Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Fighting the Stereotypes: The Teenage Mum vs. The Working Mum

(Published in Forge Press, University of Sheffield's student newspaper - 29/03/2012)

“You can’t be arsed with your baby.” “I’m a teenager mum, what do you expect?”, replies 15 year old Tonie slumped on the sofa as her mother cradles her daughter’s young baby in BBC Three documentary ‘Underage and Pregnant’. Despite the recent news that teenage pregnancy rates in England and Wales are the lowest they’ve been since 1969, there is still a noticeable stigma attached to teenage pregnancy. However, teenagers aren’t the only recipients of heated criticism, older mothers are also increasingly being questioned over their decision to conceive in their 30s and 40s. The media widely insinuates older parents have somehow ‘missed out’ by not having children in their 20s and early 30s. Is it time we gave mothers, old and young alike, a break and let them enjoy the freedom of choice and child rearing?

Recently it emerged that the teen pregnancy rate in England and Wales has reached its lowest since 1969. Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of conceptions in under-18s dropped from 38,259 in 2009 to 34,633 in 2010, a decrease of 9.5%. The FPA put this down to the effects of better sex education, contraception and local services to help young people confidentially. The Women’s Officer, Sarah Charlesworth, agrees that this accounts for the decrease. “Teenage pregnancy is likely to drop when there is good and mandatory sex and relationship education in school from a young age.” The acceptance that teenagers are having sex, encouraging them to do so safely and asserting the awareness of STIs is having better effects on the teen pregnancy rates than encouraging abstinence or simply ignoring the problem.

However, this news is not necessarily a cause for celebration. Britain still has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe and while the teenage pregnancy rate has fallen considerably, these statistics have highlighted the failures of New Labour’s ten-year strategy. Launched in 1998 under Tony Blair, the government hoped to reduce the numbers of teen pregnancies by half. By 2010 they had fallen by 23.8% from 1998 levels, meaning that the Labour government achieved barely a quarter of their target. However, it would be too dismissive to write off the plan as a complete failure. Instead, the successes should be noted such as the improvement in sex education and the increased spread in availability and awareness of contraception.

For many female students the thought of having to raise a child on top of the pressures of university work is nightmare inducing. This, however, is a reality for many students in our own community who are raising children while undertaking their university studies. At the University of Sheffield we have 1,000 student parents. Frances Moxon-Smith, a Primary Education student at Sheffield Hallam University, knows only too well the difficulties of working her life around childcare and university life. She fell pregnant aged 17. “Juggling university work and childcare is very hard, me and my partner own a house together so we have housework on top of that!” Raising a child alongside university studies can be a very costly endeavour, an obstacle which no doubt discourages many from taking it up in the first place. Childcare is one of the more costly aspects to being a student mother as Frances tells us. “Nursery fees are more than our mortgage!”

While the teenage pregnancy rate continues to drop, the stigma surrounding the subject appears only to be stiffening. Speaking from experience, Frances believes that the media only focus on a select group of teenage parents. “I think its more a class thing. The media seem to focus on lower class teen mums on benefits.” It is noticeable that the media places the spotlight on a small sub-section of the population of teenage mothers. That is not to suggest that teenage parents who receive state benefits are any less able that other parents but financially, a great deal of them struggle to keep up with the rising costs of childcare. Furthermore, as with any group of people in society, the actions of a minority can impact on the reputation of a majority. Lately there has been a boom in television programmes documenting the lives of underage expectant mothers, most of which concentrate on this small minority of mothers. These programmes have a tendency to revel in depicting teenage parents as sullen, bored adolescents being mercilessly nagged by their parents, who are often left holding the baby. Unfortunately this is simply television producers satisfying the appetites of a disaster-hungry British audience. However, perhaps this is a somewhat cruel sweeping interpretation of the influx of these programmes. Frances believes that, for the most part, these programmes have good intentions at heart and deliver a positive impact on the perception of teenage mothers. “The programmes provide a realistic view for young people who may regard mothering a child at an early age as ‘fashionable’ but it also gives some good role models and representatives if teens do find themselves in that situation.”

Critically, the problem seems to be the assumption that no teenager makes a good parent and all cases of teen pregnancy are mistakes. Sarah says “I think you have to appreciate that if a woman wants to have a child at 17 or 18 then great! I know quite a few women who choose to do that. But ultimately it's about choice and being aware of all the options.” Of course, the majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned but this does not necessarily mean they will be not make good parents. In a recent study by Simon Duncan, Rosalind Edwards and Claire Alexander called ‘Teenage Parenthood: What’s the Problem?’, it’s argued that there is no reason to present teenage pregnancy as a catastrophe when evidence actually suggests it has a positive impact upon the lives of teenage parents. According to the study teenage parents see themselves as ‘just another mum or dad’. Frances asserts this viewpoint with her approach to childcare. “I blend in with the mums at my babygroup, I cook all meals from fresh with a balanced diet, I take my son to museums, parks, farms etc. and I spend a lot of time teaching him at home."

 While some are choosing to have children in their teens, the recent statistics have also shown a rise in women in their 30s and 40s having children. Conceptions amongst women aged 40 plus rose by 5.2% from 2009. Experts put this trend down primarily down to financial reasons, particularly the recent economic recession. Parents that find themselves out of work have more time to spend on child rearing. However, most parents enter the ever-so-slightly scary world of parenthood with the expense in the back of their minds. Of course, the joy and love a child brings is foremost but to put it bluntly, raising a child is not cheap. In fact, that is perhaps not blunt enough; raising a child is horribly expensive. A study by Liverpool Victoria revealed that by their 21st birthday a child will, on average, cost their parents £210,000. This would surely serve as a deterrent to starting a family in tough financial times. In addition to this, times of austerity mean that securing a good job is becoming increasingly difficult. Although very much illegal, it’s often argued that women are less likely to be hired if an employer is aware she has child commitments which may provide an answer as to why women are having children at an older age. Choice.

When this increase in mothers aged 30 and over was reported in the media, it was widely claimed that women were ‘missing out’ by having children later in life. However, this is somewhat unfair. We live in a society where contraception and medical care mean women have the option to choose and the risks of pregnancy at an older age are significantly lower than what they once were and therefore, we can now question whether having children in your 20s continues to be perceived as the norm. In their twenties, women experience the peak of their social lives and face the increasingly difficult task of securing a position on the career ladder. With the freedom of choice over fertility that modern life brings, it’s no wonder that many women wait until their late 30s and 40s to start a family. Why they should be expected to conceive in their 20s? In a blog for The Guardian, older mother Mariella Frostrup berates the media for commenting that women were missing out by not having children in their 20s. ‘Is it possible that these women might actually be dictating their own fates, rather than being unable to live up to other’s expectations?’

Ultimately the key to this issue is choice. As Frances nicely points out, “age is just a number.” Whether a woman has a child at 18 or a child at 40, it is simply her decision and one that does not deserve criticism from the media and general public. It is about time we realised that stigmatising teenage parents does more harm than it does good by alienating those facing the already difficult task of raising a child. Furthermore, the falling statistics are a cause for celebration as it shows that the improvements in sex education and contraceptives are providing real results.

Alice Burrow

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