Policy should target stigma of young motherhood, new research says

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday July 4, 2019

adult's hand holding child's hand
Source: Getty Images

Mothers aged 35 years and older receive less social support than those of other ages, according to a new study.

The research from the Life Course Centre looked at how young Australian mothers — aged 15-24 at their child’s birth — compared to older mothers in regards to personal resources and social support.

It also examined how they perceive the quality and type of support available to them.

Administered by The University of Queensland, the centre works with universities, experts, and government agencies to provide evidence-based solutions for policy and service delivery.

“While research and policy tend to focus on adolescent mothers aged 15-19 years, this research takes the view that normative shifts pushing motherhood further into the life course have moved the boundaries of non-normative behaviour. As such, the young mothers are at risk of occupying the marginalised space of deviance left vacant by the fading teenage mothers,” the report said.

“This research makes clear that maternal circumstances are varied and complex, as are individual experiences of motherhood.”

The report found that young mothers often experience long-term social disadvantage, and are often associated with economic and health disadvantages.

“Somewhat against expectations, the youngest mothers exhibited greater levels of social support than the oldest mothers,” the paper highlighted. However, “social support does not necessarily offer a protective effect” for mental health.

Young mothers were most disadvantaged in regard to personal outcomes and in personal resources. They reported the lowest levels of confidence in their parenting abilities, mental health, and general health. Unsurprisingly, they were also the least likely to own a home, have completed a degree, receive their main income outside of welfare, have high incomes, and be able to raise emergency funds.

The report found that young mothers’ relationships with their partners were “often characterised by disappointment” as long work hours hindered their partners’ role as parents. Low satisfaction with partner support appeared across all age groups, which is consistent with other studies that found low rates of father involvement in parenting duties, according to the paper.

When mothers had adequate relationships with their parents and partners, relationships with friends were described as limited or lost during pregnancy. However, when mothers had poor parent/partner relationships, their friends became important sources of support. 

“The young mothers exercised their agency by creating ‘families of choice’ that helped fill the vacuum left by their absent parents,” the report said.

While young mothers were aware of societal expectations to complete higher education, attain financial security, and delay motherhood, they “refused to fulfil the prophecy of the young-mother stereotypes” and displayed a determined sense of self, the paper said.

Policy implications

The paper argues that its findings should be used to inform policy and practice.

“As the social context around motherhood shifts, so too must our approach to supporting those who experience it in difficult circumstances,” it said.

The report made the following suggestions:

  • Policy should aim to provide support to young mothers who experience multidimensional disadvantage. Future interventions should prioritise improving their circumstances and outcomes in education, independence from welfare, and mental and physical health.
  • For older mothers, policy should be aimed at improving their social support, mental health, and family attachment.
  • Future research should identify not only which support sources are more or less prevalent across mothers of different ages, but also which of them can better lift the personal outcomes of different types of mothers.
  • Policy focus on engaging fathers to better support mothers and their children is well-guided.
  • Policy efforts should be directed at shifting the subordinate social status attributed to young mothers. This could involve promotion of alternative societal narratives that celebrate mothers of all ages, and embrace the optimism young mothers feel toward their lives.

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