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Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager

Narratives from the Field(s)

Edited By Annelies Kamp and Majella McSharry

In 2003, Wendy Luttrell posed an important question: what might result if we were able to turn questions of judgement about pregnant and parenting teenagers into questions of interest about their sense of self and identity-making? This book takes up the challenge, offering a re/assemblage of what is, can be and perhaps should be known about teenage pregnancy and parenting in the context of the twenty-first century. The collection presents original contributions from leading commentators in four key contexts: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, all sites of elevated incidence of and/or concern around what is commonly articulated as the «problem» of teenage pregnancy and parenting. In offering a multi-disciplinary reading of the narratives of young men and women, this volume engages with the ambiguity shared by all of us in confronting the life transition that is pregnancy and parenting.

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Coda: The Promise of Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager (Annelies Kamp / Majella McSharry)

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Coda: The Promise of Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager

[…] my definition of magic in the human personality, in fiction and in poetry, is the ultimate level of attentiveness. Nearly everyone goes through life with the same potential perceptions and baggage, whether it’s marriage, children, education, or unhappy childhoods, whatever; and when I say attentiveness I don’t mean just to reality, but to what’s exponentially possible in reality.



In 2008, The Guardian published a report in the US News section under the headline 17 Pregnancies at US School after Girls Make Baby Pact (Pilkington 2008). The article reported a situation in Gloucester, Massachusetts – population 30,000 – where seventeen fifteen- and sixteen-year-old students at one school had become pregnant, eight having ‘entered a pact’ to have their children and raise them collectively.

Christopher Farmer, the school superintendent, said inquiries were started when the number [of pregnant students] reached ten. ‘They are young white women. We understand that some of them were together talking about being pregnant and that being a positive thing for them,’ he told Associated Press. (Pilkington 2008)

The article does not speak with any of the young women, nor does it consider what might underpin their desire (or not) to conceive. Dismay is reported that the father of one of the babies is a twenty-four-year-old homeless man. The article does not speak with him, nor does it engage in any way with the question of his relationship with a much younger woman (nor whether there should be equal amounts of ‘spirited debate’ about his homelessness). As much as the young women are singularly (negatively) defined by their pregnancy, he is singularly (negatively) defined by his homelessness. ← 291 | 292 →

On the basis of the article, reported as an international story, there is little consideration given to the assemblages formed by these girls, and particularly the eight who wish to ‘parent collectively’. Towards the end of the article, unnamed ‘commentators’ make reference to the role of the media and ‘[point] to films portraying pregnancy in a humorous and empathetic light’ (Pilkington 2008). Throughout the article there is a familiar narrative that the decision to parent under the age of twenty is of necessity a bad one and that it is equally bad to portray pregnancy in ways that are either ‘humorous or empathic’.

Rather, the focus of the article is stopping: stopping teenagers have sex and, should that not work, stopping them having children. Within the school, we learn that the medical director and school nurse had both resigned in protest at the policy of the local hospital that refused to allow them to distribute contraceptives to pupils without parental consent; the hospital was ‘anxious about the reaction to handing out contraception from the strongly Catholic local community’ (Pilkington 2008). In this assemblage, the potential reaction of a conservative ‘public’ seemingly carries greater weight than the needs of young people to manage their own fertility. Within the broader context, budgetary cuts with the state infrastructure had led to the loss of sex/reproductive health education programmes. Yet ‘experts in teenage sexual behaviour’ were said to be ‘baffled by the events in Gloucester’ (Pilkington 2008).

Here, having reached the closing pages of this collection, we are less baffled by the ambiguity that can surround pregnancy and parenting. We would suggest that the events at Gloucester are far more complex than watching too much Juno and lacking ready access to contraception. As the previous chapters have portrayed, embodiment, desire, media, consumerism, community, religious doctrine, self-worth, health initiatives, belonging, aspiration, family, poverty, government policy, love, drugs, sexual assault, school and any number of other actors can be a part of this particular assemblage. To understand teenage pregnancy and parenting – to pay the ultimate level of attentiveness that results in support for what is exponentially possible in the reality for teenage parents and their children – demands a stance of sustained interest. In what follows, we take up the idea of becoming to canvas a range of observations that arise from the chapters ← 292 | 293 → in the collection. This coda does not sum what has gone before; rather, it introduces a number of thoughts ‘to be continued’ (Massumi 1992: 140), thoughts that we hope will open space for a productive re/assemblage of the pregnant and parenting teenager.

Preoccupation with age-related social norms and transitions significantly shape the unique event that is pregnancy, especially for younger and older women. Adolescence is a period increasingly characterized by various sociological arguments of some form of ‘delayed adulthood’ yet this is set against the biological reality of earlier onset puberty: an assemblage that, in itself, complicates the plotting of pregnancy along a linear chronological timeline. Through informal ‘rules’, teenagers are informed of the age-related structuring of the life course. Settersten (2004: 86) suggests that firstly, there are prescriptions for, or proscriptions against engaging in particular behaviours or taking on particular roles at specified points in the life course. Secondly, there is a general consensus about these rules. Thirdly, the rules are enforced by imposing positive sanctions to keep young people ‘on track’ and negative sanctions to get young people ‘back in line’. Essentially, while life is full of transitions and role acquisitions, there is an expectation that most of these take place at age related, socially determined junctures. However, discontinuities frequently interrupt the rhythm of the life course and these discontinuities during adolescence can act as turning points that deflect earlier trajectories and send young people on divergent routes into and through adulthood (Elder et al. 2011). For some, teenage pregnancy will act as a turning point, but for all it implies a transition. The pages of this collection take up the human experience of this transition.

In this ‘taking up’ a number of authors have touched on concepts that evoke those used by Deleuze and Guattari to break down ‘State thought’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) – the kind of arborescent, molar thought that commonly underpins such normative perspectives on ‘the correct life course’ as well as thinking about any number of policy concerns. This kind of thought does not like equations other than the ‘closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you)’ (Massumi 1992: 6). Teenagers who are pregnant or parenting reside outside the closed equation of x = x: a pregnant or parenting teenager is not a ‘normal’ teenager, nor is s/he a ‘normal’ pregnant person or a ‘normal’ parent within State thought. In ← 293 | 294 → being both, s/he is ‘deviant’ in disrupting ‘the proper chronology of events’ (Lesko 2001: 138), even more so in the context of schools where teenagers are often compelled by law to be. As students, they perplex secondary school teachers: if they are already adults by virtue of their status as parents, what place do they have in schools increasingly concerned with keeping youths ‘socially young’ (Lesko 2001: 145)?

By contrast, nomad thought (Deleuze 1973) allows room to distinguish between the ‘normal’ agent – be they a normal teenager or a normal parent – and an indefinite one, a kind of ‘anybody’. While the ‘normal’ is a statistical entity, the ‘indefinite’ is a vital potential (Rajchman 2000, 87), a vital potential that is evident in the narratives in this collection. In this, the focus rests positively on ‘anomalies’ which express the assemblage that is unique to a life, rather than resting negatively on departure from a majoritarian norm. These anomalies constitute a becoming that always involves ‘desire’. In the Deleuzian sense, desire references an indication of a productive force, of life as a process of striving (Colebrook 2002); desire constitutes assemblage and is constituted by assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Desire does not arrive ‘ready-made’, cannot be granted or demanded by someone else, or purchased: it is assembled over time in the context of our life experiences (Jackson and Mazzei 2012), including the experience that is pregnancy and parenting, whenever they occur. The experience of pregnancy – whether chosen or not – and the events that follow it can often evoke desire: the desire to move beyond the limitations of what was, to lose the characteristics of the previous stage, in the process allowing something with new, useful, potentialities, to come into being.

Within this collection, we share and form connections with our own narratives as women who have had, who are having, children. In 1976 one of us became pregnant, and went on to become a teenage parent, on the ‘wrong’ girl path; the other walked the ‘right’ girl path. We meet in this collection – both academics, both parents. Majella traced her own embodied experience of pregnancy and articulated the recognition of her fertility ‘optimization’; Annelies traced a different embodiment of pregnancy, of the kind Majella can readily imagine. Both Majella and Annelies ‘hid’ their pregnant bodies, holding on to privacy, albeit for different reasons. Both experienced completely embodied experiences of pregnancy. While ← 294 | 295 → Majella, as a married woman of appropriate age, still has at times to defend her decision to breastfeed in the context of twenty-first-century Ireland, Annelies was denied the opportunity to even begin such a defence: her breasts were bound in an (unsuccessful) attempt to suppress lactation. Breastfeeding was not considered advisable for teenage girls in the 1970s whose babies would, should, be given to others to raise. Yet, as we conclude this collection in mid-2017, we learn that skincare company Dove has been heavily criticized for an advertising campaign on the basis that it perpetuates a negative perception of breastfeeding in public. One advert states ‘75% say breastfeeding in public is fine, 25% say put them away.’ The company has responded by suggesting that the aim of the campaign is to celebrate different approaches and opinions around parenting. A celebration of ‘your way’. Yet even the existence of an advertising campaign that aligns statistical public opinion with the breasts of the feeding mother, preserves the labelling of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and an apparent entitlement to ascribe such labels.

How do the narratives presented in this collection speak to dominant discourses of teenage pregnancy and parenting and, more broadly, to critical youth studies? A number of potentialities appear. First, there seems potential to trouble the kinds of research commonly reported in media at times of heightened concern about young people, as a group. An example would be the ‘expert’ narrative that young people – adolescents in this particular discourse – are inherently prone to risk behaviour due to the immaturity of their brain development (see Arnett 2010; Galvan 2006; Johnson, Sudhinaraset and Blum 2010). While the detail of this literature is beyond our concern here, in general neuroscience argues that the brain continues to grow through and beyond the teenage years with the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part of the brain ‘most often implicated in coordinating attention, impulse control, and planning’ (Johnson, Sudhinaraset and Blum 2010: 10) is possibly the last area to mature, and may not be developed structurally and functionally until beyond the teenage years. While this discourse is the subject of ongoing debate in the developmental sciences, it makes good reading for a population seeking answers to why teenagers do what they do – they just aren’t capable of regulating their behaviour. ← 295 | 296 →

The collection troubles easy acceptance that teenagers cannot plan, cannot assess options, cannot choose a course of action and execute it. While it may be the case that the body and the brain do go on growing beyond the teenage years, young people are more than just their brain development. In the chapters gathered here, teenage fathers embrace the opportunity to reflect on their life experiences and develop new storylines that break with the kinds of nurturing, or lack thereof, that they experienced in their own childhoods; teenage mothers such as Nicholas’ mother in Chapter 2 experience desire for a reconfigured life assemblage that includes education for themselves, and for their children. They gain agency. This ‘gain’ is encapsulated in a short film entitled Heartbreak went viral in Ireland in January 2017, being viewed 650,000 times in just twenty-four hours. The poem by Emmet Kirwan that forms the narrative for the film, tells the story of one young woman’s journey from her teenage pregnancy to the years that follow as she raises her son as a single mother while also balancing low paid work and a return to education. In some respects, the film does perpetuate easy explanations that teenage parents always come from ‘those kinds’ backgrounds defined by ‘lack of’. Yet it also disrupts these assumptions and gives the teenage mother an empowered narrative about what can happen, what will happen, next. Her return to education enables her to articulate her ‘incandescent rage’ and to mobilize a new storyline. Teenage parenting can be, and often is, the making of young people who might otherwise not even survive the trauma of their own teenage years. This is not to say that ‘spectacular youth’ – those young people who occupy the edges of social inclusion – are only and always the young people who become parents. Young people of all walks of life become teenage parents. Young people who come from advantaged social backgrounds are often able to manage the event that is teenage pregnancy out of the glare of public view and opprobrium. Yet, these advantaged young people are also the young people who manage least well when confronted with teenage pregnancy and parenting given the scale of the disruption to their anticipated pathway.

However, we do not wish to romanticize the positive potential of teenage parenting, particularly not for those who backgrounds do not equip them with high levels of economic, cultural and social capital. Teenage pregnancy and parenting is a complex endeavour, made more complex ← 296 | 297 → by the expectations and structures of the neoliberal political economy. While neoliberalism remains the dominant policy discourse the expectation will be that the individual and those close to them should shoulder responsibility for fashioning a way to combine parenting, education, employment and citizenship in an entrepreneurial life trajectory. It is now well-established that the education of a mother is a central indicator of the future well-being of her child; thus, the importance of meaningfully identifying and responding to the needs to pregnant and parenting students seeking to complete their education in the hyper-competitive labour markets of the risk society (Beck 1992) cannot be overemphasized, even if we might fervently oppose a discourse that valorizes paid work over parenting, particularly parenting done by anyone under the age of twenty (Alldred and David 2010).

In each of the four nations that are featured in this collection – the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Aotearoa New Zealand – there are concerns with specific groups of young people who are more likely to become pregnant, and are more likely to go on to become young parents. It is well established that rates of teenage parenting can be explained by socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the region. Yet this statistic, on its own, does not illuminate the experience of teenage pregnancy and parenting. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the regions with high rates of teenage pregnancy also have large Māori teenage populations. Māori have a higher rate of fertility than the general population, and Māori teenagers have higher rates of fertility than other teenagers (The Families Commission 2011). At the same time, there is a different cultural paradigm at play for Māori, in much the same way as there is a different cultural paradigm at play for young Traveller women in the Republic of Ireland.

Cultural dynamics, and their diverse implications for individual teenagers, frequently provide the fall-back position for those who would not wish to trouble their own narratives of who a teenage parent is, and can be. Urban myths abound concerning young women having one child after another (usually with the stated or implied rationale that this is so she will be supported by welfare and provided with a home – at the expense of ‘us’– the worthy tax-paying citizens) are not supported by empirical evidence. ← 297 | 298 → Rates of teenage parenting continue to decline and, in New Zealand at least, there is no evidence that even high-rate regions have unusually high rates of repeat childbirth to teenagers (The Families Commission 2011). Within this mythical narrative, the pivotal social role of mothering, one that is, in some contexts, placed above all others for those parents who are not teenagers, is apparently of no value at all.

Thus, the task of re/assembling the pregnant and parenting teenager highlights the central importance of research, and writing, that is contextualized and that allows space for the voices of young people as the authorities on their own lives. In this collection, the field(s) we have traversed illustrate the many meanings of teenage pregnancy and parenting. We cannot pre-assemble teenage pregnancy or parentings in ways that are blind to the full range of actors be they contextual, historical, cultural, digital, emotional, embodied, imaginary. As we write these final words, we find ourselves in a global context that is torn – the austerity that was implemented in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis has now been superseded by sharp political swings with the divisive agendas that have resulted in the election of President Trump and the decision of the United Kingdom to Brexit. Truth claims, broadcast through ‘factual’ representations that travel further and faster than narratives such as those contained in this collection, are easily derived from othering-narratives given the resonance they have with what we ‘already know’ (Bessant 2008). In this context, sustained advocacy and ‘spirited debate’ is required to ensure that young people who are pregnant and parenting – disrupting largely conservative norms – are able to affect what are often powerful transformations, be they spectacular or silently navigated, are not forced to a position of marginalization by those that may seek to silence the individual voice, seek to continue to normalize convenient, deficit, representations of teenage pregnancy and parenting. ← 298 | 299 →


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