This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
May is a busy month for advocates, between Mother’s Day and month-long campaigns around mental health and teenage pregnancy prevention. But for many teenage mothers, this month can be a challenging one to navigate. Not only do mainstream Mother’s Day images feature a very particular type of family and demographic, teenage pregnancy prevention ads usually depict teenage motherhood as the worst possible outcome for sexually active young people.
At this time of year, we advocates for teen mothers often wonder whom Mother’s Day is for.
I became pregnant and gave birth to my daughter when I was 15 years old, and ever since then I have been wondering in what narrative my situation was supposed to fall: the public health “problem” of teenage pregnancy or the possible celebration of motherhood.
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In reality, I’ve seen my motherhood acknowledged in less than flattering campaigns around teenage pregnancy. It’s hard for me to appreciate Mother’s Day when in the same month, and really throughout the year, people like me are targeted by elected officials, nonprofit organizations, foundations, those close to us, and public service announcements that say teens’ choice to parent is the cause of several societal issues.
We saw the juxtaposition of these two narratives last May, when Hallmark released a heartfelt commercial thanking mom “for her sacrifices” while the Candie’s Foundation continued the use of their ads in which teens are told they should “be changing the world … not changing diapers.” It’s as if parents—biological and chosen, teen and non-teen—are not changing the world every day even when they are changing diapers.
Given that teen mothers already experience educational pushout for being pregnant or a parent, our family members and friends judge us for our “poor life choices,” and we have the highest rates of postpartum depression than any other group of mothers, it would be nice to be able to fully enjoy the one day a year the nation comes together to express gratitude for mothers.
What if teenage parents received the same love and support other mothers get through ads and advocacy campaigns? What if teenage parents were told they are capable of making a difference in the world, and are doing so by providing the support their child needs, even with the odds stacked up against them?
To be sure, preventing unintended pregnancies is a worthy cause. The issues arise with the methods used and the month chosen to share these conflicting messages about motherhood. Teenage pregnancy prevention ads feature teens in ways that depict them as “DIRTY,” or our children in various states of distress.
Thankfully many former teenage and young mothers at Strong Families spoke out about their dislike of narrow and less than benevolent teenage pregnancy prevention ads around Mother’s Day, and Strong Families launched the Mama’s Day campaign in 2011.
Mama’s Day is a month-long celebration of mothers who are often overlooked and never represented in mainstream Mother’s Day narratives. Mama’s Day promotes the notion that “Mamahood is not one size fits all. All mamas deserve to be seen and honored in cards that reflect all the ways our families look.” One of the first Mama’s Day videos depicted teen and young mamas as mothers; people who embrace their motherhood not as a strike against them but as a marker of their strength and selflessness.
In fact, many teenage mothers wish that they would just be viewed as mothers and not solely as a representative of their age group or current circumstance. I asked Caitlin Shay, a mother of two who had her first child at 17, what she wished society would understand about teen parenting, for a piece I did for the health nonprofit Seleni.org. She said, “I wish society would look at us as mothers.”
May is already emotional enough for teenage mothers who might be dealing a myriad of issues, including state-sponsored kidnapping of their children. The least we as a society could do is replace stigmatizing ads with more educational, inspiring ones.