In October I was aware that somewhere in London there was a battle taking place - not a physical battle but a battle of ideas - it sounded intense.  One battle was about ‘why policy is obsessed with teenage parenthood’ - The speakers were people I had heard of; I’d read their books and articles, and I was often delighted by their ability to challenge the common negative perceptions of teenage parents. I wondered how they would fight their corner - what prejudices they would expose. I had complete faith in their ability to flatten anyone who considered the Daily Mail informative background reading.  

Three months later, the debate (the whole one and half hours of it) was put on youtube. It showed three 'posh looking', middle-aged women and a Bloke from Brook sitting formally at a table. Maybe the whole ‘battle’ thing had given me the wrong impression but this wasn’t what I expected - I had imagined it outside in a courtyard for some reason but they looked pretty comfortable in their seats.

After a strange introduction about the apparent death of stigma (?), it all kicked off with the Bloke from Brook’s speech about sex. Now I’m sure the Bloke from Brook knows his stuff about young people and sexual health - that’s his job, but I wasn’t convinced that he had an awful lot of experience with young mums - It was his job to prevent them from occurring after all - So I held out hope that when battle commenced things would heat up a bit..

The women took it in turns to stand up and speak -  Once you got past the long words, the first woman made a lot of sense. She talked about young mothers being regarded as immoral and deviant, simply due to falling outside what we now consider acceptable. She talked about the fact that we shouldn’t see having children as a barrier to continuing education, and she highlighted the gap that currently exists between young mother’s own stories and the policies that existed. However, she acknowledged that those working on the ground with young mums often had a more realistic idea of the situation than policy makers and the support was often very good, especially for young mums who did feel stigmatised. <so far so good>

The second member of the panel argued that the current policy targets should be scrapped because they were based on a desire to reduce the number of ‘undesirables breeding’.  But then she warned about a ‘redemption discourse’, arising from the tendency for qualitative research to highlight the positives of being a teenage mums, contradicting findings of poor outcomes from quantitative studies. She warned of the dangers of such dialogue if not taken in the context of social deprivation where the young mothers had no other future ahead of them and so their only real option was that a pregnancy would ‘turn their lives around’; It was therefore the ‘least worse’ of two bad situations....

Another member of the panel thought that too much time was spent trying to understand teenage parenthood, and, really, we didn’t need to because the chances of it affecting us were so slim. <hmm...I guess>  She also commented that in interviewing young mums she rarely came across a ‘disaster story’, but ultimately an interview one day could mean very little - she gave the example of speaking to ‘a lovely girl who may be a lovely mother’ but the next day everything could come crashing down around her - everyone laughed <I get your point love but you’re the researcher - if your methods are flawed this is your problem!>. She talked about the dangers of interventions that treated young mothers like children <true!> but when someone in the audience asked about the 'nurse family partnership' and how it represented everything wrong with the policies on teenage mums (because it assumed that their breeding was automatically problematic) she seemed less committal to slating it.

Rather frustratingly, the debate kept coming back to sexual health services and STI’s and providing access for young people - I guess they had to include the Bloke from Brook somehow but I did feel he was kinda out of his depth and should have been on a different panel somewhere - no one was saying we should restrict information and access to young people. That would just be silly.

The woman who spoke first then suggested that age should be taken out of the issues discussed because the social and economic problems talked about could be applied at any age. She said that she didn’t think teenage parenthood was a dreadful thing. She then muttered that she herself had been a teenage mum.....<What?? After 1 hour 20 mins she brings this up??!! > “because I was a teenage mu....I come from a long line of young mothers, I think it's brilliant - you have your children young and then you can get on and do other things in your life - you can make an argument for it (1:19:21)” (she then gave out a nervous laugh). I wondered why she hadn’t ever mentioned this before. Did she think it would discredit her research? No one responded anyway - the panel didn’t even look up - maybe they didn’t hear - maybe they chose not to. She concluded that it’s good to have a debate on teenage parenthood and we shouldn’t all agree. I hoped she wasn’t back tracking.

Ignoring this confession, someone went on to say that teenagers were in a much worse position to deal with an unplanned pregnancy than someone in their 30s or 40’s, although she failed to explain why (i.e. whether this was just financially?). Someone in the audience asked if the media had created the negative perceptions of teenage mothers but  this concept was laughed at and attempts to rectify the balance were almost ridiculed -"Young mums are being stigmatized and we want to do a programme that shows the other side,” one member of the panel mimicked in a silly voice and everyone laughed. She said this was just as bad as the ‘screwing it all up’ teen mum shows. <I’d suggest here that she has never had to deal with such a strong negative public perception of herself!>  She then reiterated that teenage pregnancy only affected the working class - who had little control over it. She spoke about current policy initiatives of teaching parenting to young people and the devastating implication that working class young people could be encouraged to think that parenting was more important than getting a career (unlike middle-class kids who apparently don't ever choose to be young parents) and that this could only be described as lowering of expectations and aspirations and for the first time in the whole debate it sounded like she really meant what she was saying.....which was a shame!

Now, don't get me wrong, there were a lot of good points made in the hour and a half. Looking 'posh' and using long words should not be held against anyone - The first woman, particularly, made a lot of sense. Rather than discussing the dichotomy of cultures where only working class girls got pregnant (but it was ok because they had no other options), she talked realistically about combining parenthood and education. Rather than warning of the dangers of a ‘redemption discourse’ she acknowledged that there were advantages to doing the 'parenting bit first'.  I’d say it was no coincidence that she had been a young mum herself; she didn’t see them as living in a world separate to hers. Unfortunately, this idea that having a shared understanding of experiences can add value to research doesn’t get much attention when researching ‘problem’ groups. However, as long as researchers view teenage mothers as ‘other’, teenage mothers will continue to react to this power imbalance. It’s no wonder they use interviews to try to prove their stories are different to those in the media. But the result is that researchers continue to dismiss or even smirk at their attempts to show that their lives are ‘successful’ simply because they don’t share the same values or experiences of beliefs....

Maybe the other panelist didn’t respond to the panel member's confession to being a teen mum because she didn’t fit their theories, the ones that had to be taken within the context of deprivation and lack of alternative choices, but if there is to be any real discussion about teenage parenthood then teenage parents need to be respected, involved and heard. Young parents need to be able to discuss their views and experiences, not to prove others wrong, but to develop shared meanings and understanding of young parenthood between the researcher and the researched, rather than the power imbalance that this debate unfortunately unearthed. However this, it seems, is where the real battle of ideas begins....