Stigma and teen parents

The way in which teen parents Jayden and Jenifer, and their daughter Aria are being treated and portrayed in the media is a tragic indictment on the many mixed messages our society sends teenagers today.   It is also a very sad reflection on how we fail to support parents, and particularly the crucial bond between a mother and her baby.

While we don’t know all the facts; the little that has been portrayed in the media demonstrates several ways in which we have seriously failed this family.

We have inconsistent laws which tell young people they can’t legally engage in sex before certain ages, because we understand that decision making around sexuality requires a level of developmental maturity that isn’t reached until a certain age. 

Yet Jayden and Jenifer, along with all other teenagers and children in our country have been flooded with sexualising messages since early childhood.   Many of them are subject to sex education in schools which emphasises pleasure and choice above responsibility and mature decision making.   

In spite of understanding this, when they do experience a pregnancy, we demand they be allowed to access abortion without parental notification or consent, which they can in most states of Australia.   This means that 13 and 14 year old children (and younger) are having sex, often times this involves younger girls and much older male partners.    When a 14yr old girl gets pregnant, she can have an abortion without her parents knowing anything at all.  Nobody investigates the nature of the relationship she is in.   It is as though nothing ever happened and she can be sent back for more of the same; her parents none the wiser.

If that same 14yr old chooses to have her baby, she can feel so threatened by the lack of support to parent that she ‘kidnaps’ her own child.   It does appear that Jayden and Jenifer may be lacking in some of their economic, social and family circumstances.   However, wouldn’t this pose all the more reason for government departments to look at strategic ways to help them and their daughter make positive changes in their lives? 

Instead, what occurred was that the very thing these young parents most feared, is what happened: separation from their newborn daughter.   A young mother, within days of giving birth is denied the crucial bonding time with her baby after nurturing her inside her body for 9 months.  A new baby denied the familiar and much needed bonding time with her mother.   A father, who while very young, seems determined to stand by the mother of his child and his daughter, yet is denied the right to demonstrate such admirable qualities.

The evidence does not support the contention that all teenagers are ineffective parents.  Quite the contrary, that with adequate support they can be amazing parents raising amazing children.   Of course if left to their own devices they would struggle and perhaps make some terrible mistakes, but why should they be abandoned in that way?   Why should any parent not be supported, nurtured and encouraged in their parenting journeys?

My own parents were 16 and 19 when I was born in 1964.    We were saved from a forced adoption by virtue of the fact that my father married my mother, thereby bestowing on her a certain respectability as well as legitimacy on me.   

One could argue that they failed as parents when I then had my first child at age 17, thereby perpetuating some terrible cycle of teen parenthood.   However it wasn’t like that at all.   My mother was an amazing role model as a career woman, even having had 2 children before her 21st birthday.

While I faced huge stigma as a single parent in 1982 and beyond, it wasn’t even a question for me that my daughter belonged with me and that we would work things out as we went along.  With the birth of my second child shortly after my 21st birthday, followed by many years of single parenthood, one could imagine stories of feral children of an uneducated mother, sponging off the government purse.    But in spite of its popularity as a portrayal of teen parents, this is not the story for all, or even most.

By the time I was 30 I had worked my way through university and had 2 Bachelor degrees; at 34 I added my Master’s Degree.   My daughter worked her way through university to become a nurse, then a paramedic.  My son loves and supports his own family of 4 (soon to be 5) children.   They are both amazing contributing members of society, as I am, and as my parents before me were.

These are the kinds of stories we can help the Jayden’s, Jenifer’s and Aria’s of our world develop.   One that says ‘we see you’ve had a bit of a hard time, what can we do to help you?’  Instead we have stolen a newborn baby from her parents, granting them a visit of a few minutes after 5 days of total alienation.

We have politicians, journalists and the public carrying on about how terrible it is they even had a baby, citing a lack of contraceptive access or abortion access as two of the main culprits.    When around 60% of all pregnancies occur when the couple is using contraception, access to it is hardly the issue in an unintended pregnancy.     

Abortion advocates often talk about the stigma that women face when they experience abortion, even though the evidence doesn’t support such a position at all.   In fact, as we see in the story of this young family, Jayden and Jenifer have been extremely stigmatised for having a baby because of their ages before they have had any opportunity to demonstrate any parenting ability at all.    That is true stigma.    This has also occurred in a way that may be irreparably harmful to all of them, unless they are now offered the assistance they should have been entitled to before such an unjust treatment was applied.

When we continue to demean the birth of any baby to any mother by suggesting abortion access would have been better, we have sunk so low in our value of life that it is hard to imagine it could get any worse.  Except perhaps the stealing of a young mother’s child. 

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