Research: Adolescents Optimistic about the Role Motherhood Will Play in their Lives

Over one million adolescent girls get pregnant in the United States each year.(1) And of all adolescent mothers, roughly 25% give birth to a second child within two years of giving birth to their first.(2) Teenage motherhood has been traditionally associated with high school dropout, lack of college enrollment and limited future job prospects, promoting a predisposition towards poverty.(1) Unarguably, many of these adolescent mothers will experience hardships in maintaining economic stability. However, that is not the outcome for all teen mothers, nor does it have it be.

In contrast to the pervasive media messages of judgment and expected failure toward pregnant teenagers, it has been shown that positive social support of teen mothers has been correlated with maternal competency behaviors, feelings of love towards the infant, and gratification in the maternal role.(3) Teen parents who were able to remain living with their parents or relatives have been more likely to return to school, to obtain a high school diploma, to be employed, and to be free from welfare dependence.(4,5,7) Further, it has been documented that pregnant adolescents who give as well as receive support from their parents report higher levels of childcare mastery and life satisfaction than teens without this bi-directional support.(6) Even more astonishing is that many adolescents who experience pregnancy at a young age manage to not view themselves as pigeonholed into the typical “failure as inevitable” stereotype. On the contrary, many young women viewed pregnancy as a positive force in their life.(4)

In The Postpartum Adolescent Birth Control Study, researchers from The University of Chicago’s Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research sought to answer this two-fold question: “What are the future goals of adolescent mothers, and what factors may be influencing those goals?” During the course of the first post-partum year, researchers interviewed teenage mothers five times to examine contraceptive use, health status, social support, and risk of repeat pregnancy. The results were surprising. In addition to viewing pregnancy as an inevitable life event in their teen years, there were also common beliefs that pregnancy would not limit their educational achievement or career goals and was a positive life event. In fact, many teenage mothers reported a belief that having a child would not only not hinder them from desired accomplishments, but would push them to achieve more than they had otherwise planned.(4) In one instance, a study participant stated:

“…People think that once you have a child when you’re a teenager you can’t do nothing else with your life, you can’t have a high school diploma… I [want to] be able to graduate and let my daughter see me.”

Yet another study participant described her desire to escape unsafe living environments in order to provide a better life for her child:

“… Every day you hear about somebody getting killed, robbed … I have a baby and I don’t want none of that for her.”

An ecological framework of the study.

An ecological framework of the study.

Further study results revealed that an initial desire for financial and residential stability, family members’ professional backgrounds and recent life experiences were significant contributing factors toward shaping both short and long-term goals of these young mothers.(6) Especially poignant were study results which indicated having a child did not deter participants from a strong desire for financial success and educational achievement. Study findings suggest that traditional stereotypes of teenage mothers should be challenged, in part to encourage young women to pursue goals they may have more motivation to work toward as a new mother. Further research should explore how teenage mothers perceptions of their pregnancies are affected by media messages and how they restructure their lives to achieve life goals after becoming parents.

Citations

1. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Why It Matters.

2. Hofferth SL, Reid L, Mott FL. The effects of early childbearing on schooling over time. Family Planning Perspectives. 2001;33:259-67.

3. Mercer, R.T., Hackley, K.C., & Bostrum, A. (1984). Social support of teenage mothers. Birth Defects, 29, 245-290.

4. Future Goals of Adolescent Mothers. Chicago: Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research, The University of Chicago (2011).

5. Kirby D. Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy; May 2001.

6. Stevenson, W., Maton, K.I., & Teti, D.M. (1999). Social support, relationship quality, and well-being among pregnant adolescents. Journal of Adolescence 22, 109-121.

7. Cooley, M.L., & Unger, D.G. (1991). The role of family support in determining developmental outcomes in children of teen mothers. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 21(3), 217-234.

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