Shunning for your own good

This whole piece at Motherlode irked me. It is about a 17 year old school student who faked a pregnancy for several months as an investigation into stereotypes and discrimination for a school project. It is an amazing social experiment to have devised and undertaken. The student recorded people’s reactions to her during the months of her fake teenage pregnancy. She apparently had plenty of examples by the end of the project of others seeing her in a very poor light once they thought she was a pregnant teen, and an Hispanic pregnant teen, at that.

The Motherlode piece uses this as a jumping off point for discussion among readers and in doing so asks “Are you surprised that Gaby Rodriguez felt shunned? Are you saddened that she was? Or a little relieved?”

And that, together with the author’s (Lisa Belkin) bit about being astonished to see that the student felt ostracised because of “how glamorized teen pregnancy has become lately as high school-aged mothers have become reality stars on shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom”” had my eyes rolling right into the top of my skull.

Really, it surprises Lisa Belkin that pregnant teenagers are ostracised when she, herself, is using them as a topic for her readers to judge and moralise over on her blog? That a particular group of mothers are open season on a parenthood blog, for godsake, should tell Ms Belkin something about the way teenage mothers are ostracised. Teenage mothers do it tough; they usually start and continue on through life incredibly poor, while still usually managing to be great parents. Teenage pregnancy is many times, but not always, an indicator of other vulnerabilities. For instance, it is associated with having a significantly older male partner, it is associated with sexual abuse (and with experiences of child sexual abuse while growing up, particularly), it is also associated with being in a violent relationship (which often includes the sabotage of contraception by male partners), and indeed, with having come from a family where violence was inflicted on their mothers. Given these facts, how do we want girls who are coping with these vulnerabilities to be treated in our society? We really want them shunned for their own good?

The way we use this group of mothers as a target for our nastiness; the way we want to make examples of them to others; the way we feel justified in slut-shaming them (while absurdly, ignoring the fathers of their children) is incredibly sexist, generally also racist, and most definitely classist. These prejudices ignore the fact that ideas about age-appropriate pregnancies are based more on cultural and historical norms than absolute conditions. It also ignores the fact that our distaste for risk-taking behaviour in girls, which is a normal trait of adolescence and is probably also essential for maturation, is simultaneously often highly celebrated in young men (eg. extreme sports, adventuring and becoming soldiers). And finally, we, even us progressive types, combine all of this with a convenient hypocrisy around a woman’s right to choose with regards to her own pregnancy, and the right for all mothering work to be valued, supported and respected.

We should be able to talk about the difficulties involved in parenting at a young age and the decisions involved in that path to parenthood without dehumanising young mothers. But, we so very much don’t, as evidenced by many of the comments on that post on Motherlode:

  • Of course, fellow students felt she had ruined her life. Otherwise, yeah, she learned her friends feel teenage pregnancy irresponsible. Well, it is.
  • Usually the attitude seems to be that it’s an unfortunate choice but what’s done is done, and that the mother and baby will need support, which people are prepared to give. There’s also an attitude of “This will help my daughters see what a mistake it is to be a teen mom.
  • It’s not that MTV glamorizes teen pregnancy – it’s that the white trash on that show are paid very well to participate. They’re paid far more than they would be at Walmart – which is where they would be otherwise.
  • So she proved that people speak ill of teen pregnancy? Wow, revolutionary. So people should refrain from calling pregnant teens “irresponsible,” or suggesting they have “thrown their lives away”? What a ridiculous perspective that is; the simple fact of the matter is that if someone is pregnant at seventeen she probably is irresponsible and it probably will mess up her life. Don’t want to be ostracized – don’t get pregnant…. People learn nothing from a situation that does not afford strife, and from this principle there appears no reason that society should do anything to help pregnant teens acclimate to a judgmental social environment.
  • But there is value in just this kind of “gossip.” It helps others know how they will be viewed and what may happen to them and may make them think twice before ignoring birth control if they choose to have sex.
  • I will probably also tell my daughter to not associate with teen moms or teens who think it’s cool to get pregnant, as they will only bring her down.
  • I favor better sex education programs and a better social safety net for the poor but I don’t know that it ought to be made too easy for teen moms either

P.S. You can probably imagine what I think of the conversation that is happening here in Australia around the Labor Government’s new welfare policies for teenage mothers – and there is a fantastic rant from Wildly Parenthetical that raises many of my concerns.

(Image credit here).

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: education, gender & feminism, media, parenting, social justice

Tags: , , ,

17 replies

  1. “how glamorized teen pregnancy has become lately as high school-aged mothers have become reality stars on shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom””
    Are those shows glamourising teen pregnancy, or just “using them as a topic for [their viewers] to judge and moralise over?”

  2. I have yet to read anything by Lisa Belkin but I know her name because of how often it is tweeted by fembloggers going “WTF” and “not even wrong”.
    Which I’m sure makes her excellent click-bait for that website, but sounds as if she specialises in judgemental nonsense.

  3. tigtog, I wasn’t aware of her being the subject of lots of fembloggers’ work. Interesting.
    I usually like Lisa Belkin’s blog – it has a newsy, intellectual approach to parenthood, she picks great topics to unpack, and I find Belkin is normally very careful to write pieces that are open to more than one view on the subject. I think she dropped the ball on this one though.

    • It’s always possible that I’m misremembering the context of her name next to links on which I have not clicked, but it’s my strong impression.

  4. I believe this particular “experiment” has been performed before (again, by a high school senior in the US). I seem to remember the reporting about it, and the same sorts of things came out – slut-shaming, ostracism, and basically a bright, intelligent young woman being treated as though she were barely capable of cognition. I think it happened about a decade back, so it appears social attitudes there don’t appear to have altered any, even after several years of abstinence-only pregnancy prevention education.
    To be honest, though, I’d be much more interested in seeing a similar study which explored the parallel attitudes toward young women who became pregnant as teenagers, and the young men who participated in the process. Or in other words, not only does the girlfriend pretend to be pregnant and study people’s reactions to her, but the boyfriend studies the reactions of his peers to himself – I suspect there’d be some interesting contrasts to be found between the two.

  5. I think that given it’s been done a decade on there is a lot of worth in doing it precisely to see what attitudes have changed. The issue with the boy/man doing it is that responses to teenaged mums will be roughly across the same spectrum, whereas surely the scenario of the ‘boyfriend’ could change: perhaps he’s from the same school, perhaps older as tigtog pointed out appears to be a pattern. It’s entirely possible she’s been impregnated as the result of a rape. So it’s much harder to study the reactions to boys/men who impregnate teenaged girls even if boys/me were going out of their way to examine the responses.
    @ Bluemilk re ‘You can probably imagine what I think of the conversation…’, I’m starting to try to think through that stuff as someone pregnant as a teenager (though admittedly a little later, at 19 and after high school). I can see why some see it as encouraging participation and education, but it’s the ideas around single mums that set the scene and the context in which the program (with the payment cut offs threatened and the complete lack of choice as to when you are ready to send your baby to childcare) is delivered. I haven’t got to any of the guts of the policy yet, just stuff dealing with attitudes levelled at me that are echoed in Belkin’s peice and the comments that follow it, and really, it’s again the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position: if you take the time to get the education you need for a career you’re a ‘freeloader’ who thinks you ‘deserve’ ‘money for nothing’. If you go work at “Walmart” you’re a deadbeat and who would have expected anything else.
    Anyway – thanks for writing about this Bluemilk. It makes me feel a bit better that another mother is stepping in to bat for the rights of teenaged mothers to be treated with a bit of respect.

  6. Damn, sorry, should be ‘perhaps he’s older as BLUEMILK pointed out appears to be the pattern’

  7. Sorry to comment again so quickly, but you know what gets right up my nose? The people who would *most* have this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ attitudes towards ‘slutty’, ‘irresponsible’ teenaged Mums? Would be the *same* ones advocating that abortion is murder and the same ones advocating a frikkin abstinence program that will not work. So basically it comes down to ‘How dare the little sluts have sex’ and ignores that some may have had little choice, and that there is another person involved (I think you’ve already made that point but I suddenly got all indignant again).

  8. @ Fuckpoliteness
    It also ignores that sometimes the teenage mums are the ones whose contraception failed and that many more of us were either lucky or didn’t know how stuffed up our fertility was until later in life. As well, some of the girls, from my small country town, who would have been teen mums had parents who quietly took them for a weekend away in Sydney and when they came back it had all been dealt with. Some girls didn’t have that…]can’t really say support, or option because I’m not sure they all agreed with it but may have been coerced into it I’ll go with] path to go down. The successful teen mums all had a partner ready, willing and able to be there with then raising the baby, even if the advent of a baby was unexpected.
    People just need to get over the fact that teenagers have sex, some willingly some not and sometimes that sex results in a baby. If you are going to be pro-life then you have to be pro-life all the way and support born babies too.

  9. Is there really a need to repeat this as an “experiment” a decade on? Many, many teenagers are pregnant every day, having real experiences instead of pretend ones – why are their voices less important than the voice of someone faking it as a “social experiment”?
    The enthusiastic reception to this smacks to me of whiteeducatednondisabledyoungindependent people who fake “poverty” for a few weeks/months for a book deal, pretend that they then know all about what homelessness and/or poverty is actually like, and receive a whole lot of fawning media for five minutes before society gets back on to the business of ignoring poverty and homelessness as much as possible.
    The only reason people are listening to her and not actual pregnant teenagers is because they can classify her as “not a REAL slut” once they know she faked it. And there is a huge problem with that.
    I have lots more to say but don’t want to write an essay! Let’s just say I have issues with the ethics also, and that strapping on a belly doesn’t teach you what it’s like to actually be pregnant any more than sitting in a wheelchair tells you what it’s like to have a spinal cord injury.

  10. I’m not sure this kid was trying to get fawning in the media, or get experience of what it’s like to be pregnant so much as do an assignment on attitudes towards pregnant teens.
    Nor do I think anyone here thinks her voice is worth more than that of an actually pregnant teenager or that anyone here is saying that – it’s not about listening to her so much as being outraged by the vitriol directed towards her and to teenaged mothers.
    Speaking as a mother who was a pregnant teen I can certainly say that I don’t feel she has anything as or more valuable to say than a pregnant teen, but nor do I see that she is trying to, I think she’s trying to draw out the responses and talk and think about those and that this has been about the hatred of teenaged mums it has drawn out.
    I appreciate any kid in high school examining those sorts of prejudices: after having faced them for 16 of my 34 years I appreciate it. So as a ‘real slut’ I reject the idea that the only way I can appreciate what she’s done is because I think she’s *not* a slut or because I value her voice more than that of teenaged mums.
    I’m also not certain that I think it’s the same as some rich kid *doing* ‘homeless’ for a year, or someone pretending to have a spinal cord injury: those appear to be about saying you have the authentic experience of *being* in that situation, whereas this appears to have been about trying to see how others would respond, of trying to get a handle on the way that attitudes change towards you depending on how you are perceived.

  11. fuckpoliteness – Thanks for your comments, I found them interesting and compelling.
    Almost always, any topic in a discussion around teenage pregnancy starts with the premise that teenage pregnancy is a terrible, terrible thing.. I can only imagine that this must make the experience of being a teenage mother very lonely, because no-one is celebrating your pregnancy and baby with you the way they are celebrating the same events with older parents and you’d feel all this joy that you feel as you’re falling in love with your baby while everyone around you is telling you that this baby is a terrible terrible thing you did… unless you come from a community where teenage parenthood is more common and in that case you might have at least a few people around you who are calm and optimistic and loving about your pregnancy/baby.
    The thing I find startling is how discrimination against teenage parents is so completely unquestioned by everyone; you can make really judgemental and confrontational comments about teenage mothers in polite conversation; you can make those comments even when you’re a lovely lefty mother type, in fact you’d think it irresponsible to let your children hear anything else come out of your mouth about teenage mothers. I have even seen that general sentiment expressed on big feminist blogs, too, who often approach topics around teenage pregnancy with it as a given that teenage mothering is a very bad idea, so that where they are arguing for those young women to be treated better, supported more, or given better access to contraception they are still failing to genuinely accept or embrace those young women and their parenthood.
    I see why. When I was young I found it so hard to accept that sometimes teenage mothers might be very happy being teenage mothers (they don’t always feel that they threw their lives away, for instance), and that sometimes they might actually find it very satisfying and rewarding being mothers. I had such a lot of classism and sexism to overcome. I really changed my thinking when I became a parent myself, and realised that a lot of teenage mothers must be experiencing what I was experiencing as a 30-something mother – lots of anxiety and worry, sure, but also lots and lots of incredible joy and passion.
    It frequently shocks me to see how downright rude we feel we can be about teenage mothers, right to their faces. And that Motherlode post was a classic example. This is a website for parents!! And they see no contradiction in being completely awful to a particular group of mothers on a site for mothers while talking about mothering issues. My sister’s friend was a teenage mother and she once told my sister that if her children were behaving badly in public she would pretend to be their babysitter because otherwise she copped too many rude comments and stares from the disapproving general public.

  12. Thanks Bluemilk. It’s a fine line I guess: I am pretty cautious about this stuff, as in when my young cousin got his even younger girlfriend knocked up and I was held up as an example to persuade them to go ahead with the pregnancy I was pretty angry with my family for doing that. The response was ‘We just don’t think she could handle a termination’ and my response was ‘What the hell makes you think childbirth and motherhood are ‘easier’?’ When another cousin of mine got pregnant and went to see a Dr about a termination he said “What if this was the last chance you ever had?” (she was 21). I spent a long time telling her that was a terrible thing to say and letting her know all the downsides. She chose to have the baby and I admit that from my perspective I felt that was a mistake for her life given where she had been aiming it. But when her son was born anyone could see the joy and I had to give myself a mental shake and ensure I didn’t secretly think of it all as a ‘mistake’.
    I think it is probably possible to seperate out teen pregnancy and teenaged motherhood a little: preventing teen pregnancy wherever it is an accident due to lack of knowledge is a good thing. Stopping the bullshit stories around termination so that teenagers (and I remember the teenaged attitudes of “I WILL NEVER do [x]” or “Of COURSE [y] is wrong!!” so adults around them I think need to be assisting them to think through all the complexities) really truly have safe, affordable and supportive termination as an options is crucial.
    But once the decision is made, then yes: it is incredibly offensive to assume that my love for my child is less than another mother’s, or that I work any less hard at being a good Mum. I think it is true that there are pressures and limitations on young mums without the qualifications to get them into work that pays well, but I’m pretty certain they know that too. I guess the fact is they *are* the primary parent for this child and they should be given respectful support to make the best decisions for how to raise that child. I maintain that proper counseling is a massive first step to helping them tease out the pros and cons of various courses (it was so so busy in my head and I still have to fight to let it quieten down in there), of short, medium and long term goals, of support to let them figure out what is the best scenario for themselves and their child: do they need help moving to a different area? Where do they want to raise their child? What assistance does that require? What do they want to do when their child is at school? Is there something we can help you train for now? Is external study a better option? What about practical training and apprenticeships with hours that work for parenting? How can we assist in ensuring parents find permanent part time work rather than casual? Help them plan super and annual leave? The primary focus here is ‘We are the people with the resources to assist: what is it that *you* want and need, and how can we help *you* because you’re doing an excellent job, your hard work in parenting is invaluable, so let us give something back when *you* feel your child is ready to be in care”
    Somewhere along the line people mentioned girls and women going into childcare/teaching. I know it appealed to me because I would have holidays with my son: it remains a problem to this day that while he has ten weeks off in a year I have four, *and* I need to take days for on campus sessions. But I pulled back: it wasn’t my passion and I figure you need it to be. It’s not well paid and you’re dealing with a lot of kids so you need a lot of patience and I didn’t want to be one of the teachers I remembered: burnt out, angry and taking it out on kids.

  13. But yes, I got a few of those comments and it is pretty appalling. Not as many as I expected or perhaps I’ve blotted some out over time. But I do recall getting outraged looks when I was at the local store with my youngest sister and my two young cousins. Never mind I would have had to have started at three. And a group of older women out of nowhere saying ‘It’s the *children* I feel sorry for’. I should have told her she needn’t that I had the happiest child in the world and we were best of friends. But I just sat and seethed.

  14. I wasn’t a teenaged mum, but I do remember cradling one of my young cousins in my arms one day where she went to sleep while we were out shopping with her mum. The looks I got from people where just astounding, and at the time I had no idea why. Her mum did though, and made a big point of commenting that her daughter never seemed to do that for her and that I must have the magic touch or something equally saccharine. Then the disgusted looks turned to smiles and ‘oh, she’s practicing for when she’s married and has her own children, what a good girl child’ looks.
    I don’t like to imagine know what my father’s reaction would have been had I been a teenaged mum and I know exactly where he would have sent me,[eta: to have the baby and who he would have wanted me to give it up to (family, because of reasons)] if my mum had let him. It wouldn’t have been pretty. I know my mum’s attitude has changed in recent years and I hope that I will be supportive if I’m ever in that situation with my own children. Sometimes I wonder if it will easier if it’s someone else’s daughter and my son but I guess you don’t know until you are there. I’d like to think that I’d be supportive either way.

  15. Mindy – I had similar experiences when I was younger and nannying. I still nanny but I must look old enough now, because I don’t get dirty looks any more.
    I was 17 and nannying a family of 4 kids, the oldest was 6, I’d have to have been pregnant at 10 – well before I’d even got my first period to have had them myself. They looked nothing like me – but you should have seen the nasty looks I got when I took them out of the house. It seemed like people wanted to believe they were mine, despite the evidence to the contrary, just so that they could judge me and feel better than me.
    People used to also comment about how I was “practising” for my own children. I’m sorry, no. People do not entrust me with their children’s well being so that I can “practice” on them. I’m a trained, experienced professional and I’m doing a job that should be far better respected.

  16. Cheers, a really good read – added to favourites so will pop back for new content and to read other people’s comments. Cheers again.

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