am now at 23 a former teenage mother, twice over in fact as I had my first son when I was 17 and my second at 19.

My experience is in many ways, radically different from the young women often made the poster girls of this issue. I was raised with middle class ideologies, I am white, I am on my way to obtaining higher education that, hopefully, will bring me out of low-SES. I have many privileges that so many young women in my situation do not and yet I strongly identify with them. A huge part of my research involves consulting sources that uses the testimonies of these women themselves (which is a huge part of feminist scholarship) and sometimes, as I am reading, I am taken aback with how closely their words have resembled mine.

This brings us to the second part of my question- how does my argument differ from dominant scholarship on teen pregnancy and motherhood? Well, I argue that teen pregnancy and motherhood is not the problem we have painted it to be. I may have an easier time taking this stance because I have been a teen mother, though that does not make me blind to the problems I have had and the ones faced by young women with far less resources than I. In fact, many young women who are poor, perhaps of color, have been let down by the education system, etc. see motherhood as their only way to move up in the world. Having a child gives them incredible affirmation, gives their life value and meaning, and often is a motivating factor for finishing high school and obtaining higher degrees and accreditations.

I mentioned earlier that this problem is contextualized as one faced by low-SES women, typically of color. What is interesting is that discourse surrounding teen mothers follows suit with how we have always framed motherhood: that the best mothers, those most worthy of motherhood are white and upper/middle class. This ideology of “good” mother is old and we are constantly reusing it to further marginalize and condemn the women who cannot fit into this narrow box. Teen pregnancy only began to cause the hysteria it does now about 30-40 years ago, in part because this is when teen parents began forgoing shot gun weddings. People blamed the feminists, people blamed the amorality of the lower classes, and people blamed the female-headed Black family.

I propose a two-prong approach to dealing with the issue of teen pregnancy. The first is to, somewhat in accordance with liberal thinkers, to fund comprehensive sex education, provide access to reproductive services, but most importantly to fund the hell out of education. If young women are having babies because they have no other way to achieve anything, than they need a reason to achieve something else. So, invest in public education, invest in after school programs, and art, music, sports, etc.

None of this is to suggest that a child is not a strong affirmation of hope, success, that life can go on, etc, but these young women should have the opportunities that their upper/middle class counter parts do to have something more that is theirs than that child. Which brings me to the second part: taking care of the young women who already are mothers. Invest in programs for them to obtain their GED, provide outstanding childcare, help them get into college, or business school, or culinary school. Give these young women and their children every opportunity they can to succeed.

These two approaches are certainly not unique, they have been suggested by other very progressive scholars. I do feel, however, as I continue with the thesis and move onto to further research in this field, that my perspective as a feminist scholar and a teen mother lends greater depth to an issue in need of empathy, in need of the voices of these women, and needing comprehension that teen pregnancy is merely a symptom of larger issues faced in the US today.

Liz is a mom to two boys, Makena age six and Judah age four, co-parenting with her partner Sarah, a dog named Solomon, and a cat named Wietzie Bat. She is about to finish her undergraduate degrees in Women Studies and Sociology with a minor in African American Studies and then hoof it to grad school.

3 thoughts on “Teen Pregnancy & Motherhood: One Woman’s Thoughts

    • Oh, Abbie! If you ever get into a conversation with your teens about this, I’d love to hear their thoughts. It’s incredibly interesting to me (beyond as a feminist) b/c I tutor weekly at The Care Center in Holyoke, and work with a different segment of this same population.

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