As you can probably imagine, I’m not a fan of the stigma young parents face. I don’t like being stared at in the supermarket while pregnant. I don’t like seeing public service announcements suggesting that ‘people like me’ are less likely to graduate, to get a career, to raise healthy, successful children. I don’t like the stream of TV programmes, mostly from the US, that depict young parents as feckless and irresponsible, popping out a stream of babies for the benefits. I really don’t like seeing any discussion of young parents inevitably descend into a slanging match, with phrases like “free council house” and “uneducated slags” being thrown about.
However, there are some people who believe that the stigma is positive. They believe that stigma is the way to reduce the rates of young people getting pregnant. Much of the stigma is directed towards teenage parents in particular, but mud sticks, and anyone under the age of twenty three who finds themselves pregnant, planned or otherwise, tends to be hit with the same labels – irresponsible, feckless, sponging off the state, ‘slags’ and various other delightful terms.
I personally don’t believe that any stigma is positive, nor do I believe that it should be seen as a viable method of preventing pregnancies at a young age. For starters, it disregards an entire group of young people as collateral damage – yes, they’ll become social pariahs, and their choices will be heavily judged and criticised, but hey – as long as the teenage pregnancy rate drops, that’s neither here nor there. Throw into the mix that these young women and men are dealing with the trials of pregnancy and early parenthood, with all the hormones and tiredness and difficulties that brings, and suddenly, justifying that stigma is putting a lot of young women at risk of postnatal depression.
The most damaging part of the stigma is that ‘young parent’ is synonymous for ‘unfit parent’. There is the general expectation that young parents will want to go out and party, and will smoke and drink around the child, and won’t have the first clue about how to care for a newborn. I’ve seen people suggest that social services should be involved with every child born to young parents – and not just under 16s, oh no – any parent under 21 should have automatic social services involvement, because of the higher risk of abuse and neglect.
Speaking as someone who refused to seek help and treatment for what was, in hindsight, pretty crippling antenatal and postnatal depression – primarily because I was convinced that social services would be called in and I would lose SB – I cannot think of anything worse than assuming that younger parents aren’t capable of caring for a child, and making them feel observed, and as though one false step will see their child taken away. We need to support more young women to feel like they can seek help for post-partum mental health problems, not for them to be afraid to speak up and seek help. In that way, justifying stigma is actually putting more children at risk, along with their mothers.
But, most people will argue, we need to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Do we, though? The rates are at their lowest in years, after all. The ONS said that stigma towards young parents is part of the reason for this, but also the shift of young women’s aspirations towards education instead.
My problem with this is that so much of the stigma revolves around the education of the mother. The notion that she is probably uneducated when she falls pregnant, and certainly cannot aim higher academically once she is a mother. I’ve disproven that theory, and I’m not alone – there are plenty of young parents who have gone on to achieve A Levels, degrees and beyond. Why are we not encouraging all young women, including young mothers, to aim for better education, rather than writing off an entire group of women because of what the statistics suggest.
Sex education may be improving in inner-city communities, but in areas like where I grew up – rural communities where Christian morals are still very much expected, and the thought of unmarried people having sex is enough to make people gasp, sex education hasn’t progressed far beyond the Mean Girls-esque “Don’t have sex or you will get pregnant and die”. Not once were contraceptive options beyond condoms discussed with us. Nor were we told about the morning after pill and how to get it, or how to access abortion services in our area if we needed to. The US is proving that abstinence-based sex education doesn’t work, and yet rural communities continue to promote it because “it’s simple”.
I’m not suggesting I fell pregnant because I wasn’t told about the Pill in class – I knew about contraception when I fell pregnant; I was clued up. And we can ask parents, we can research it on the internet, we can go to sexual health clinics and the GP for advice. However, when even our sex education lessons haven’t found a better way of promoting safe sex other than shaming young mothers, something has to change. Making young mothers feel like social outcasts isn’t helping anybody, and could cause a lot of harm in the long run, not just to these mothers, but to their children too.
Not forgetting, of course, that there are some people who want to become parents at a young age. For some young parents, it’s no accident – and many are in stable jobs, in places of their own, with a steady income and feel ready to have a child. Why do these young people deserve to be shamed and called feckless and irresponsible, for making their own life choices – purely because they deviate from ‘the norm’? Maybe, instead of shaming all young parents, we should accept that accidents will happen, and some people want to start their families young. Instead of resorting to shame tactics to make it happen, we get real with people – bring in real life young parents; people who have had children at sixteen, at eighteen, at twenty – and hold discussions, question and answer sessions, let them give sex education classes themselves. They can give an account of what life is like for a young parent far better than a teacher in his or her fifties, who married and established a career before starting a family.
If I led a sex education class focusing on pregnancy, I wouldn’t tell people not to get pregnant. Some people will go ahead and do it anyway because they want to. Others will fall pregnant accidentally, and then I’ve cut off one avenue of support for them – they wouldn’t feel that they could come to me for support, because I’d say “Well, I told you not to get pregnant”. We need to be opening communication channels and avenues of support, not closing them off.
Instead, I’d tell people that it’s tough. That it’s okay to consider abortion, and that adoption is something to be considered, but very few babies are relinquished for adoption, and so it is not the cure-all solution that ignorant people (usually pro-lifers) claim it is. I’d tell people that it does take extra work and determination and a strong support network, but you can continue to study. You can get a career. That support network doesn’t have to come from your family, or from the father of your child, if parents have reacted badly or the pregnant young woman finds herself single. That support network can be made up of extended family, friends, agencies that provide assistance, lecturers and teachers – anyone who wants to see the young person succeed, regardless of circumstances. I’d warn them that it involves sleepless nights, worry and stress, growing massive, developing a waddle, giving birth, dealing with judgement, missing out on hobbies, deterioration of friendships. Yes, I’d let them know that they could face stigma and judgement, because some people do still judge a book by its cover, and will see a young woman with a bump and leap to negative assumptions – but that they are not defined by the way other people see them.
Stigma and hyperbole will not encourage safe sex. It encourages complacency. If we demonise young mothers as ‘chavs’, ‘slags’, ‘uneducated’ and so on, you turn them into an ‘other’. A generation of ambitious, smart and educated girls will think “Well, that’s not me”, and they’ll take risks. Sometimes those risks will pay off, and sometimes they won’t, and there will still be unplanned pregnancies. If you don’t believe me – well, it’s exactly what happened to me. I became complacent, I wasn’t “like” girls who become young mothers – so I took a risk, and it resulted in SB. Would I change a thing? No. Do I think we should be encouraging this attitude? Absolutely not.
Normalise young parents. Normalise them, so that we can have honest discussions about the trials and tribulations of parenting, and the added pressure that comes with being a young parent. Normalise them so that young parents don’t feel afraid to seek help for depression and anxiety. Normalise them so that we don’t create a generation of young women who think they’re invincible, only to realise – with potentially disasterous circumstances – that no-one is invincible really.