Complexities of teenage motherhood

In the April column on teenage pregnancy, we saw how teenage pregnancy is defined as a problem because of the disruption of schooling that potentially accompanies it and the economic difficulties that teenage mothers may face. Some of the criticisms of these assumptions were highlighted (that many pregnant girls have already dropped out of school; that schools do not provide for the needs of teenage girls, making motherhood a viable alternative; and that childbearing is a cost to women no matter how old they are). In this column we turn to various other concerns regarding teenage pregnancy: the medical complications that teenagers may have in pregnancy and birth, their mothering abilities and population growth.

There is some disagreement regarding the medical complications (known as obstetric risk) that pregnant teenagers may face.
Some researchers have found that teenage mothers suffer more from pregnancy-induced hypertension (high blood pressure), premature labour, anaemia, and small-for-date babies than older mothers. Others dismiss these claims, saying that it depends on who these teenagers are compared to. If you are comparing them to other women in the maternity wards, you may be using an unfair comparison because teenagers may not come from the same socio-economic background as older mothers. Indeed, one study showed that if you take a group of teenage mothers and match them with a group of older mothers in terms of the number of children they have borne and their socio-economic status, the chances of difficulties in pregnancy and at birth are the same. In other words, teenagers and older women from the same socio-economic class face the same obstetric risks in pregnancy and birth. Thus, it is not age that is the issue, but rather socio-economic status, with poorer women of all ages facing more medical complications in pregnancy and birth. However, what does seem to be established is that teenagers tend to attend antenatal clinics late (sometimes only during the last trimester when the pregnancy can no longer be hidden). They also attend irregularly, probably owing to the stigma attached to teenage pregnancy. This, of course, means that the opportunities for, firstly, picking up any complications and, secondly, ensuring that the teenagers are receiving adequate nutrition, are limited.

Teenagers’ mothering skills have been questioned. Researchers have noted that teenagers are ambivalent about their children, find mothering difficult, are unclear as to what their children’s emotional needs are, are inconsistent, and have high levels of parenting stress. Once again, the issue of comparison comes into play. Very often the research does not provide a comparison group. What is required for a researcher to say that teenagers are more inadequate as mothers than older mothers is for the same research to be conducted with a group of older mothers who are similar in background to the teenagers (what researchers call a matched control group). Comparisons can then be made. Unless this is done, it is impossible to say that teenagers are worse mothers than older mothers. Indeed, general research on mothering indicates that mothers of all ages feel ambivalent about their children, find mothering difficult, are often inconsistent, and so forth. Whether younger mothers have these negative characteristics in greater doses is still a matter of speculation.

Finally, there are concerns around population growth. Some authors have suggested that teenage pregnancy is part of the cause of a high birth rate in South Africa, creating what is called a ‘burden of dependency”. This refers to situations where a large proportion of a country’s population is below the age of 15 resulting in more non-workers than workers. This argument is one that was made in the 1980s and early 1990s and seems to have disappeared from the writings of researchers in this area. This is possibly because of the racial overtones that such an argument carries. Indeed, some writers explicitly placed black South Africans in the undesirable phase of demographic transition (high birth rate and low death rate) and white South Africans in the desirable phase (low death rate and low or falling birth rate).

Some researchers have also questioned the population explosion argument because of its concentration on gross numbers. In other words, when you count the gross number of children per mother and compare various groups of people, the poor and black people tend to fare quite badly. The bad shape in which the world is starts to look like their fault. Yet, if you were to calculate consumption per person (how much water, electricity, fuel, food, and such, a person uses), then the rich and whites come off quite poorly. While they may, on average, have fewer children, the amount of the Earth’s resources that are consumed by them is much larger.

In the next column we will turn our attention to the research on the causes of teenage pregnancy.

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