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Discourse on Teen Pregnancy

March 16, 2014
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In my post on the New York City teen pregnancy poster campaign I cited Vivyan C. Adair’s essay “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in the United States” to examine how teen mothers are “branded” as deviant. In her essay she cites Michel Foucault in examining how the power of discourse shapes, informs, and controls the conversation on class and poverty.

Helen Wilson and Annette Huntington also cite Foucault in their explication of how recent scientific discourse and public policy has maintained control over the stigmatization and marginalization of teen mothers. In the West teenage motherhood has become a wide subject of concern and policy while at the same time teen birth rates have been declining.

Wilson and Huntington state in their essay, “Deviant (M)others: The Construction of Teenage Motherhood in Contemporary Discourse,” that,

Motherhood has long been a [favorite] target with the good/bad mother dichotomy a key feature of maternal discourses.  Mothers who fail to meet normative expectations of the role of mothering inevitably are positioned as the deviant ‘other’ and considered to be unfit to parent. (61)

In their essay, Wilson and Huntington advocate for more inclusion of teenage mother’s reported experience of motherhood in reports to better inform studies and policy recommendations. While most studies focus on small samplings that illustrate that teens who become pregnant come from the lowest income margins and infer that they are not prepared for motherhood, Wilson and Huntington argue that this assumption is inferred based on the dominant model of social participation that is centered on acquiring higher education and entering the work force in accordance with contemporary views and expectations of women’s participation in society.

Countering the view that teenagers are ill prepared for parenthood, interview studies found that most young women were proud to be parents (Kirkmanet al., 2001), keen to be good parents (Arenson,1994; Goodwin,1996; Lesseret al.,1998; Clarke,1999) and found motherhood enjoyable and/or satisfying (Lamanna, 1999; Hanna,2001; Kirkmanet al.,2001). Ironically, in view of the anxiety about welfare dependency, there is evidence that by having a baby mothers have claimed independence and/or adult responsibilities (Buchholz and Gol,1986;Davieset al., 1999). (Wilson and Huntington 65)

There is a “growing body of knowledge highlighting the young women’s perspectives,” however, “findings from qualitative inquiry are rarely cited in government documents or reports. This is not only because such studies may pose a challenge to the official orthodoxy regarding teenage mothers, but it also reflects a common perception that qualitative research is less rigorous and accurate” (Wilson and Huntington 65). The authors argue that young women who challenge scientific reports are considered to be outside of the dominant discourse and thereby rejected and isolated.

The danger is that this results in flawed or inadequate policy decisions which then may inform the practices of social workers and health care providers in their work with families. For example, science which highlights the negative aspects only of teen parenthood, has been used to sanction the beliefs of politicians and policy makers that teen motherhood results in social exclusion and welfare dependency. As a result, the idea of social exclusion and welfare dependency have become widely accepted as the inevitable outcomes of teenage motherhood. (Wilson and Huntington 65)

The politicalization of the problem of teen pregnancy has shifted in various countries from one of permitting a support system in which teen mothers could avoid work to the normalization of women’s expected participation in the workforce as well as the expected age of motherhood and starting a family. The expected norm informs policy and typifies human behavior to shame young mothers as deviant and dependent.

In particular, the shift from a redistributive welfare model to one based on economic growth has seen traditional ideas about childrearing quietly cast aside in the interests of increased female workforce participation and economic independence. From this perspective it seems that teenage mothers have been vilified because they are seen to be actively choosing an alternative path to their middle-class peers, one that does not satisfy contemporary governmental objectives. (Wilson and Huntington 69)

As Wilson and Huntington note, the systematic process of typified behavior within the model of the dominant discourse “raises profound questions about the processes of knowledge creation and how science has been used ‘not to explain reality, but to produce, control and normalise it’” (70). Social scientist, social workers, policy makers, and policy advocates need to give more attention to young parents actual reported experiences to inform the discourse in both political policy and scientific knowledge.


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