The Art of Gentle Revolution – Experience with a Feminist Wikihack

The Art of Gentle Revolution1 – Experience with a Feminist Wikihack 

Sarah Bekaert

Digital resources offer an exciting opportunity for feminist activity. Wikipedia, written by ‘the people’, is an accessible and ubiquitous ‘encyclopaedia’ where feminist activists can challenge and change androcentric assumptions, and ensure the experiences and realities of women are represented. A feminist masterclass, part of the Motherhood and Culture conference (Maynooth, Ireland 15-17th June 2015), encouraged feminist activism through a coordinated wikihack. Participants chose a topic from their own discipline in relation to motherhood and formulated content to challenge norms and broaden feminist representation on Wikipedia.

Working with teenaged mothers in the East End of London; I have long been unsettled by the assumptions of fecklessness and inability that overshadow the young mother’s lives, and frustrated by government policy which pushes toward immediate continuation of education and work that can be to the detriment of their early family life.   The existing ‘teenage pregnancy’ Wikipedia page sadly fulfilled my expectations. True to many of the dominant discourses that surround teenage parenthood the page focused on discussion of prevalence – a medical rather than social model; and cost to society – which is in fact very little. It collapses teenage pregnancy and parenthood despite being very different entities as not all pregnancies end in parenthood, and assumes a need for prevention with the usual recommendations of increased education about, and access to, contraception. The page also uses incendiary language such as teenage pregnancy ‘violates rights’ and is ‘life threatening’, a victim discourse that does not accurately represent the young women with whom I work, who have made hard choices in the face of difficult social circumstances and strong social stigma.

Hence the task of infiltrating the existing teenage pregnancy Wikipedia page was challenging. There was very little that represented what I considered a feminist view of teenaged motherhood. Already we have moved from a social constructed phenomenon ‘teenage pregnancy’ to lived reality ‘teenage motherhood’. I decided to create a new page considering teenaged motherhood that presented what I felt was a completely different entity to the existing ‘Teenage Pregnancy’. This new page considers teenage pregnancy as a socially constructed entity, family models beyond that of the nuclear family, and assumptions about ‘childhood’. It considers that the supposed issue of teenage pregnancy may be a symptom of wider socio-economic issues and in fact teenaged motherhood can have different outcomes in different circumstances, not always negative.

Unfortunately the Wikipedia editors did not approve my submission, and despite my defense, removed the page. So I am left to reconsider how best to proceed; perhaps some more moderate tweaking rather than a complete new page – some ‘gentle revolution’ (Leunig 2012). The Teenaged Motherhood page as I would have liked to publish it is presented below.

Teen Parenthood (Teenage Pregnancy, Adolescent Pregnancy, Teenage Parenthood, Young Parenthood, Teen Mother, Teen Mom, Teen Father, Teen Dad)

The phenomenon of ‘teenage pregnancy’ is a social construction and teenaged parents are not a homogeneous group. A brief look back across recent history will highlight some of the origins and consequences of the stigma with which teenage parents have to contend. There will be a focus on how, despite the overwhelming stigma with which teen parents have to contend in western countries, parenthood can be a positive force in their lives.

The Statistics

Texts that speak of teenage pregnancy and parenthood often conflate the two. Yet they are quite different entities. Not all teenage pregnancies end in parenthood. In England, latest figures from the Office of National Statistics state that approximately 50% of teen pregnancies are terminated2. In addition, as many as one in five pregnancies to teenagers end in miscarriage, a slightly higher rate than their older counterparts2. General observations from these latest conception and birth statistics show that teens have a higher rate of abortion than their older counterparts, yet a much lower conception rate. Across all the teen years there is an average conception rate of 23 per 1000 compared to the highest rate at age 25-34 of 125 per 1000. Within this rudimentary statistical picture the teen years are homogenised; yet a 14 or 15 year old can have very different experiences and circumstances to a 19 year old.

The Western Preoccupation with ‘Teenage Pregnancy’

Examining statistics does not really explain why western societies wish to reduce teenage pregnancy and parenthood. Several issues conflate to make many uncomfortable with teenage pregnancy and parenthood in contemporary western society. The main issues being an emphasis on maintaining childhood ‘innocence’, lingering moralistic attitudes and an unilateral view on what constitutes a contributing citizen.

Teenage pregnancy and childbirth highlights the western discomfort with teenage sexuality, and the focus on maintaining childhood innocence3,4. This results in the adults in young people’s lives avoiding discussion of the details of sexual attraction, orientation, intimacy, and negotiation in intimate relationships. Parents may avoid discussions around relationships. School PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curricula tends not to support young people in developing healthy equal relationships, but focus on practical information about how to avoid pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections). This can result in young people being ill-equipped to match the practical information with the emotional roller coaster of forming romantic and sexual relationships3,4.

Despite far fewer children being born to married couples in recent decades there is still a moralistic tone to attitudes to teenage parenthood. ‘Out of wedlock’ childbirth for young women in the 1950s was frowned upon, many were sent away to institutions where they would have their child. These experiences have been the subject of recent biographical and autobiographical accounts in the media.   A recent example would be the book ‘The lost child of Philomena’ by Martin Sixsmith6, which tells the story of a young woman unexpectedly pregnant in 1951 who is sent away to an abbey to have her child, works to pay for the support, and whose child was forcibly adopted to America.

Sometimes the child was adopted into the family as a younger sibling by grandparents. Some might remember the revelation in 2002 in the UK long running fictional soap opera Eastenders where it was revealed that the youngest daughter in one family, Zoe, was in fact the daughter of her older ‘sister’, Kat. Less positively many women underwent self-administered or backstreet abortions. This was brilliantly illustrated in the 2004 Mike Leigh film Vera Drake6. Vera, a working class wife and mother, performed abortions for young women in 1950 as an act of charity to women. When found out she was shunned by her family and imprisoned for her activities.

There was an increasing liberal approach to relationships and sex over the ensuing decades, partly fueled by the availability of the contraceptive pill, and the legalisation of abortion and divorce. Ironically, with these ‘tools’ available there also evolved an increasing expectation that women would maintain a ‘non-reproductive body’7 until the capitalist agenda of ‘putting something in’ before taking something out (claiming benefits), to support parenthood took hold. This has been termed the ‘welfare to workfare’ shift8 and marks a variation in moralistic judgement in that younger parents are deemed not able to provide adequately for their children through a lack of education or earning power in the workplace.

Starting a family before becoming economically independent has come to be seen as an irresponsible act. The unmarried, or deemed synonymous, single parent, has been accused of being a drain on public resources, and ‘early’ parenthood stymying educative and financial progression of the young mother. This perspective took hold in the 1980s and 1990s as the US Guttmacher Institute published a paper in 1981 entitled, ‘Teenage pregnancy; the problem that hasn’t gone away’9 focusing on the supposed negative outcomes of teenage parenthood.   This was despite evidence emerging from the same institute that medium to long-term socioeconomic outcomes for teenage parents were similar or the same as their non-childbearing counterparts10. This was reflected in premise of the 1999 Teenage Pregnancy Strategy in the UK11.Needless to say single parents (of any age) only claim benefits that they are entitled to, often combine child rearing with work, and represent a mere drop in the ocean compared to tax evasion that is demonstrated on a huge scale by national and international companies.12

The ‘Class’ Issue

There are well documented differences in how young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant decide on what to do. Generally, middle class young women abort the pregnancy as it is seen as disrupting an expected linear trajectory of education, higher education, work and securing a relationship, all before starting a family. Working class young women tend to continue as they have a more flexible approach to family formation, possibly seeing less loss in potential earnings, making the most of grandparent support whilst it is available and finding the jobs available to them less personally satisfying and consequently motherhood an appealing option13,14,15,16.

It seems that in reality rather than ‘teenage pregnancy’ it is teenage parenthood that has actually become the focus of popular attention. With recourse to contraception and abortion, to ‘choose’ to become a parent at a young age is seen as an irresponsible act in the light of current expected social mobility through education and economic independence through paid work. However if economic considerations in relation to state monies is not really the ‘drain’ it has been suggested, and if teen parents go on to achieve the same socioeconomic outcomes as their non child-bearing peers. What is really behind this negative focus on teenage parenthood?

Standing out from the Crowd

It could be that with the average age of childbearing getting later and later that childbearing in the teen years has been thrown into relief. It is simply more remarkable because the majority of women are delaying childbirth. The highest conception rates in England are to the 25-34 age group at a rate of 125 per 1000, 65 per 1000 for the 35-39 age group and 14 per 1000 in women over 402. As the statistical norm for parenthood timing rests with the middle classes, it is silently marked as the desirable state. These middle class women tend to be heard more clearly through classed forums and platforms such as managerial roles and the media there has been a resulting polarisation of types within motherhood, the Yummy Mummy versus Chav mum if you like18. Other commentators have noted younger mothers are seen as ‘monstrous’ as they are outside perceived norms13 or as ‘other’ along with same sex parenthood, families who have ‘too many’ children and so forth. An extreme example of this class making activity from the middle and upper classes would be through highly caricatured portrayals of the teen mum such as Vicky Pollard from the sketch show Little Britain. Vicky is out of work, pregnant, can’t string a sentence together and shows no emotional commitment to her child as is prepared to swap her child for a Westlife CD. Whilst this is not a real-life example it does reflect and represent the culture’s desires and fears. This ‘moral panic’ associated with teenage pregnancy and parenthood of recent decades might be due to the projection of the personal anxiety of these middle classes, who, when confronted with the young parent are reminded of their choice to postpone parenthood, and waning fertility.19

The ever increasing school leaving age also blurs boundaries and definitions of childhood in western society. In the UK compulsory education introduced in 1870 for children aged 8-10. This was increased in 1981 to 14 years, and then to 16 in 1972, which is where it sits now. New Labour (1997 – 2011) wanted to make it law to increase school leaving age to 18 years. The succeeding coalition government did not proceed with the legal aspect but supported it in practice, with the result that most people in the UK think that young people are required to be in education until 18 years old.

Similarly New Labour, with the introduction of the ten year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy in 199911 focusing on young people 18 years and under, dramatically inflated perceived issues associated with teen pregnancy20. Previously in the 1992 white paper Health of the Nation21, reducing teenage pregnancy sat alongside reducing chronic heart disease and HIV, but focused only on those 16 years and younger. This was problematic in itself as teenage pregnancy is not an illness nor disease. The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy aimed at those who were 18 years and younger, as well as reducing teenage pregnancy, encompassed those who were parenting. As a result it extended the perception of time whereby you might be expected to remain childless.

Each generation has to negotiate the competing expectations of the era and society within they live.22 For young people today there are strong expectations to avoid pregnancy in the teenage years. This is mostly from two main areas, a focus on maintaining ‘childhood innocence’ combined with the ever extending period of childhood, and of achieving a certain status in the education and work arena, which translates into financial independence.

Are there Health Risks with Teenaged Childbirth?

Are there ‘risks’ associated with teenage pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood?

Are there specific obstetric risks for teenage childbirth? There appears to be a link with preterm birth and childbirth in the teen years.23,24,25 The need for antenatal support is paramount for this age group. Unfortunately it has also been highlighted that teenage parents feel uncomfortable and judged in the antenatal clinical setting, both by older middle class parents-to-be and staff26,27. Consequently younger parents may avoid clinic based antenatal support. There may be an argument for specific provision for the teenage parent to be, although a shift in approach from the general population would be the ideal.

The focus of recent political concern, and more specifically the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, has not however been on obstetric risk, but on a possible or inherent ‘social exclusion’ through becoming a teenaged parent11. This view of social exclusion speaks only the language of ‘upward mobility’ and earning power which make huge assumptions on behalf of personal hopes and dreams as well as situated realities, whereby becoming a parent can represent a route to local social inclusion. People of all ages become parents as it is a valued role both personally and within the community they live.16,28,29 In socioeconomically constrained environments becoming a mother can be a rite of passage that may not be achievable through means such as university attendance, owning your own home and other markers of upward mobility.30

A ‘Situated’ Decision

Starting a family at a younger than average age may be the result of a realistic assessment of lived conditions and possibilities. Many young people in socioeconomically compromised areas have lives that are saturated with risk31. Living in uncertainty day to day has an impact on health and morbidity and mortality rates are significantly higher in poorer areas32. ‘Getting on with’ parenthood may be a rational course when your own health as well as that of your support network is at risk. Having children at this age also makes the most of grandparent support whilst available, which has emotional and financial benefits for the new family14,33.

Crime and gang life are also issues in socioeconomically constrained environments. Again this has an impact on longevity of young men and women involved. Where the death of a partner or the chance of forging a relationship is reduced through death, injury and incarceration, ‘accelerated’ timetables, or getting on with family formation, can be the result of a rational assessment of the situation14. Starting a family in this context of instability creates a sense of permanence, ensures inheritance, and creates a permanent relationship, with motherhood a cure for uncertainty and solitude34.

Family

Creative family formation patterns beyond that of the nuclear family unit are evident in teenaged relationships, as they are across the age range. These various and varying was of doing family tend to have evolved around maximising the support that is available to the new family. For example the young mother or parents may stay with grandparents at the outset of their parenthood whilst they learn the skills needed either from, or with the support of, grandparents. This ‘apprenticeship’ model enables the young parents to become established in their parenting before living independently, and offers protection from having to face all the changes of independent living and new parenthood at the same time35.

The support of extended family can also facilitate the young parents finishing education, further education, or working, and young parents often draw on a wide range of support rather than relying solely on the father of the child13. In some cultural practices it is normative for parenting to begin once you are a grandparent36. Another way of doing family might be the visiting relationship whereby the baby’s father does not live with the mother and child or children, but is involved in their lives. This arrangement can arise due to lack of space where the mother is living or an assessment by the mother that living with the father at this point would detract from raising their child/children.

What these more fluid family patterns may do is create the impression that the mothers are single, when in fact the fathers are more often than not very much involved in their partner and child’s life. Young parents are at the forefront of exploring the concept of ‘family’ in a time of rapidly changing ways of doing family due to the availability of entities such as travel and technology. ‘Family’ can be seen as a range of flexible practices rather than an institution, with commitment occurring at many other points rather than through marriage alone37.

Intimate Partner Violence

It should be said that there are some areas where teenage mothers may be vulnerable, such as where there is a power imbalance in their relationship. Obviously this is not an issue that is specific to teenage mothers, but characteristics of the teenage years may worsen the situation.

There is increasing focus on intimate partner violence (IPV) in teenage relationships. Developmental needs to identify with gender norms, not having had the opportunity to learn how to resolve issues and frustrations in a diplomatic way38,39, having witnessed domestic violence and general violence in their lives which normalises IPV40,41 a large age gap which accentuates a power differential within a relationship42,43,44,45 can be foundations for violence within younger relationships. IPV within a relationship can lead to pregnancy through forced sex and/or contraception sabotage42,43,44. Furthermore pregnancy in a relationship can be a catalyst for IPV to emerge or intensify46.

Partner violence is clearly prevalent across the age range, however being a teenager may increase vulnerability due to lack of recognition, by society and themselves, of IPV in a relationship; through lack of social and interpersonal skill to resolve or extricate themselves from violence; and lack of knowledge of, and ability to, access support services. It is notable that as a consequence of a pervasive social violence and lack of social skills to peacefully resolve issues, that the young women can be both perpetrators and victims of IPV in teenage relationships47. It may also be difficult for a young mother to extricate herself from a violent relationship through fears of not being believed, retaliation or possibly losing their child48. However the need to protect their child is often a compelling reason to leave a violent relationship49,50.

Leaving Care

Looked after young people or young people leaving care are more likely to become parents in their teens. A quarter of young women leaving care have become parents before 16 years of age, and a half become mothers within 18 to 24 months after leaving care51,52. It is perhaps unsurprising that when you have not had a secure family life and may have had several placement changes over your formative years, that creating your own stable family unit, with relationships where you are needed and loved is a goal for young people in these circumstances53.

There are well founded concerns for this group of young women. Young people in care are more likely to suffer with mental health concerns, are compromised in their education, and are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Teenaged parenthood may compound these poorer life experiences53. However, the young parents are often determined to create a more positive family life than they have experienced. The challenge for professionals is how best to support young parents who have been in the care system, through provision of an ‘extended family’ and role models as the young parents develop their parenting.

Other Stories

Teenaged parenthood can be a positive and transformative experience for the young mothers and fathers. For many having a child can be a catalyst for reengagement with education and work to improve their living conditions, or to be a role model for their child. This results in mothers who have begun parenting in their teenage years going on to achieve the same economic outcomes as their non-teenage childbearing peers. Becoming a parent can often be restorative to family relationships54,55,56. Sometimes young women have had troublesome relationships with their parents. Through becoming a parent, there can be a new respect toward the other and an allegiance formed for the benefit of the baby. For some young women becoming pregnant and a mother enables them to legitimately withdraw from negative lifestyles or behaviours such as drug and alcohol use or gang involvement44,57,58, and gives them access to inner strengths to be able to do so31. Furthermore young parents are resourceful, they draw support networks around them, and employ creative family forming strategies to support them in their new parenthood.

Teenaged parents experience similar stresses and strains on their lives and relationships as parents of any age. However a legacy of stigma through moralistic and economic judgements, that has mainly arisen through being distanced in age from the modal age of childbearing, rendering younger parents more visible and ‘other’, places further stress on their lives.

References

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