Young motherhood is not all doom and gloom

Young mother

Author: Dr Andreana Dibben

Teenage mothers are all too familiar with the phrase ‘children raising children’. From professionals to politicians, media, and even strangers on the bus, everybody has something to say about the perils of teenage pregnancy. Yet, when I spent two years attending a weekly mother and baby support group, hanging out with 24 young mothers (ages 13 to 21) for my doctoral research, I learnt that the reality was much more complex than a clichéd slogan.

My research looked into the lived experiences of pregnant young women and young mothers in Malta, specifically capturing detailed insights into how participants defined their sexual, reproductive, and mothering choices in the context of the policies, services, and discourses that framed their lives. Many participants considered being a mother as a deeply positive experience. Knowing full well about the teen motherhood stigma, they reclaimed the pejorative phrase ‘children raising children’ and saw their young age as advantageous because ‘you and your child grow together’. They felt they had more physical energy to carry out motherhood-related tasks, and expected a better mother-child bond due to a minimal generation gap.

Dr Andreana Dibben
Dr Andreana Dibben

What impressed me was that teenage mothers know how to care. The level of attentiveness and the responsibility with which young mothers cared for their children starkly contrasted with society’s stereotypes. Many participants had assumed caring roles and responsibilities from a young age, so caring for children was something they had learnt to do early on.

Pregnancy was not always accidental as is publicly presumed. It was often an active choice, framed as a positive step towards family formation. Research participants saw their early romantic relationships, often with older men, as an expression of psychological maturity. Some claimed the baby was healing the sufferings of their difficult childhood. 

There is no denying that some pregnancies were not planned. Often, this was due to imbalanced power in relationships and control over sexuality. ‘We didn’t use condoms because he did not want to’ or ‘he did not want me to go on the pill as he saw it as a free pass to screw around’ were common phrases in the interviews. 

The feminist lens helps detect gendered and class-based attitudes and behaviours, particularly conspicuous in the young mothers’ stories. Popular culture’s heterosexual imagery shapes young women’s reproductive choices early on. Framed by this ideology, the creation of a nuclear family is seen as the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship. Even for unplanned pregnancies, an ethic of responsibility and the stigma on abortion further pressure them towards choosing motherhood. Mothers are then expected to be completely selfless in their ‘sacred’ role. As Mireille, an 18-year-old mum who accidentally got pregnant at 15, put it: ‘I used to feel from the start that a huge responsibility was coming upon me. Now I’m not sorry that I had her though… In the end you do everything for your children.’ 

Yet my research shows that young mothers are not passive in this process. Choosing motherhood in the unequal context they inhabit, young mothers take their lives in their own hands. They challenge the patriarchal ideology that values only certain kinds of motherhood as ‘good’ it must be based on marriage, economic independence, and a mature biological age. Most young mothers made active decisions when faced with dominant male partners, patronising professionals, and stigmatising incidents. Motherhood may have exacerbated disadvantage in many situations, but it also gave a sense of empowerment.

This study shed light on how young mothers valued their experience over social, economic, and cultural constraints. They consider motherhood as a positive life choice rather than a limitation. In the words of Isabel, a 19-year-old mum of a two-year-old: ‘The most important thing is how you feel inside. I feel great joy and satisfaction. Even though you’re 16, you can still raise your kids well. And that’s what matters at the end of the day.’

Isabel’s message is clear: Young mothers are making a valuable contribution to society. Instead of pity, they need respect and support.  

A balancing act

I am writing this in a sports complex cafeteria, waiting to pick up my daughter from her ballet lesson.  In the meantime, my eighteen-month old son tugs persistently at my sleeve — he wants to lick the froth off my capuccino and bang on the keyboard to make the screen respond.  If this sounds familiar to you, then you may be one of those researchers who are juggling studies, work, and kids.

I am on the eve of submitting my Ph.D. dissertation. Since I started, there has not been a single birthday, Christmas, or ‘sick’ day when I was not at my laptop, working on my research.  During the first year I found it difficult to concentrate. I was alone at home, with a lot of time on my hands, and there were days wasted on Facebook and eBay. Thankfully, I was brought back to my senses and managed to start focussing on my work.

Ms Michelle Attard Tonna
Ms Michelle Attard Tonna

As the first year rolled into the next, my son was born.  Perhaps this was irresponsible, but then again, one cannot put life on hold to achieve a degree.  The pregnancy was not easy and even necessitated hospital admission for a short time. To complicate matters, I had an important exam in the week my son was meant to be born, so I spent many sleepless nights to complete my work in advance and take the exam earlier.  Pregnancy even complicated flights, since I was refused airtickets when 33 weeks pregnant.

I usually work during the night, when the world is asleep, although this is not always guaranteed when babies share your habitat.  I plan my work around their schedule, intensively writing while they sleep, and performing simpler tasks while they are running around the house and destroying every piece of furniture in the process.

Being a mum keeps me grounded.  I now respect deadlines religiously, finishing early means I am able to spend more time with my loved ones.  Kids can be very unpredictable — they fall sick at the eleventh hour, just before you are expected to email a chapter to your supervisors.  A mother needs to attend school open days and sports days, stick holy pictures to Religion project books, and keep their hair free of lice.  I either work on my research in every waking hour after I have satisfied mummy duties, or else have to compromise between family and studies.  As far as possible, I do not let this happen.  I do not have any superpowers and have never reached a work-life balance.  I just make priorities.  I may have laundry baskets overflowing with clothes waiting to be folded, but I prefer to take my kids to the playing field or watch a movie.  I can do much more, of course, as a mother, and I do sometimes fail.  When time is tight, to finish writing I can spend hours at my laptop with little interaction with my kids.  Otherwise, it would be difficult to focus and to regain the thread of my thoughts.  

For my studies, I need to visit campus abroad and to present at conferences.  I usually take my son along with me. He’s too small to leave behind for more than a couple of days.  Last summer I took him to Portugal for a conference and had to board three planes, a train and a bus.  I am sometimes met with pitying glances, but very often people are helpful and understanding.

I may not be inspiring my kids to become researchers when they grow up. Indeed, my daughter wishes that I had taken up something more ‘glamorous’, but I believe and hope that my sense of diligence will rub off on them. That it will motivate them to chase their own dreams, as I am chasing mine.