Young Mamas Need Support, Not Stigma

As we approach Mother’s Day (May 13), we’re inundated with celebrations of motherhood, but some kinds of mothers are not invited to the party. Hallmark cards and flower commercials rarely show queer mothers, trans mothers, stepmothers, disabled mothers or young mothers. Making matters worse, a good number of these groups are not only ignored, but actively demonized–even by feminists.

Among these reviled mamas, young mothers figure prominently. During May, the month in which most mothers are honored, young moms have their very existence challenged: May is also Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month.

Though teen pregnancy prevention efforts are varied nationwide, many deal in shame and stigma. A notorious 2001 print ad campaign by The National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy labeled young women of color “rejected,” “dirty” and “cheap.” But we don’t have to go that far into the past to find campaigns that stigmatize young parents. 2007 ads from the United Way are based on the idea that young mothers are so “disturbing” that young people shouldn’t be caught dead in their position.

This anti-teen-pregnancy programming often has very little to do with the real and material barriers young women face, particularly the young Latina and immigrant women whom the campaigns target because they have higher birth rates than white teenagers. Latinas are disproportionately poor, which means they are less likely to be able to afford health insurance and the birth control they need to prevent unwanted pregnancy. If they want to terminate their pregnancy, they are less likely to be able to afford the full cost of an abortion–an issue most teen pregnancy prevention organizations will not touch. They are less likely to be able to afford the cost of higher education, and many immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid at all–rendering the point of delaying pregnancy to finish school moot. In short, there are larger systematic issues at work, and reproductive health advocates need to remove the barriers preventing young women from making informed choices about what’s best for them. Then, we need to support those choices, not dictate what they should be.

Now, to be clear: many of the initiatives supported by teen-pregnancy-prevention advocates are quite helpful. Comprehensive sexuality education and access to affordable birth control methods, for instance, are crucial for young people, and many teen pregnancy prevention programs often do work towards these goals. But a key problem with teen pregnancy prevention approaches is that the impetus for supporting these otherwise valuable programs is based on the decision by a group of powerful people that young women must not be mothers. The decision of a powerful group (adults) to work to limit the reproduction of a less powerful group (youth) can in no way be construed as falling into line with reproductive justice principles of supporting women in deciding when and whether to have children, and to parent the children they do have with dignity.

It’s true that many young mothers do not plan their pregnancies and may not have wished to become pregnant. This is indeed a problem. But to address it, the reproductive health and justice community must take a look at larger systems that deny young women of color, low-income young women and immigrant young women the information and material resources to prevent pregnancy.

We need to support sex education and access to birth control as part of a platform that gives all women–young women included–a real choice about whether and when to start their families. We need to support young women who become pregnant and choose to terminate their pregnancies by eliminating the Hyde amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion and means that many Medicaid-eligible young women are unable to get their procedure covered. We need to have the hard conversations around child sexual abuse and dating/intimate partner violence that are completely ignored in mainstream conversations about teen pregnancy. We need to fix the educational systems that shut out these young women, denying them opportunities for which they might decide to delay starting families. And finally, we need to support young women who choose to parent by providing them with the resources they need to parent with dignity. Being a young mom does not have to be devastating, and young parents should have as much opportunity to succeed as young women who choose to delay pregnancy or never give birth at all.

Treating young mothers as the problem is not only morally lacking, but also misses the mark. Instead, we must target inequity. Let’s be done with the shaming and the stigma–any less is not reproductive justice.

This post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day campaign, in collaboration with the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights. Mama’s Day cards available here!

Verónica Bayetti Flores is the Policy Research Specialist at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and lives in Austin, TX.

Top right: Print ad by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Below right: United Way Teen Pregnancy Prevention Ad. Left: National Institute for Latina Reproductive Health graphic (NLIRH). All rights reserved.


  1. I agree with this article. Taking every precaution to prevent teen pregnancy is excellent, but demonizing young mothers is completely wrong.

  2. Very glad that you raised this issue, young mothers do indeed need support and care. However, I’m disappointed that stepmothers were not included in the list of mothers that are often stigmatized or ignored, even by feminists. Stepmothers need societal support as well, to do the best parenting job they can do.

  3. Heather says:

    I got pregnant my senior year of high school, graduated about 5 months pregnant. Tomorrow I graduate with my Master’s degree and I have a 10 year old. While, I don’t think having a child as a teen is the greatest decision, I do think she saved my life (I have a mental health issues) and I don’t think I would have done the things I did without my child. I also left her dad who was abusive and have been a single mother most of her life.

    Teen moms need support. Dr. Drew continues to shame the moms on “Teen Mom.” I hid my pregnancy from a lot of people because I was an “unmarried, teen mother” and I felt like I was a whore. This is NOT the way to support a teen mom. I figured out how to do most of things I did on my own (like applying for college, financial, etc). If there was more support, it may have been easier.

  4. my sister was a not quite teen mom. my niece was born when she was 19. even after HS a lot of people act mean and ugly about women having children. luckily, my parents were hugely supportive and my niece is 18 and ready to graduate HS herself. she’s going to college. my sis got called nasty names, she got many a dirty look and had a lot of people who were complete strangers tell her she should have kept her legs closed.

    i do think that preg prevention overall is important but stigmatization isn’t helping. great article, Ms. Veronica.

  5. First, a question. Do people, in 2012!, still not understand how pregnancy happens? REALLY? I think that while the importance of understanding out birth control and contraception work, I think portraying the issue as “oh these women didn’t realize how they got pregnant” is dumbing down the issue to garner unjustified sympathy. I know several women who got pregnant unexpectedly and they simply didn’t think it could happen to them. Voluntarily disregarding risks of one’s behavior is NOT something that should be painted as “oh these victimized young women weren’t educated! It’s society’s fault.” No. While that may be a percentage of cases, I would think that would not be the majority of cases. Also, everyone can do what they want in the privacy of their own bedrooms, but when you don’t have birth control or contraception, hey, don’t have sex! It’s not PC, but it’s the right thing to say and no one says it.

    • Have you heard some of the things that are taught in some abstinence-only education programs? There’s so much misinformation given to teens that, realistically, it’s possible that many of these teens truly didn’t think they could get pregnant doing what they were doing. It’s also possible that they thought that the birth control wouldn’t work, or just hadn’t been given information about birth control at all.

  6. Also, final note. I know this is MS. Magazine, but young mother does not mean single mother. Many teen mothers stay in relationships with the father of their child(ren). I know this is geared towards women’s issues, but an observation (not passing judgment). When a women cannot provide for her child it is: She needs support, she didn’t understand, she needs some help. When a young father cannot provide for his child it is: He is a deadbeat dad and he should have worn a condom. Hypocricy? Yes. I hope that efforts to de-stigmatize young mothers should really be efforts to de-stigmative young parents (men and women)

  7. I got pregnant at 15 and had my daughter at 16, just before spring break of my sophomore year. It was my first consentual sexual encounter. I realized too late that I wasn’t ready to have sex yet and kind of shut out the experience. I knew about contraception, I had always planned on using protection when I started having sex, but as soon as I realized that was where things were going I checked out completely. Not to make excuses, but that’s how it happened for this kid.
    My family was incredibly supportive, so I seriously lucked out there. Most of my friends were great about it, they loved having a baby around to play with. Strangers though…ouch. Walking through the mall pushing a stroller, ladies would walk up and say “Oh, your sister is so beautiful! You’re so lucky!” As soon as I told them she was my daughter that turned ugly fast. On at least 2 occasions women told me to my face that I was going to hell and had condemned my innocent child to hell as well. When she started preschool it took months for the other parents to realize I wasn’t her nanny, despite having introduced myself as her mother repeatedly. Coincidentally, play date invites started to drop off about then too. I could list millions of examples from the last 12 years, but no one wants that. In short, people outside my immediate circle tended to treat me like dog crap.
    I got a big kick of informing people who accused me of being a worthless floozy that the year I had her I was editor of my school paper, vice president of student council, and had a 3.8 GPA. The next year not only did I go back to school, I was renamed Editor, ran unopposed for student council president (everyone else dropped out when I entered), and starred in two school plays. Twelve years later, I own my own business, my daughter is a musically gifted honor student, and I’m married to the best friend I could dream of having.
    I’d be in an entirely different place right now if I hadn’t had her when I did, but I love where I am now.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. It’s a reminder that nearly everyone could have accidentally created a baby in the heat of the moment. We have to be a team when it comes to life’s surprises. Your friends and family teamed up with you and it sounds like it made a difference. Also, people who judge parenting skills based on age need to wake up and get a clue. Bad parents come in all shapes and sizes.

    • Well done!

  8. It’s just like the Fashion Specialists, who, by Overemphasizing what “proper dress” for young women is, actually Sexualize the young women as much as the people telling girls to wear such nasty clothing in the first place. Because women, regardless of what it is, are always seen as “Unclean” and “Dirty” and never Pure and Innocent like males, apparently are (Like, can a Girls Fashion Description Show/Article never come close to saying to girls, “Don’t dress like a Slvt,” and just say “Wear Practical/Nice/This Clothing” or something?).

    Ever hear about the saying “don’t glamorize teen pregnancy.” I ask, “well, do we demonize it?” There’s never a Middle-Ground and everyone just either Slvt-Shames girls in Questionable Clothing (who, should never be judge, nastily, just by looking at said clothing and yet people keep hypocritically forgetting that) or Shun Teenage Mothers.

    I’m willing to bet, when people, who so-called “care” stop Scapegoating women for all the Sexism that Plagues us and Disadvantages us, there’d be a lot less less trouble for everyone involved.

  9. Michelle says:

    I agree with the contents of this article to an extent: teen mothers are demonized and there needs to be more sex education. However, sex education doesn’t always cut it. I had a friend who had taken sex education courses, had been outright presented with numerous opportunities for extremely cheap contraceptives, and still had unprotected sex multiple times in high school. People like this should definitely not be demonized, but my point is is that sex education does not always solve this issue. There are so many cases where people A. still choose to have unprotected sex B. are raped C. are in abusive relationships.

    What could be done to solve that?

    • excellent point! i, too, was educated and new all the facts. sometimes even intelligent people slip up. i think (as i assume do you) that it’s important to continue giving the full information package to young people, but there need to be some additions. i was so glad to see that even in my bass-akwards state of arizona our local “health and body” class for junior high now includes information on body image and positive relationship building. they start young, talking to kids about building their own self-image and body image, choosing positive people to surround yourself with. they encourage speaking up when you see someone being mistreated by another person and even if you see a friend treating themselves poorly. the idea behind it is that if we can create strong youth who are happy and fulfilled within themselves they will be more likely to value themselves and others more highly. if we encourage boys to say “dude, don’t talk to your girlfriend like that, it’s really uncool” or girls to say “you shouldn’t let him treat you like that, i’m concerned about you” then maybe we can cut down on some of the abusive or controlling relationships.

      i ramble, but there ya go.

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