Door Iona van Dijk
In the months counting up to this summer my life was centered around the lives of teenage mothers. A surprising choice for an anthropology student perhaps. I at least have questioned myself along the way as I came across a few hurdles. The idea originated from an evening of watching television, MTV’s Teen Mom to be precise. It seemed to me to be incredibly interesting to approach this sensational topic from an anthropological perspective.
MTV thrust a group of young mothers into the view of the world, giving viewers a taste of what life is like when you are young and have a child of your own. In the United States and Western Europe an enormous amount of attention is paid to these young women and men that become parents in their youth. They are seen as a social problem by society as well as in academic literature. So what is the problem? Why is this issue so interesting?
When considering the issue from a very basic point of view, teenage mothers are girls in their teenage years that are raising a baby of their own. This may seem somewhat obvious, but the point is that these young girls are still considered to be children themselves. They are still in the bloom of their youth, not considered to be adults, while motherhood is an aspect of adult life. Being a parent means a great responsibility of bringing up a new child within society. Teenage mothers, then, are facing a double challenge, straddling the wall between youth or childhood and adulthood; being a child but also being responsible for another. It is this wall, this tension that fascinates people, myself included.
So there I went, on an academic journey to discover what life is like for Dutch young mothers, focusing especially on this tension between youth and motherhood. My fieldwork consisted of watching anything concerning young mothers, including Teen Mom and 16&Pregnant. Additionally I wanted to interview Dutch young mothers to hear their stories. Unfortunately finding informants for interviews turned out to be the biggest hurdle for this research – one I never cleared fully. It turns out that almost every single day a new research project on teenage mothers is started and the girls are simply tired of researchers. Even professionals working with young mothers could not find the time for an interview. While the abundance of research posed a problem at first, it also handed me the solution as there were plenty of interviews with Dutch young mothers published. These interviews along with the girls from Teen Mom and 16&pregnant formed the core of my data.
As I gathered information on the girls of Teen Mom and the series itself, I stumbled upon another big debate concerning this show, that never made the cut of my thesis. MTV originally started with both 16&Pregnant and Teen Mom as a way to show the hard life of young mothers and warn youngsters for the consequences of teen pregnancy. Encouraged at first and an immediate hit with its target audience, the TV shows grew to the sensation level we know now. But with four years of Teen Mom seasons critics start to wonder whether the show has the complete opposite effect of its initial aims. Reports rose on young girls getting pregnant on purpose to be able to come on 16&Pregnant. Also the first four girls to star on Teen Mom – Maci, Farrah, Amber and Catelynn – have become celebrities in their own country. With them spending money on breast enhancement surgery and partying with the cast of Jersey Shore, it is argued that they definitely do not paint a picture of responsible young motherhood.
While I do think the hardships and problems young mothers face are portrayed on the show, critics certainly have valid points as well. Four young girls that have MTV paying them deftly will not portray the average young mother experience. In the end I think, if you do become pregnant as a teen and do not have any scruples about sharing your life with the world, it is a move to provide a subsistence for yourself and your child. It would not be my decision. In society where reality TV is immensely popular, these girls have intelligently climbed the social ladder and acquired the social status of a celebrity. It would not be my choice, but they have become players in America’s popular culture.
Whether or not the show Teen Mom still actively encourages young people not to get pregnant and have children is debatable. In my thesis I decided to overlook the dramatics and focus myself on the parts of their lives that the average young mother can relate to, such as school and parenthood issues. It was never interesting for my thesis to incorporate that much of the sensation. But it is an interesting aspect to look back upon now and wonder about the role celebrities and sensation play in our pop cultures.