Parenting – Discovering Sociology

[Eric Anderson] So the target audience for our book is
mostly undergraduate students and so undergraduate students will of course be
interested in issues that affect them, that affect their peers or their age
group. And you’ve been doing some interesting research on mothers of their
age group, can you tell us something about this? [Kim Jamie] Well, I was working with some
colleagues from a university in Belfast, and Bristol as well, and so it was a kind
of national study, and we were looking at health beliefs and behaviors in women –
young women who are mothers, so we were looking at women between the ages of 15
and 21, who had at least one child – and we were looking at their own beliefs about
their health and their kind of everyday health behaviors. [EA] And what were the
results of the research? I imagine you chose this audience because it’s, what,
is it a difficult audience to get health behaviors – I’m sorry health education – to? [KJ] Well traditionally, teenage mums have been assumed to be quite hard to reach;
they’ve been assumed to be hard to reach from the perspective of research, but
also from the perspective of health interventions. And yet particularly the
children of teenage mums demonstrate worse health outcomes than children born
to women who have children later on in life. What we can actually see is that
some of those assumptions are really quite problematic. So children of teenage
mums are no worse off in life, over the longer term, when you factor in poverty,
which of course most teenage mums tend to live in relative poverty compared to
women who have their children a little bit later on in life. So actually a lot
of this can be boiled down to the issue of poverty, rather than the issue of
teenage motherhood in general. So although they are assumed to be quite
difficult to reach, and not particularly engaging with a number of these services,
actually as sociologists we really take issue with that – and in a way we kind of
talk ourselves out of our own research, because we actually say, “well these women
aren’t particularly difficult to reach, they’re not particularly difficult to
engage” – what we instead need to do is really pay attention to the everyday
lived experience of what it is like to be a
a young woman of 19 who is responsible for one or two children. [EA] And what is it
like to be a 19 year old female who has two children? Or, and also, how does this
extend to their fathers’ lives? [KJ] What we were really interested in was just
focusing on the women rather than the fathers. That is because women tend to
take the primary caring role, and that means that they tend to make the kind of
everyday decisions, like what goes in the shopping basket and what is kind of had
for dinner, which has really significant health consequences. What we actually
found is that the vast majority of our participants were also single parents,
they were single mothers, so in terms of the day-to-day lived experience, which is
what we were interested in, fathers weren’t particularly involved in most
instances. So what we found from the research is as you would expect; that
everyday life for a teenage mum is very challenging, it’s also extremely
rewarding. We found some really interesting and perhaps what some people
might think of as quite surprising findings in the research. So, we found
that teenage mums were incredibly positive about their experiences, they
were not at all willing to put up with the sort of ideas that we see in the
media or in policy, about teenage mums being, you know, reliant on welfare or
kind of being irresponsible, or undereducated –
they were absolutely resisting those discourses, and were actually very much
engaged in their own education, their own betterment, both for themselves and for
their children. So in the research we were able to really unpick some of these
ideas about teenage mums, and to think where they’d come from, and actually how
they are experienced in the everyday lives of teenage mums and how they use
these ideas to make sense of their own experience, and so really talk about
teenage motherhood as a positive, enriching thing. [EA] Well, let me ask you a
difficult question now. So I understand that, you know, there’s no biological
reason why teenage mothers having children, why those children would have
worse health outcomes as they age, right, so women are perfectly fertile at
that age, the children do fine, and that the majority of the problem
that teenage mothers have is simply related to lack of financial resources…[KJ] absolutely, yeah…[EA] but there is also a disparity of teenage mothers being disproportionately single,
is there not? [KJ] Mm-hmm [EA]… and we know that the lifetime outcomes of children who are
raised from single families, regardless of the age of the parent, is worse than
the product of a child that comes from a two-parent family – so, what can we
do, what social policies can we actually enact, to help better the lives of the
children that come from the mums? [KJ] It’s a really interesting question and I don’t
think the responsibility, if you like, lies with parents themselves – or the
“blame” we might even say – I don’t think lies with parents themselves, with mums
of any age, at all. I think the issue is that single parents tend to find
themselves a lot more easily in financially precarious situations, and of
course we live in a late capitalist society, where you do better in terms of
a number of outcomes if you have the money – and the fact is that single
parents don’t have as much money as two-parent households, particularly when
you then compound that with issues of age, issues of geographical location, so
where it is people live, and social class and even race, then of course that
inequality and that problem of financial precarity just gets worse and worse. So
in terms of policies, I think the issue is more support for parents. That doesn’t
necessarily have to be financial support in terms of giving more money,
through benefits for example, I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer at
all. I think the answer is structures such as better childcare, for example…[EA] So more state-sponsored childcare [KJ] Absolutely, yeah absolutely. More state-
sponsored structures in place to help single parents to live a financially
stable life. [EA] Yes. Hillary Clinton has said that, you know, children used to be raised
by tribes and now, you know, we’re raised by individual single
family units. Can you envision policy that would help bring a sense of tribe, a
sense of family, to not only single mothers but to other parents who are
raising children alone? [KJ] That’s a really interesting question…[EA] And I’m not saying
you should have all the answers, though it would be great if you did! [KJ] Well yeah I wish! I mean,
that’s what sociologists are kind of aiming for isn’t it, to have all the answers -unfortunately we don’t, but it is a really interesting concept, and actually it takes us back to
the question of what is family in the first place. You’re absolutely right that
now we see family very much as an isolated, singular unit with two parents,
and of course if something goes wrong with those two parents – if they decide to
separate, if one of them dies, for example – that can leave the other one in a really
problematic situation, very isolated and very very marginalized. Whereas, you know,
a couple of hundred years ago, as you said, children would be raised by a whole
village, or by a much more kind of extended family network. I think rather than kind
of policy interventions, I think there’s actually kind of social attitudinal
interventions which could happen, to be able to see the notion of family in a
lot more of a progressive and kind of broader sense, to be able to recognize
that children don’t have to be brought up by two parents; they can be brought up
by three or four or five or whole extended family units, whether they live
under one roof together or whether they don’t, whether they live in
different places. But actually I think as a society, we’re so wedded to this idea
of the nuclear family – which traditionally has always been a
heterosexual family of course – as the perfect family model and what everybody
should be aiming for, and I think we need an attitudinal shift, particularly
because we live in such financially precarious times because of, you know,
austerity and cuts to benefits and the lack of state-sponsored childcare.
Actually I think as a society we need to have a look at ourselves and have a look
at our attitudes, and really think how we we can address some of these issues. [EA] Well, I agree with you and let me speak of my own experience for a moment. The gay and
lesbian community has really been a step ahead, right? First of all we’ve had
a great deal of stigma about our families, right? We’ve had to
overcome that stigma, but we also don’t have the biological equipment to make
children through recreational sex, you might say. So when my husband and I were
looking as to how we were gonna make a family, we went to an alternative
families convention and found that there was all sorts of ways, not only through
egg donation and sperm donation, but through shared parenting arrangements -and so if we move towards a society in which, as you say, families are
families we choose, in which single mothers and single fathers do not
necessarily have to look for a romantic sexual attraction, but can look to
partner up, then you join two incomes under one household, you give a child
another sibling…these are arrangements that can be very beneficial for children,
if only we have the sociological imagination to allow ourselves to think
outside the box when it comes to the creation of families. [KJ] Absolutely, and I
think one of the issues has really been that the gay and lesbian community have
kind of had to do this, because as you say there’s no kind of biological
way to do it otherwise, but actually that kind of model can be really useful for
everybody, and I think the issue is that we’ve, as a society, so often focused on
the importance of biology, and having biologically related children, so the
traditional nuclear family, is a husband and a wife and their two
biologically related children. Even people who adopt their children for
example, there doesn’t have to be this biological relationship to form a family,
and to form intimate loving connections with people, and I think the more we move
away from that kind of biological connection and the sort of primacy of
that biology, and of that really isolated, very small very insular unit, I think it’s
gonna be better for everyone [EA] Well, speaking as a gay man who was adopted as a child,
and who has made my family through alternative means, I completely support
and agree with you – we should not be privileging biology, we should be
privileging love. [KJ] You’re the perfect sociological model for this. [EA] Well, I
should be an author on the book perhaps!