Sunday, March 2, 2014

Harming Young Mothers with Stereotypes

Hypothetically, imagine a single woman who becomes unexpectedly pregnant. 

The father is a man she has been dating, but not for long, and she can't tell yet if they're suited for marriage. He has a job, but lives paycheck to paycheck. He sometimes mentions more lucrative career aspirations, but she doesn't know him well enough to know how serious and capable he is to achieve them. 

She has a full time job, but also lives paycheck to paycheck, so she's also attending college part time, and aspires toward a degree that will help her get a job that pays better. 

She decides to keep the baby. Not because of any moral or religious pressure - she is politically pro-choice. She knows being a mother will introduce many challenges, and that she will need to depend on family, friends, and possibly social services for assistance. But she has family and friends, there are programs for food, medical care, and early childhood education (WIC, SNAP, CHIP, Medicaid, and Head Start) if she needs them. Most importantly, now that the potential for a child of her own is growing inside her, she feels strongly that she is ready to be a mother. 

This hypothetical includes a lot of information about the mother-to-be. One thing it doesn't include is her age. Assuming that every other factor remains the same, what different challenges will she face if she is 20, 30, or 40? 

Another detail left out is how her family and friends react to her decision. If this were your friend or relative, would her age make a big difference in your response? Would you be more supportive and less likely to try to talk her out of keeping the baby based purely on her age? 

Over the years, I've slowly realized that I've picked up unfairly prejudicial attitudes toward young mothers (think between 18-25 years old.) These attitudes include that young mothers are short-changing themselves in terms of earning potential, career development, and long-term personal fulfillment. That they are, in their immaturity, acting on foolish and romantic notions, not considering the full ramifications of their choices, and likely to have regrets. 

Such attitudes about young mothers are common among middle class, educated liberals (such as myself.) We rationalize our prejudices two ways: first with statistics, and second as a way to position ourselves in opposition to religious conservatives. 


The evidence firmly reveals that young mothers across the spectrum are at an economic disadvantage. But why are younger mothers so disadvantaged? 

Stephanie Coontz points out that all mothers have decreased earning potential. 

Much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women. Motherhood, writes the sociologist Joya Misra, is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States. According to her research, conducted with Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.
Coontz goes on to cite evidence that mothers are discriminated against by employers when it comes to hiring, hours, and promotions. This means that women who choose to have their first child young start out their careers facing discrimination. 

The problem is a system failing mothers, especially young mothers, not of women messing up the timing. 

Advising young women to put off those aspirations toward motherhood - regardless of what they want - because they will face discrimination is like advising a woman not to go into a career field known for its sexism. When we advise people to give up perfectly valid aspirations because we fear the system will treat them unfairly, we are supporting that status quo instead of demanding that it  change to fit peoples' needs. 

Opposing Religious Conservatives

Young motherhood is often associated with anti-feminist, religious values; the Bible instructing women to obey their husbands, the Quiverfull movement, high divorce rates among young couples in the Bible Belt, and even child brides forced into marriage

All of that is scary, harmful, and needs to be firmly countered by modern humanist values. But what does the Religious Right have to do with a single, young, and independent woman who happens to have an unplanned pregnancy and wants to raise the child? What does the Religious Right have to do with recently graduated high school sweethearts who are ready to get married and begin their family? 

I often hear people say that women should wait so that they can finish their education. But 43% of Americans obtain no formal education beyond high school, and only 30% will get a Bachelor's Degree or higher. (source.) A majority of jobs are done by workers without any higher education, including occupations in management, administration, and sales. 

Again, the problem is the economy, not religion. It is that most young, full-time working Americans cannot earn enough to even modestly support a family. This sinks so many single mothers into poverty, and puts tremendous strain and hardship onto young married couples with children. 

Stereotypes Hurt

Prejudiced attitudes from liberals against young women who choose motherhood adds shame to the list of challenges they must face. 

According to a survey reported on, young mothers often do feel that they are being shamed for their decision. 

Thirty-six percent of younger moms (and a whopping 54 percent of moms 24 years old or younger) say that an older mom has tried to make them feel like they're too immature or inexperienced to care for a baby.
13 percent of the younger ones cite "the disapproval of others" as one of the main drawbacks to having kids when they did. 

The Stacked Deck 

Wage stagnation prevents too many single mothers (of any age) from being able to support themselves, and prevents too many husbands (especially the young ones) from being able to support their stay-at-home-wives and children. One need only look at stats on household income to see that most working Americans are being asked to do more with less. Liberals giving all young women the impression that having a kid young leads to poverty is just as bad as conservatives telling women they just need to find a good husband to depend on. 

The reality is that many young women, both married and unmarried, are ready for motherhood. It's not their fault that the deck is stacked against them. The deck is stacked against a lot of people in our society, some because of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, and some because of perfectly legitimate, personal decisions, such as to start a small business, become an artist, or raise children. 

If we as a society decided that the hardships of the poor and working class - food insecurity, inadequate health care, unsafe neighborhoods, under-performing public schools, un-affordable day care - were unacceptable, if we were to prioritize alleviating those hardships, then all people would be free to make the educational, career, and family choices that best suit them, without fear, and without shame. 

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