Teen pregnancy myths abound
\Research fellow Helen Wilson has debunked some
of the myths about teenage motherhood in New Zealand.
The first myth suggests the birthrate among teenage girls is snowballing.
In fact, Helen Wilson says, teenage birthrates have halved since 1972.
This decline, which coincides with the introduction of the Domestic Purposes
Benefit in 1973, challenges the popular notion that the DPB is responsible
for encouraging teenagers to choose motherhood.
The second myth is that unmarried teenage mothers take up a disproportionate
amount of benefit payments. However teenage mothers are a mere 2.7 percent
of Domestic Purposes beneficiaries, with an average duration on the DPB
of three and a half years for sole parents.
Ms Wilson, a researcher at Masseys Centre for Public Health Research
has just been granted a Bright Futures scholarship from the
Foundation of Research, Science and Technology to undertake her PhD research
with teenage mothers. Her background includes 12 years as a Plunket nurse
and two years with the YWCAs Mothers Alone programme. She says teenage
pregnancy has been viewed as problematic since the 1940s, when it was
seen as a moral, then a medical problem. Today it is seen as a social
problem, which has major repercussions for young women struggling to raise
their children in a negative, or even hostile, environment. In fact,
research does not bear out the negative images that the media often portrays.
And I wonder if its being driven by the fact that middle-class white
women are having their babies much later. Is this now seen as the norm,
and everything else is a problem?
She says links made in the media between child abuse and teenage mothers
are the most damaging, particularly for young Mäori mothers who are
often the targets of such negative claims. Although the literature does
show a relationship between young mothers and poor parenting, these findings
need to be interpreted with caution. According to writer and commentator
Nigel Parton, child abuse is far too complex a problem to isolate single
casual factors. He believes it is more appropriate to see child abuse
as a result of multiple interacting factors, including the psychological
traits of parents and children, the familys place in the larger
social and economic structure, and the balance of external supports and
stresses, both interpersonal and material.
Another myth is the suggestion that teenage motherhood is a cause of educational
underachievement. In fact, studies have shown pregnancy might be the result,
rather than the cause, of school failure and identifies pre-existing socio-economic
factors such as poverty. Ms Wilson says society must understand that unless
young mothers are helped to recognise their own value, little progress
can be made in influencing the development of their children. Most
young mothers are keen to continue their education, or find a job. Free
childcare would be a major help, as would a benefit system which did not
penalise those wanting to work part-time.
Ms Wilsons PhD research aims to give voice to the knowledge and
experience of teenage mothers. Her participatory action model
will explore what enables them to mother well. Results will be disseminated
among teenage mothers, community groups, health professionals, policy
makers and the media.