This whole piece at Motherlode irked me. It is about a 17 year old school student who faked a pregnancy for several months as an investigation into stereotypes and discrimination for a school project. It is an amazing social experiment to have devised and undertaken. The student recorded people’s reactions to her during the months of her fake teenage pregnancy. She apparently had plenty of examples by the end of the project of others seeing her in a very poor light once they thought she was a pregnant teen, and an Hispanic pregnant teen, at that.
The Motherlode piece uses this as a jumping off point for discussion among readers and in doing so asks “Are you surprised that Gaby Rodriguez felt shunned? Are you saddened that she was? Or a little relieved?”
And that, together with the author’s (Lisa Belkin) bit about being astonished to see that the student felt ostracised because of “how glamorized teen pregnancy has become lately as high school-aged mothers have become reality stars on shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom”” had my eyes rolling right into the top of my skull.
Really, it surprises Lisa Belkin that pregnant teenagers are ostracised when she, herself, is using them as a topic for her readers to judge and moralise over on her blog? That a particular group of mothers are open season on a parenthood blog, for godsake, should tell Ms Belkin something about the way teenage mothers are ostracised. Teenage mothers do it tough; they usually start and continue on through life incredibly poor, while still usually managing to be great parents. Teenage pregnancy is many times, but not always, an indicator of other vulnerabilities. For instance, it is associated with having a significantly older male partner, it is associated with sexual abuse (and with experiences of child sexual abuse while growing up, particularly), it is also associated with being in a violent relationship (which often includes the sabotage of contraception by male partners), and indeed, with having come from a family where violence was inflicted on their mothers. Given these facts, how do we want girls who are coping with these vulnerabilities to be treated in our society? We really want them shunned for their own good?
The way we use this group of mothers as a target for our nastiness; the way we want to make examples of them to others; the way we feel justified in slut-shaming them (while absurdly, ignoring the fathers of their children) is incredibly sexist, generally also racist, and most definitely classist. These prejudices ignore the fact that ideas about age-appropriate pregnancies are based more on cultural and historical norms than absolute conditions. It also ignores the fact that our distaste for risk-taking behaviour in girls, which is a normal trait of adolescence and is probably also essential for maturation, is simultaneously often highly celebrated in young men (eg. extreme sports, adventuring and becoming soldiers). And finally, we, even us progressive types, combine all of this with a convenient hypocrisy around a woman’s right to choose with regards to her own pregnancy, and the right for all mothering work to be valued, supported and respected.
We should be able to talk about the difficulties involved in parenting at a young age and the decisions involved in that path to parenthood without dehumanising young mothers. But, we so very much don’t, as evidenced by many of the comments on that post on Motherlode:
- Of course, fellow students felt she had ruined her life. Otherwise, yeah, she learned her friends feel teenage pregnancy irresponsible. Well, it is.
- Usually the attitude seems to be that it’s an unfortunate choice but what’s done is done, and that the mother and baby will need support, which people are prepared to give. There’s also an attitude of “This will help my daughters see what a mistake it is to be a teen mom.”
- It’s not that MTV glamorizes teen pregnancy – it’s that the white trash on that show are paid very well to participate. They’re paid far more than they would be at Walmart – which is where they would be otherwise.
- So she proved that people speak ill of teen pregnancy? Wow, revolutionary. So people should refrain from calling pregnant teens “irresponsible,” or suggesting they have “thrown their lives away”? What a ridiculous perspective that is; the simple fact of the matter is that if someone is pregnant at seventeen she probably is irresponsible and it probably will mess up her life. Don’t want to be ostracized – don’t get pregnant…. People learn nothing from a situation that does not afford strife, and from this principle there appears no reason that society should do anything to help pregnant teens acclimate to a judgmental social environment.
- But there is value in just this kind of “gossip.” It helps others know how they will be viewed and what may happen to them and may make them think twice before ignoring birth control if they choose to have sex.
- I will probably also tell my daughter to not associate with teen moms or teens who think it’s cool to get pregnant, as they will only bring her down. I favor better sex education programs and a better social safety net for the poor but I don’t know that it ought to be made too easy for teen moms either.
P.S. You can probably imagine what I think of the conversation that is happening here in Australia around the Labor Government’s new welfare policies for teenage mothers – and there is a fantastic rant from Wildly Parenthetical that raises many of my concerns.