By Rose Kagawa
American society often views the children of teenage mothers as doomed to failure. New York City recently launched a billboard campaign aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy rates in the city. The billboards portray tearful children with captions like, “Honestly mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” Another features the message, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” Through informal conversations, I found this sentiment in certain sectors of Mexico as well. Concern over teen pregnancy rates in Mexico can be seen in the literature, news, and in the presence of teen pregnancy prevention programs.
While concern over teenage pregnancy is widespread, the literature on the impact of young maternal age on child development is divided. Poor women are more likely to become teen mothers, and children born into poverty are likely to remain impoverished, but does being born to a teenage mother add an additional barrier to upward mobility? Through in-depth interviews with teenage and older mothers in Mexico, I hoped to untangle teen motherhood from the social and economic factors that are often associated with both early childbearing and reduced social mobility.
Mexico’s Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL) has implemented two programs that provide a unique opportunity for understanding the role of maternal age in child development and upward mobility. Both programs seek to move families out of poverty through investments in education and health. The first is Oportunidades, a conditional cash transfer program that invests in education and health in order to promote human capital development. The second is Educación Inicial, a parent support intervention overlaid on Oportunidades that aims to improve child development outcomes through early stimulation and parent education.
Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health (INSP) is evaluating the impact of each program on child growth and development. If young maternal age is an additional barrier to upward mobility, we would expect to see fewer gains among the children of adolescent mothers compared to the children of older mothers. In coordination with the INSP, my research team and I set out to untangle the web leading from maternal age to child development.
Through in-depth interviews with mothers who gave birth to the child in the parenting program before they reached the age of 20, as well as older mothers for comparison, we sought to gain an understanding of the unique parenting challenges faced by young mothers and the sources of support that help them promote the healthy development of their child. In each interview the mothers spoke about the circumstances of their pregnancy; what they believe makes a good mother; their own feelings, challenges, and strengths as mothers; their hopes for their children’s and their own futures; and how the parenting program has influenced their parenting.
We completed 30 interviews with program participants. In this process, we discovered a wealth of information and unearthed many new questions. Generational differences, family size, level of education, familial support, partners’ expectations, whether the child was planned, and whether the mother had traveled to other areas in Mexico can all influence the relationship between a mother and her child. This variety of life experience provides a detailed backdrop in which to understand how maternal age influences child development.
Rose Kagawa is a Ph.D. student in Public Health at UC Berkeley. She received a Tinker grant from CLAS to conduct research in Mexico during the summer of 2013.