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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Helen Wilson

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 Massey’s 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 YWCA’s 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 it’s 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 family’s 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 Wilson’s 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.

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