This is the preface to ‘Young Motherhood: The Triumphs, The Challenges, The Truth’. Young Motherhood is a project that I’ve been working on for the past four years. The book will be released on May 17th. You can find out more information about it here.
The first question I usually get asked about Young Motherhood is “why?” Why did I embark on this project? I have answered this question so often that I’m worried the answer is beginning to sound trite and clichéd. However, here I have the opportunity to answer in a lot more detail than I usually do, so although I may be repeating myself to a certain degree, please bear with me.
First of all, I have friends who are young mothers. Their lives as motivated women working hard to raise their children as well as pursue their academic or career goals were completely at odds with the bleak stereotype that is prevalent in our society. The language used to talk about young women who decide to have children is not just empty rhetoric that can be ignored, nor is it a case of “sticks and stones”. These one-sided conversations have very concrete results when public policy is implemented by those whose only knowledge of these women and their families comes from tabloid headlines, or statistics that reduce people’s lives to units on a graph.
In addition to the undiscerning axe wielded by public policy, when young mothers go about their daily lives they can experience unpleasant interactions with members of the public. Complete strangers can have ideas about their morality and motivations, influenced by pseudo-documentaries broadcast on prime-time television that favour entertainment and drama over education and empathy. These encounters can be anything from someone demanding to know the whereabouts of the father of a young woman’s child, to healthcare professionals not providing an adequate level of care due to their own prejudices. Consequently, some young mothers find themselves making unwise decisions in light of the stigma attached to their situation. I personally know of more than one woman who opted to stay in an abusive relationship rather than add the social “shame” of being a single mother to the fact that they were already a young one.
Stereotypes and misconceptions help no one, apart from those who feel their job is made easier by making scapegoats of young mothers. Everything from gang crime, to growing classroom sizes, to the housing shortage and the cost of the welfare bill has been blamed on young mothers and their children. In 2013 Ipsos MORI published a poll illustrating the wide gap between public perception and factual reality on a range of topics, including teenage pregnancy and the benefits bill. The general public has opinions but too often these opinions are factually incorrect. Even in light of the recent drop in teen pregnancy rates in the UK, the stigma continues. Most press coverage of the downwards trend in teenage conception regurgitates the same ideas about how awful teen pregnancy is without any critical thought or intellectual interrogation.
There are high profile examples of successful women who are – or once were – young mothers. Angela Rayner, the current Shadow Secretary for Education, was once a teenage mother herself, and she is not the only “former young mum” holding public office in this country. As well as professors at Russell Group universities, young mums can count Kanya King MBE, the founder of the MOBO Awards, amongst their ranks. Despite what mainstream conversation may have you believe, these high profile examples are not anomalies. There are countless young mothers who are assets to their communities and wonderful examples for their own children as well as others around them, and while this project is most certainly about challenging prejudices and encouraging empathy for those whose lives we have not had first-hand experience of, it is also about smashing stereotypes and celebrating the triumphs of young mothers everywhere. I also hope to open up the dialogue surrounding the topic of young mothers and their families to include the voices and lived experiences of these women who are often spoken about, but never listened to. And just as importantly, I wanted to create something that would encourage and inspire other young mothers. This is for those who may feel isolated from their peers because of their situation or from other mothers because of their age; I want them to know they are not alone in what they may be experiencing and the challenges that they may be facing.
For the purposes of this project a “young mother” is a woman who had her first child in her teenage years or early twenties. Although women who have children after the age of 19 may escape the “teen mum” label, the struggles and stigma they face are not wildly different. Some of the women who took part in Young Motherhood are my friends, although I met a lot of them after I put the word out about the project on social media. Due to constraints on resources it was not possible to photograph and interview all the women who responded to the call-out, but their enthusiasm for the project fed my own enthusiasm and energy in the early stages. I’m really glad that even amongst this small selection I was able to speak to women from a range of backgrounds, areas, and experiences, as well as women who became mothers in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s. The diversity in the stories only goes to show that while there are often similar themes and challenges, no two women’s stories are the same.
This book contains portraits of young mothers and “former young mothers” and their children, as well as their stories in their own words. I transcribed around 20 hours of interview audio, only editing for clarity. So often photographers and filmmakers can unconsciously insert themselves into a project, and the world applauds them for “giving a voice” to the poor, marginalised group they so graciously turned their camera lens towards. I detest the term “giving a voice to”, and this is by no means what I am doing. All the participants in this project have their own voices; I am merely providing the metaphorical megaphone that amplifies what they have to say. If anything, it is they who have given the most: their time, their homes, as well as lifts to and from train stations, and the odd bacon sandwich or homemade lasagna for sustenance! It is this generosity, as well their openness when sharing their stories, that has propelled this project forward and seen it appear in places such as The Guardian, and on BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and London Live, as well as exhibited at Rich Mix and The House of Commons.
The reception for Young Motherhood has been amazing, and the kind words from other young mothers, as well as the children of young mothers, has reminded me of the value in continuing the project. Comments from members of the public who have admitted to being personally challenged about their own perceptions have also spurred me on when things felt particularly hard, and this project has been momentous for me too. Not only in terms of my skills and creative career, but also on a personal level; during the course of this project I became a mother, and the words of the women I interviewed came back to inspire and encourage me when I most needed to hear them.
Working on the printed incarnation of Young Motherhood has felt like a long and protracted labour in itself, so finally “giving birth” to this book is a joyous and exciting occasion. Whatever your life situation may be, I hope that reading these women’s stories will be as inspiring and life-affirming for you as producing this project has been for me. All of our stories are important, each one of our lives is significant, and we would do well to listen to each other and learn.
21st August, 2016