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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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Foreword (Wendy Luttrell)

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Annelies Kamp and Majella McSharry have compiled a set of stunning articles about teenage pregnancy and parenting across four countries – the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Aotearoa New Zealand. The volume offers passionate and personal tales embroidered with empirical and critical theoretical insights to cement our understanding that pregnant and parenting teenagers are a far more diverse group than stereotypes, media images and policy frameworks suggest, and that decades of research have established.

This volume is bold; it calls for two paradigm shifts. The first is a shift in how to study individual lives as they intersect with social, cultural and political forces. The second is a shift in how we imagine the purpose of education, not simply for pregnant and parenting teenagers, but for all young people. The purpose of education that is suggested by this volume goes beyond individual outcomes and attainment to encompass a collectivist/community ethos of belonging, care, well-being, justice and possibility.

Kamp and McSharry succeed in the first paradigm-shifting because they make creative use of the concept of re/assemblage. I appreciate and applaud the way the volume brings to life and makes accessible assemblage thinking. In the most general way, the book itself is an assemblage of different elements in the study of teenage pregnancy and parenting and how these can come together to create an understanding of issues larger than itself, including insights into the sprawling structures, unattainable expectations and human consequences of neoliberalism.

The breadth of approaches gathered into one place will inform and inspire readers both familiar and unfamiliar with a topic that for decades has thrived on what Eve Tuck would call ‘damage-based research’. She writes:

Much of social science and educational research seeks to document pain, loss, brokenness or damage in order to establish the grounds to informally or formally petition ← ix | x → for reparations composed of political, material, or sovereign gains (Tuck 2009). Examples are easy to locate – they are studies that depict entire schools, tribes, and communities as flattened, ruined, devastated. (2010: 638)

Damage-based research relies on one-dimensional analyses of individuals who have been lumped together as one. For example, that all pregnant teenagers suffer harm; that all teenage mothers are unfit; that all teenage fathers are irresponsible. This volume provides an antidote; the range of multi-dimensional tools of analysis and angles of vision are impressive. The volume includes articles that utilize discourse analysis, examining how girls and women remain caught within an array of discursive demands about how to be ‘good’ women, daughters, sexual beings, mothers, partners, students, community members – all amidst competing expectations and wildly different resources. Other chapters analyse news, television and media sources, exposing the ways that teenage pregnancy, abortion and mothering are cast in deficit, stigmatizing, sensationalized and blaming ways. A further chapter provides a rigorous critique of decades and ‘generations’ of ‘alarmist’ research on teenage mothering in the United States, which will prompt readers to think about and want to scrutinize the ‘science on teenage mothering’ in other nations. An argument is made for the importance of longitudinal and multigenerational studies that are able to shed light on how lives are composed over time and in relationship to a constellation of family relationships, neighborhood resources, community contexts and national policies (SmithBattle 2017: 75–103).

While being careful not to romanticize or celebrate teen pregnancy and parenting, several articles in the volume question the ‘damage-only’ narrative, emphasizing that a pregnancy can shift the activities, priorities, and aspirations for soon-to-become young mothers (and fathers) in protective, reparative ways. The volume reveals hidden, class-based assumptions and prescriptions about the ‘normative’ life course (school, job, marriage, parenting), and how this linear trajectory works to frame alternative pathways taken in young people’s lives as abnormal, problematic, or deviant rather than adaptive or resilient. If there is a generalization to be made, it runs counter to conventional wisdom. As one source cited succinctly puts it, ‘girls who grow up in disadvantaged families and communities are not substantially harmed by a teen birth, while teens with better prospects for ← x | xi → advancing their education and income are harmed the most’ (Diaz and Fiel 2016 cited in SmithBattle 2017: 83).

By exploring young people’s context-bound and complicated decisions about sex, abortion, adoption, marriage, partnering, mothering, and schooling, the volume exposes the illusion of the neoliberal notion of ‘free choice’. Choices are not ‘free’; they do not exist in a vacuum. Choices are not singular, bounded entities, like consumer items that we handpick or reject as the ‘rational economic man (sic)’ model of human agency would have it. This notwithstanding, it is hard to speak and be heard outside the logic of choice and personal ‘responsibilization’ promoted by neoliberalism. But in the accounts of young people represented in this volume I hear them struggling to do just that, to present themselves and their actions outside the terms of ‘choice’. Like the pregnant girls with whom I worked twenty-five years ago (Luttrell 2003), I notice the efforts to reframe choice and responsibility as interdependent rather than independent. Realizing that child-bearing gives meaning to two lives, not one, is but one example of how life choices and chances are not discrete and unhinged, but interdependent and interwoven. As one father quoted in the collection put it, ‘I’ve got to do something with my life otherwise, yeah, my baby’s not going to have a life’ (Tuffin, Rouch & Frewin 2017: 276). One reformulation of choice was expressed by the then young Annelies Kamp, who when interviewed about her pregnancy at age sixteen explains her overwhelming shock and then ‘coming to terms’ (my emphasis) with being halfway down ‘a road of no choice’ to pregnancy and parenthood, ultimately with the support of her parents and siblings (Kamp 2017: 29). ‘Coming to terms’ with pregnancy and motherhood suggests a more complicated model of subjectivity and agency, a model that goes beyond autonomy, self-interest and independence. Sandra who is talking about marriage in the Traveller community in the Republic of Ireland, offers another reformulation of agency and choice, embedded in her affinity with community values and traditions. She married at sixteen, and explains

I wanted to get it over with (my emphasis). Traveller girls are different to settled girls. They’re much more mature at 16. Settled girls have childish ways. They’re not used to caring for children or helping run the house. (Boland 2011 cited in McGaughey 2017: 186) ← xi | xii →

The point is that these distinctive formulations – ‘coming to terms’, ‘getting it over with’ – express a far more textured and alternative way of understanding human agency.

I especially appreciate the articles that offer analyses of the embodied and felt experience of pregnancy and mothering; how the experience of teenage pregnancy involves bumping up against pre-given, but not fixed, notions of the categories ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. Majella McSharry’s beautiful account braids together insights from her ‘late’ pregnancy experience into an analysis of teenage pregnancy, reminding me of the experiences and knowledge that the pregnant girls with whom I worked had communicated to me and to each other. At that time, I called their insights ‘bodysmarts’. I chose this term to convey pain, anxiety and vulnerability (as in ‘it smarts’ or ‘hurts’) as well as wisdom, resilience and self-acceptance (as in being ‘smart’). McSharry’s account invites an exploration of bodysmarts in a culture that characterizes pregnant teenagers as ‘foolish’ in contrast to ‘advanced’ age pregnant women who are characterized as ‘selfish’. McSharry reflects on being pregnant with her third child at age thirty-seven. Journaling about her check-up with the midwife and being weighed, McSharry notes that the midwife does not comment about her weight gain of 14 lb. despite the fact that it is ‘in excess of “normal” weight gain at sixteen weeks’ (McSharry 2017: 56–66). Given that most women can expect to gain 30 lb. during pregnancy, McSharry writes that she feels a ‘slight sense of panic’ that she has already gained more than half of what is ‘normal’. This keen awareness about body image is one among several elements in an assemblage of the maternal body and subjectivity. She describes the ‘bittersweet taste of euphoria and fear’ that accompanies maternal ‘indulgence’ which is culturally allowed because it is understood that women are ‘eating for two’. This indulgence comes into conflict with the cultural imperative of ‘thin-ness’ as a marker of ‘successful femininity’. McSharry uses her ‘bodysmarts’ to explore cultural (and medical) prescriptions and preoccupations with weight management during pre- and post-maternity, and to critique the push to reclaim the pre-pregnant body shape, to get one’s ‘body back’ (a phrase used by the pregnant girls with whom I worked). I join McSharry in worrying that medicalization and cultural imperatives that surround pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can leave girls and women feeling ← xii | xiii → at odds with and/or severed from a connection to their own bodies and to their babies.

Reading this volume made me dream of bringing girls and women across geography, generation, class, race, culture, and sexual orientation to meaningfully explore their bodysmarts. What if one of the purposes of education was to broker such conversations? What would schools have to look like in order for this to happen? First, schools could no longer be sites of punishment and exclusion, but places of belonging and inclusion. The ethos of belonging that would guide schooling would be the antithesis of what prevails in this current educational era with its appeals for standards and standardization, and its requirements of accountability and evaluation that cannot begin to appreciate or honor the rich variations and differences among us. Second, schools would be sites of care and well-being, where young people feel ‘grounded’, ‘OK’, ‘accepted’ with ‘no one looking down on you’, as in the words of students who attended the Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College, a holistic school programme in Aotearoa New Zealand (Hindin Miller 2017: 258). I believe that the ethos of care and well-being that would guide schooling would go beyond what is typically envisioned, where teachers care equally about all students’ lives and learning and schools provide the resources, services and curriculum that nourish social bonds, not only individual attainment. The ethos I have in mind is broader; it attends to a ‘thick’ rather than ‘thin’ version of students’ needs, of the kind the editors in this volume call for. In my mind, it hinges on what Shawn Ginwright (2016) calls ‘healing justice’. In his words:

Rather than viewing well-being as an individual act of self care, healing justice advocates view healing as political action. Healing is political because those that focus on healing in urban communities recognize how structural oppression threatens the well-being of individuals and communities, and understands well-being as a collective necessity rather than an individual choice. (2016: 8)

I write steeped in and sobered by a political crisis within the United States and abroad. I crave reading collections like this one to remind us of alternatives. I thank the editors for re/assembling insights about teenage lives – their bodies, minds, life trajectories, hopes, and aspirations – at this fragile and factious political moment. It is crucial that we don’t lose sight of what ← xiii | xiv → is possible for the next generation and for schools. The lives and learning experiences of pregnant and parenting teenagers will be, as they have been before, the result of social movements (like the civil rights and feminist movements), political action and national policy struggles and reforms of the kind mentioned in this book. An imagination of what is possible is also rooted in liberation movements that have pushed back against state-sponsored harm and violence. Whether this state harm and violence is against women, women like Savita Halappanavar whose tragic death in the Republic of Ireland in 2012 – the result of laws forbidding termination of pregnancy – opens this volume or whether it is against the poor, the young, indigenous communities and/or communities of color, it is through political protest that change is made.


Ginwright, S. (2016). Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart. New York and London: Routledge Press.

Tuck, E. (2010). ‘Breaking Up With Deleuze: Desire and Reconciling the Unreconcilable’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies, 23(5), 635–50.