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volume 1, issue 2, june 2012

Teenage Pregnancy and Motherhood Much academic and popular discourse prompts us to think about “teenage pregnancy” and “teenage parenthood” as big social problems that teens and adults need to solve. This discourse leads to pervasive negative assumptions about teens who are pregnant or parenting. Perhaps we imagine that they are ruining their life by having children so young. Perhaps we see them as victims of a lack of education or support. However, it is important to know that academic researchers from diverse fields of study have been contesting the negative discourses about teenage pregnancy since they became a topic for concern in the 1970s. Health scholar Arline T. Geronimus explains that in early (and some current)

We, the Crossroads Collaborative, believe that youth have the right to information that helps them experience and achieve both healthy sexuality and sexual health. Comprehensive, well-researched information about youth, sexuality, health, and rights has been scarce and not widely distributed to youth, families, and policymakers. We want to change that.

g n i t s u B Myths

research, scholars did not control for important variables, such as poverty, when studying pregnancy and parenting outcomes. In fact, nursing scholar SmithBattle points out that many researchers only studied girls from disadvantaged communities and generalized from their pregnancy outcomes “problems with teenage pregnancy” (2007). In her early work, Geronimus called for more multivariate, cross-sectional, and long-term research studies. Many of these more careful studies refute common assumptions. Here are some “myth busting” research findings that will hopefully get you to think critically about your own beliefs about pregnant or parenting teens.


Confronting assumptions about teenage pregnancy and motherhood. Pregnancy and motherhood have advantages and disadvantages at any age. There is a common assumption that pregnant or parenting teens have made a mistake by having their pregnancies or children at the “wrong” time. But research shows that there are advantages and disadvantages to having children at any age, in any circumstance. For example, feminist motherhood studies, such as the work of Angela Davis (1998), Adrienne Rich (1986), and Andrea O’Reilly (2006) show that women across lines of difference

(such as age, race, class, and sexual orientation) struggle to sustain healthy pregnancies and/or balance motherhood and school, work, and other life necessities because of a lack of structural support for people with caretaking responsibilities (such as healthcare, childcare, domestic assistance, and work leaves). Furthermore, some young mothers and researchers point to advantages for women who have children when they are young such as extra family support and more energy for raising children (Males 2010; Girl-mom 2011).

MY PREGNANCY STORY PROJECT (P.S.) The My Pregnancy Story Project (P.S.) is a mixed methods research study that aims to: • gain a better understanding of teenage pregnancy and parenthood • improve services and support for pregnant and parenting teens • reduce stigma and increase self-empowerment for pregnant and parenting teens This study asks: (1) How do pregnant and parenting teen feel/felt about being pregnant? (2) What is the level of family and social support including support from systems of care (medical, social service, institutional, education, employers) and how we might improve support/care for pregnant and parenting teens? (3) What do young women know about sexual health/pregnancy prior to pregnancy and what types of information would have been helpful? (4) How empowered do pregnant and parenting teens feel with regard to making decisions about pregnancy and parenting? (5) What do young women think about how teen pregnancy is portrayed in the media? and (6) What do young mothers think about other people’s reactions to teen pregnancy? P.S. gathers information to answer these questions from the pregnant and parenting teens who participate. Participants complete a short questionnaire and take part in a focus group. The focus groups were led by two facilitators: Dr. Sally Stevens and Jenna Vinson. Nine focus groups were conducted with 27 pregnant or mothering teens at 4 local sites— two high schools, one juvenile detention center, and one community-based teen support center. The researchers are currently preparing a report for all community participants and plan to present the results to the participating teens. The results of the P.S. project will also be shared via Crossroads Collaborative research briefs and an academic journal article.


Teens do not produce disadvantaged children. Many studies refute that teenage mothers are more likely to produce infants or children who are unhealthy (Geronimus 1987, 1996a; Geronimus & Koreman 1993; McCarthy & Hardy 1993; Rozenweig & Wolipn 1995 cited in Geronimus 2003). In fact, Geronimus’ research has shown that, especially in poor African American communities, young women are less likely to have infants with health problems because the toll poverty takes on women’s bodies as they age (Geronimus 2003). Furthermore, Geronimus, Koreman, and Hillemeier found higher primary school achievement in the children of teen mothers compared to children of mothers who were older (1994; cited in Geronimus 2003, 883).

Teens are not more likely to abuse or neglect their children. Common beliefs that teenagers are not able (or willing) to carefully attend to their children reflect stereotypes of teenagers as superficial people who are overly-emotional or immature (Lesko 2001). Many youth and youth-allies would refute such stereotypes. Geronimus cites Massat’s multivariate study which suggests that the popular assumption that teen mothers abuse or neglect their children may be a cultural myth (1995).

Teen pregnancy and parenting does not always lead to “dropping out” of school. A study of the long-term education and economic outcomes of teen mothers (as compared to women who did not reproduce before 20) and found no evidence for claims that teen mothers do not do as well. In fact, educational outcomes for mothers are only “slightly negative,” “negligible” (no differFor more information about the My Pregnancy Project please contact Dr. Sally Stevens at sstevens@email.arizona.edu or Jenna Vinson at jennav@email.arizona.edu.

ence), or even “positive” (Hotz et al 1996 cited in Geronimus 2003). Some studies that show the teen mothers fare better economically and educationally than their counterparts who postpone pregnancy (Furstenberg et al 1987, Werners & Smith 2001 cited in SmithBattle 2007). When discussing teen mothers and education, it is important to point out that pregnant women— adults or teens—were not allowed on school grounds until the 1970s (Nathanson 1991; Luker 1996). Even now, many schools violate Title IX mandates and teen mothers are pressured to leave school (Kelly 2000; Pillow 2004). Finally, ethnographers Elaine Kaplan and Wanda Pillow also find that pregnancy can motivate women to return to problematic schools in order to “make it” for their children (Kaplan 1997; Pillow 2004; see also Russell & Lee 2006).

Many people struggle with poverty --- whether they have children or not. Teenage pregnancy or motherhood does not cause poverty; it is important to note that many teenage mothers are poor to begin with (Luker 1996; Males 2010). This does not mean that poverty causes teenage pregnancy either (Kelly 2000). Most of the studies which refute negative “consequences” of teenage pregnancy and childbearing point to the fact that rates of teenage pregnancy correlate with communities that experience income disparities and racism (Males 2010). The assumption that teens who terminate or avoid pregnancy do so because they “perceive themselves as having more to lose” (Steinberg 362), overlooks the hard fact that long life expectancy, access to health resources, and educational and career opportunities are not equally available for everyone (Geronimus 2003, 887). As SmithBattle maintains, the surest predictor of a teen’s (or a teen mother’s) life trajectory, is the advantages or disadvantages the teen inherited as a child (2007).


The Crossroads Collaborative, funded by the Ford Foundation, is a team consisting of University of Arizona (UA) faculty and students and youth-oriented community partners. The collaborative will be dedicated to advancing research, graduate training, public conversation, and ultimately social change in the area of youth, sexuality, health, and rights (YSHR). The Crossroads Collaborative aims to lead and engage others in an informed and productive dialogue. For more information go to: http://mcclellandinstitute.arizona.edu/crossroads Works Cited and Suggested Adair, Vivyan. “The Missing Story of Ourselves: Poverty and the Promises of Higher Education.” NWSA 20.1 (Spring 2008): 1-25. Project Muse. Web. 31 Jan. 2010. Arney, William R. and Bernard J. Bergen. “Power and Visibility: The Invention of Teenage Pregnancy.” Social Science & Medicine 18.1 (1984): 11-19. Breheny, Mary and Christine Stephens. “Irreconcilable Differences: Health Professionals’ Constructions of Adolescence and Motherhood.” Social Science & Medicine 64 (2007): 112-124. Davis, Angela. 1998. “Surrogates and Outcast Mothers: Racism and Reproductive Politics in the Nineties.” In The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 21021. Fields, Jessica. “Children Having Children: Race, Innocence, and Sexuality Education.” Social Problems 52.4 (2005): 549-71. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan 2011. Geronimus, Arline T. “On Teenage Childbearing and Neonatal Mortality in the United States” Population and Development Review 13.2 (June 1987): 245-79. --.”Damned If You Do: Culture, Identity, Privilege, and Teenage Childbearing in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 57 (2003): 881-893. Hendrixon, Anne. “Superpredator Meets Teenage Mom: Exploding the Myth of the Out-of –Control Youth.” Policing the National Body: Race Gender and Criminalization. Eds. Jael Silliman and Anannya Bhattacharjee. New York: South End Press, 2002. 231-58. Print. Lawson, Annette and Deborah L. Rhode. Eds. The Politics of Pregnancy: Adolescent Sexuality and Public Policy. London: Yale UP, 1993. Print. Luker, Kristin. Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

Kaplan, Elaine Bell. Not Our Kind of Girl: Unraveling the Myths of Black Teenage Motherhood. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1997. Print. Kelly, Deidre M. Pregnant with Meaning: Teen Mothers and the Politics of Inclusive Schooling. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Print. Males, Mike. Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2010. Print. Nathanson, Constance. Dangerous Passage: The Social Control of Sexuality in Women’s Adolescence. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1991. O’Reilly, Andrea. 2006. Rocking the Cradle: Thoughts on Feminism, Motherhood and the Possibility of Empowered Mothering. Toronto: Demeter Press. Pillow, Wanda S. Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004. Rich, Adrienne. 1986. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 10th ed. New York: Norton. Russell, Stephen and Fay C. H. Lee. “Latina Adolescent Motherhood: A Turning Point?” Latina Girls: Voices of Adolescent Strength. Eds. Jill Denner and Bianca L. Guzman. New York: New York UP, 2006. Solinger, Rickie. Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America. New York: New York University P, 2005. Print. ---. Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Routledge, 2000. Vinovskis, Maris. “An “Epidemic” of Adolescent Pregnancy?: Some Historical and Policy Considerations.” Journal of Family History 6.2 (Summer 1981): 205-30. “Why WE LOVE being single and/or young mamas.” 2011. Girl-Mom. http://girlmom.com/node/148 Wilson, Helen & Annette Hunington. “Deviant (M)others: The Construction of Teenage Motherhood in Contemporary Discourse.” Journal of Social Policy 35 (2005): 59-76. Cambridge Journals Online. Web. 31 Jan 2010.

You Look Too Young to be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success. Ed. Deborah Davis. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2004. Print. Research Connections 1.2 Vinson, J. E. with the Crossroads Collaborative (2012). Busting Myths: Confronting Assumptions about Teenage Pregnancy and Motherhood. Crossroads Connections. 1(2), 1-4. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona.


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