Document 14282

Children Having Children? : Religion,
Psychology and Birth of the Teenage
Pregnancy Problem
Dr Ofra Koffman
Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow
King’s College London
Culture, Media and Creative Industries
King’s College London
8D Chesham Building
Strand Campus
Email [email protected]
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Please cite as Koffman, O. (2012, forthcoming) Children Having Children? : Religion, Psychology and Birth of the Teenage Pregnancy Problem, History of the Human Sciences. IMPORTANT: When referring to this paper, please check the page numbers in the journal published version and cite these. Koffman, O. (2012, forthcoming) Children Having Children? : Religion, Psychology and Birth of the Teenage Pregnancy Problem, History of the Human Sciences. Children Having Children? : Religion, Psychology and Birth of the
Teenage Pregnancy Problem
Forthcoming in History of the Human Sciences
Ofra Koffman
On the 13th of February 2009, the tabloid The Sun published the picture of Alfie Patten, a
13 year-old boy who was named, falsely as it turned out, as the father of a new born
baby. The picture of Alfie and that of the baby's 15 year-old mother circulated throughout
the British and international media generating an outpouring of responses from
politicians, publicists and a variety of professionals. In response to these pictures David
Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, proclaimed: '[w]hen I saw those pictures,
I just thought how worrying that in Britain today children are having children' (Cameron,
quoted in Hagan 2009). Several months later, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown,
also used the phrase ‘children having children’ when discussing teenage parenthood at
the Labour Party conference (Labour Party website, 2009). This trope is not exclusively
British and has been a recurring theme in the public discussion of ‘teenage pregnancy’ in
the U.S (Dash, 2003; Time Magazine, 1985).
The depiction of young mothers as children is not merely a rhetorical tool employed by
politicians and pundits. It is a notion used by academics and NGOs taking part in policy
debates (Daguerre and Nativel, 2006). In 2004, the international charity Save the
Children published a report on teenage pregnancy, titled ‘Children Having Children’. In
his opening statement, Charles MacCormack, Save the Children’s CEO, laid out the
rational for his organisation’s world-wide concern with adolescent childbearing. He
if there is one common denominator that enables children to survive and
thrive against seemingly impossible odds, it is a healthy and caring mother
… But when mothers are children themselves – when they begin to have
children before they are physically and emotionally ready for parenthood –
too often everyone suffers: the mother, the child and the community in
which they live (MacCormack, 2004:2).
MacCormack’s problematization relies on several truth claims. He argues that teenage
girls are physiologically and emotionally immature; that a mother’s health has a
significant impact on her child’s health; and that communities are adversely affected by
the ill health of mothers and children. This article aims to shed light on the
problematization which MacCormack articulates. It does so by sketching a genealogical
examination of the emergence of governmental concern with ‘children having children’
in England, focusing on the work of the London County Council and voluntary
organisations in the London area.1 Taking its cue from the U.S. literature, the article
explores government work with ‘unwed mothers’ and identifies the shifts associated with
the ascent of governmental concern with ‘teenage motherhood’. The account focuses on
the 1950s and 1960s and draws on the archival records of the National Council for the
Unmarried Mother and Her Child, the London County Council and several Moral
Welfare Associations in the London area.2 The account is also based on a study of two
journals: Moral Welfare: the quarterly review of the Church of England Moral Welfare
Council; and the Moral Welfare Workers Association Bulletin.3
Utilising these sources, I argue that the emergence of the problem of ‘children having
children’ was intertwined with the decline of the moral-Christian discourse concerned
with unwed motherhood. Within the moral-Christian discourse, a woman’s subjectivity
was delineated according to her ‘character’ and the likelihood that she will be
successfully ‘rehabilitated’. This preoccupation ran counter to a focus on a mother’s age
or her emotional maturity. Furthermore, the prospect that a young unwed mother would
raise her child was viewed positively as it was seen to contribute to the transformation of
her character. The shift to a problematization of young mothers was associated with an
increase in the influence of psychological knowledge on government work and with a
significant change in the way motherhood is understood.
Why is Teenage Pregnancy and Parenthood Problematized?
Governmental concern with teenage pregnancy has attracted a significant degree of
scholarly attention. Sociological perspectives focus mainly on the dynamics and politics
of class, gender, sexuality race and parenthood. Several scholars highlight the role of
class dynamics in the problematization of teenage parenthood, pointing out that teenage
motherhood is prevalent among women from disadvantaged socio-economic background.
Privileged and middle class women tend to pursue higher education and then proceed to
build a professional career, postponing childbearing into their third or fourth decade of
life (Luttrell 2003; Rudoe and Thomson, 2009). From this perspective, governmental
concern with teenage motherhood can be seen as another instance in the long history of
problematizing working-class fertility. It is even suggested that the spectre of eugenic
anxieties regarding the fecundity of ‘the wrong type of people’ persists despite an
apparent change in attitudes (Hawkes, 1995). As several scholars highlight, ‘race’
frequently intersects with ‘class’ and plays a part in engendering the societal unease
(Luttrell, 2003; Phoenix, 1993; Pillow, 2004).
It is clear that the fact that it is primarily women from disadvantaged backgrounds who
bear children while in their teens, plays an important role in their problematization. This,
however, does not provide an exhaustive account. It cannot explain the depiction of
teenage motherhood as ‘children having children’ or the timing of the ascent of this
governmental concern. The twentieth century saw significant changes in the way children
and families are understood and governed (Ashenden, 2004; Bell, 1993; Donzelot, 1980;
Rose, 1999). In Britain as well as in the U.S., the ascent of the problematization of
teenage pregnancy coincided with the societal changes taking place in the late 1960s and
1970s, including the so called ‘sexual revolution’, second wave feminism and the
changes in marital and familial practices. Prior to these transformations, women who had
become pregnant ‘out-of-wedlock’, whether of working class or middle class
background, were problematized in scientific and policy discourse (Luker, 1996;
Solinger, 2000; Spensky, 1992). The history of the problematization of teenage
pregnancy is therefore intertwined with the societal changes occurring during the second
half of the twentieth century, particularly the transformation of sexual and familial
relationships (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2001;
Giddens, 1992; Thomson, 2004; Thomson, 2009).
Several scholars turn attention to the conceptualisation of ‘childhood’ and ‘adolescence’.
Duncan, Edwards and Alexander argue that teenage parenthood disrupts the prevailing
dichotomous distinction between childhood and adulthood. By engaging in sexual
activity and taking on the responsibilities of parenthood teenage mothers disturb
prevailing notions of children’s purity (including sexual purity) and their dependency
(2010). Kristin Luker links government concern with teenage pregnancy in the US with
the long historical process whereby ‘adolescence’ emerged as a distinct stage in life
(Luker, 1996) Focusing on South Africa, Catriona Macleod makes an important
conceptualisations of ‘adolescence’ and ‘motherhood’ that underpin the problematization
of teenage motherhood within social scientific literature (Macleod, 2001; Macleod,
2003). What is nevertheless missing from these accounts is a detailed examination of the
shifts in governmental discourses and practices which marked the emergence of the
problematization of teenage motherhood. While accounts examining this process in the
U.S. are available, no comparative studies in England were thus far undertaken (Arney
and Bergen ,1984; Wong, 1997). The account that follows begins to address this gap.
Governmental Work with Unwed Mothers: the Moral-Christian Discourse
During the 1950s and 1960s, work with unwed mothers constituted a governmental field.
Up until the late 1960s, unmarried women could not easily obtain contraceptives or
procure an abortion (Cook, 2004; Hall, 2000). When a single woman conceived she was
at risk of losing her job and her place of residence; in some cases she also faced being
shunned by her family (Wimperis, 1960). The actual number of illegitimate births is hard
to gauge as many women went to great length to avoid these events being recorded
(Thane, 2007). One available estimate suggests that the total number of unwed mothers in
England and Wales in the mid-1960s was 70,000 and that approximately 11,000 came
into contact with voluntary organisations and local authorities. The majority of those who
sought assistance were admitted into a Mother and Baby Home (Nicholson, 1968;
Spensky, 1992). The common reasons leading a woman to enter a Home were financial
difficulties, eviction from her residence and a wish to hide the pregnancy from colleagues
and neighbours (Working Party on Illegitimacy, 1968-1970).
Mother and Baby Homes were institutions catering exclusively for women who
conceived out-of-wedlock (Wimperis, 1960). Most Homes were affiliated to a Church or
to a religious organization. By the late 1950s and 1960s these institutions were less
punitive in their approach than they had been in an earlier period, although most Homes
retained their religious affiliations. The majority of Homes had ties with the Church of
England and a smaller number had links with the Roman Catholic Church or the
Salvation Army. Since 1943, most voluntary Mother and Baby Homes across the country
were supported financially by local authorities. However, due to the reluctance of local
authorities to become directly involved in the working arrangements, these institutions
remained largely under the management of moral welfare workers (Fink, 1997; Kiernan
et al., 1998; Koffman, 2008; Nicholson, 1968).
A moral-Christian discourse shaped the work of most Mother and Baby Homes in the
London area. Women become pregnant out-of-wedlock were seen as individuals whose
moral stature was at fault. Furthermore, it was believed that unless they underwent a
process of ‘rehabilitation’, more out-of-wedlock pregnancies would occur. Moral welfare
workers sought to transform women’s character and believed that the period of residency
in a Mother and Baby Home offered an opportunity to undertake this task. Stretton
House, a South London Mother and Baby Home defined its aim as being that of
providing: ‘a place where young unmarried mothers may receive prenatal care, be trained
to tend their babies… and where, in an atmosphere of Christian love, they may be reeducated to take their place in the community’ (Stretton House Papers, 1950: 3).
One of the technologies for bringing about the desired transformation of character was
the regime of housework duties in which residents were obliged to participate. This
requirement was a feature of the work of many Mother and Baby Homes. In one
institution in South London, women were only allowed to take up residency after signing
a pledge to undertake the housework duties assigned to them (Putney Mother and Baby
Home Papers, 1960-1964). Residents were generally required to follow a daily routine
which was laid down by staff and to take part in prayers (Battersea Clapham and Brixton
Moral Welfare Association Papers, 1960-1964; Wimbeldon Merton and Morden Moral
Welfare Association Papers, 1962-1970). By the 1960s some moral welfare workers were
becoming influenced by psychological discourse, nevertheless, the influence of a moralChristian discourse remained strong (Stretton House Papers, 1950-1977).
A significant proportion of the women who entered Mother Baby Homes in the London
area during the late 1950s and 1960s were young women in their teens. However, the
concept of ‘teenage’ or ‘adolescence’ had a minor effect on the way in which these
women were treated. This is in contrast to the frequent allusion to the concept of
‘adolescence’ within youth work and with the widespread public use of the term
‘teenager’ (Davis, 1990; Giles, 1995; Osgerby, 1998; Tinkler, 1995). In Mother and
Baby Homes pregnant teenagers were regularly accommodated alongside older women
and were treated in a similar manner (Survey of Mother and Baby Homes London
Diocese, 1957; Wimbledon Merton and Morden Moral Welfare Association Papers,
1962-1970). Studies of moral welfare work undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s suggest
that this practice was not unique to the London area (Hall and Howes, 1965; Nicholson,
One of the key reasons that teenage girls were not distinguished from older women was
that within the moral-Christian discourse a woman’s age or mental maturity was a minor
feature of her subjectivity. The key feature was her character: moral welfare workers and
local authority officers distinguished between the women who were deemed to have a
‘good’ character and those who were considered to have a ‘bad’ character. A religious
girl who became pregnant while expecting to marry the putative father was considered to
be of 'good' character. In contrast, a promiscuous or delinquent woman, whether in her
teens or not, was seen as problematic. Expressing this view, the matron of Stretton House
proclaimed: ‘from the point of the view of these young girls living in this very integrated
community, I feel that the influence caused by the older, blasé type of girl who has been
through it all before, could be very harmful’ (Hodges, 1969: 6). Stretton House catered
for women under the age of twenty-one and in some of the Home’s reports the matron
referred to young women’s immaturity. Nevertheless, as this quote illustrates, it was not
youthfulness that was the key concern but promiscuity. Furthermore, youth could be
associated with innocence and indeed a study from the 1960s found that some moral
welfare workers believed that those who were young had a better chance of being
‘reformed’ (Nicholson, 1968).
The group of women considered most problematic were those who conceived out-ofwedlock for the second or third time. The admission policy of some Mother and Baby
Homes excluded these women (Survey of Mother and Baby Homes London Diocese,
1957). Those who were rejected by Mother and Baby Homes frequently entered
accommodation provided directly by the London County Council. However, even within
the Council’s work, the influence of the moral-Christian discourse can be discerned. For
example, a report by the Chief Officer of the Welfare Department asserted that:
‘voluntary homes tend to admit only girls and women of reasonably good character’
(Chief Officer of the Welfare Department, 2/11/1962). In another report, the Officer
concluded that: ‘[i]t is thus left to the Council to deal with the more difficult
cases…some of the girls although difficult are amenable to influence and training’ (Chief
Officer of the Welfare Department, 10/5/1960). Even for the council the problem was
feckless women who needed to be reformed.
Motherhood as a Technology for Transforming Subjectivity
The conceptualisation of motherhood within the moral-Christian discourse differed
significantly from the psychological notion that would subsequently gain hold. Within the
moral welfare work tradition, the prospect that an unwed mother would raise her child
had been viewed positively. In part, this stemmed from the wish to ensure that women
‘bear the consequences’ of their sexual transgression and undergo the necessary
transformation. For example, a Lewisham Moral Welfare Association report advocating
the need for moral welfare work proclaimed:
By all means let the State take over the responsibility for the unmarried
mother if such welfare is to be purely sociological, and the providing of a
pleasant home where she can be delivered of her child and perhaps later
have it adopted in comparative secrecy, then to return to society,
determined only to be more careful next time but with her fundamental
beliefs, attitudes and values unchanged (Lewisham Moral Welfare
Association Papers, 1966, unpaginated)
Transforming women’s subjectivity was the primary concern and motherhood, not unlike
the housework duties residents were obliged to undertake, was a device through which
this aim could be achieved. The work of raising a child was seen as involving
responsibility and self-sacrifice and therefore conducive to a woman’s rehabilitation
(Fink, 1997; Koffman, 2008). As a moral welfare worker put it: ‘[i]t is no easy task to
know how to help a girl to become a more responsible person, and it frequently happens
that she first learns this lesson through the care of her baby’ (Kennedy, 1957:71). For this
reason, moral welfare workers were frequently preoccupied with ensuring that residents
experienced the burden of looking after a baby. A similar concern was expressed by
officers of the London County Council regarding the lone mothers housed in King’s
Mead, one of the Council’s large nursing homes. Discussing the arrangements in this
institution, the Chief Officer of the Welfare Department argued:
[rehabilitation] in view, the length of stay of many of the mothers in the
home, during which they enjoy undue liberty while the major part of their
duties to their children is undertaken by the nursery staff, militates against
the successful outcome of the scheme. One of the weaknesses at King’s
Mead is that the mothers have direct access to the street which makes it
difficult to control their going out and coming in. (Chief Officer of the
Welfare Department, 10/5/1960:3)
Unwed mothers were seen as feckless women who are prone to engage in an unrestrained
pursuit of pleasure. However, it was believed that the work of looking after their children
had the capacity to transform them: it could make them give up their careless way of life
and become dutiful subjects. In contrast with the view that would subsequently be
advocated by psychologists, moral welfare workers and local authority officers were not
preoccupied with individual differences in the way women mother their children. The
work of looking after a child was depicted as a straightforward task which any woman,
including a young teenage girl, could learn to perform (Stretton House Papers, 19501977). Thus, unwed motherhood was a problem of values and conduct. The questions
occupying those working in this field were: How can we make these women subscribe to
Christian values? How can we make them follow our code of behaviour?
Psychological Knowledge and the Problem of ‘Children having Children’
The moral-Christian discourse was to be challenged by the growing influence of
psychological knowledge on governmental work. This process was already underway
during the first half of the twentieth century, but it was in the post-war period that it
further intensified (Armstrong, 1983; Evans et al., 2008; Neve and Turner, 2002; Rose,
1999; Smith, 1997; Thomson, 2006). In part, this process was facilitated by the creation
of the welfare state and by the expansion of health and welfare services for mothers and
children. Local authorities’ duties and powers to protect the welfare of children were also
expanded through the Children Act 1948 and the 1963 Children and Young Persons Act.
Additionally, psychology was increasingly taken up by social workers, in part, as a result
of their effort to establish social work as a professional discipline (Lewis and Welshman,
2003; Welshman, 1996).
Two psychiatrists whose work was particularly influential among health and social care
professionals were John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Bowlby, one of the directors at
the Tavistock clinic, was invited by the World Health Organization to write a report on
the mental health needs of homeless children. The report, later published as ‘Maternal
Care and the Growth of Love’ was widely read in Britain and Bowlby’s concept of
‘maternal deprivation’ was increasingly influencing health and social care professionals
(Appignanesi, 2009; Lewis and Welshman, 2003; Riley, 1983; Rose, 1999) Bowlby
argued that a child who was separated from his or her primary caregiver, either through
illness or through the caregiver’s inadequacy, was prone to become delinquent or develop
mental health problems (Bowlby, 1966). Donald Winnicott described the path towards
the development of healthy object relations as hazardous: both the mother who was over
attentive to the needs of her baby and the one who was not attentive enough, could hinder
the baby’s development. Winnicott coined the concept of the ‘good enough mother’ to
describe the woman who responds to her baby in a way that is conducive to its normal
development. ‘The good enough mother’ intuitively manages to walk the fine line
between being too responsive to her baby’s needs and being not attentive enough
(Winnicott, 2005).
Despite the differences between them, Winnicott and Bowlby articulated several
propositions whose influence can be discerned in the work of the London County
Council. They both asserted that the interaction between mother and child during the
early years of the child’s life would have a crucial impact on its future mental health.
Second, mothering was not a straightforward task in which women could be trained.
Instead, a woman’s ability to mother was a feature of her psyche. As a result of these
propositions, the relationship between the mother and her child became imbued with
political significance (Rose, 1999). In order to ensure the health and well-being of the
population, it was necessary to identify and help those mothers who were likely to raise
the future delinquents and mentally ill members of society.
As part of their concern with the quality of mothering a woman can provide, Bowlby and
other social scientists promoted the view that unwed mothers were psychologically
disturbed (Lewis and Welshman, 2003). Bowlby, in particular, argued that illegitimate
children should be adopted into ‘normal’ family settings. Unless they were removed from
their mothers’ care, Bowlby maintained, illegitimate children were likely to grow up to
become unwed mothers and fathers (Bowlby, 1966). This view was dominant within the
social scientific literature in Britain at the time, but seems to have failed to impact on the
work of the London County Council. Within the Council’s work, it was psychological
claims regarding young women’s ‘immaturity’ which proved most influential.
In the late 1950s, against a backdrop of mounting public anxieties regarding the
promiscuity among young people, the London County Council’s interest in pregnant
adolescent girls became intensified. In 1959, Council officers decided to develop an
innovative scheme: the establishment of a Mother and Baby Home catering exclusively
for pregnant schoolgirls.4 St. Christopher’s Mother and Baby Home in Lambeth was
chosen for this purpose and re-opened in its specialised capacity in April 1961. The
Council described St. Christopher’s as a beacon of innovative practice, which became a
well-known centre attracting professional interest (Medical Officer of Health,
In contrast with the work of most Mother and Baby Homes, the work of this institution
was shaped by psychological knowledge. Rather than a woman’s character, it was now
her ‘immaturity’ which was highlighted. Describing the need for this institution, the
Council’s Medical Officer asserted that ‘[f]or obvious reasons it is not desirable that
these children should be placed in Mother and Baby Homes with adult unmarried
mothers’ (County Medical Officer of Health, 1962: 63). This represented a break from
the practice found in most Mother and Baby Homes, in which young girls were
accommodated alongside older women. The Council subsequently appointed a
psychiatrist from the Tavistock clinic to become the institution’s Visiting Psychiatrist.
The report outlining the rational for this appointment asserted: ‘[m]any of the girls are so
young that they really require mothering and their separation from their parents under
these circumstances frequently results in a need for psychiatric help’ (Medical Officer of
Health, 31/12/1962:1). The pregnant young women were no longer characterised as
feckless individuals whose character should be reformed. Instead, they were described as
vulnerable children in need of psychiatric assistance. Evoking John Bowlby’s notion of
‘maternal deprivation’, the report proposed that the untimely separation from their
parents, results in psychological problems (Bowlby, 2005). These propositions rendered
these young women as problematic parents. How could they mother someone else when
they are themselves in need of mothering?6
It is precisely this view which was put forward by Sister Dora King, a moral welfare
worker who had links with St. Christopher’s. Speaking in a conference titled ‘Pregnancy
in Adolescence’ held in London in 1966, she proclaimed: ‘the very young mother cannot
cope for long with the care of her child, even with all the support we can give her. We
must recognise her needs in this, as well as the effect it will have on the baby’ (King,
1966). Within the moral-Christian discourse, the key concern was transforming women’s
subjectivity. The needy baby was a technology for transforming his or her mother into a
dutiful subject. In contrast, within the psychological discourse employed by King,
attention shifted to the impact of inadequate mothering on the baby. Dr. Gough, St.
Christopher’s Visiting Psychiatrist, advocated for the involvement of psychologists in
assessing the mothering ability of each individual mother who resides in a Home. 7 He
was more positive than King regarding adolescent girls’ ability to look after their babies,
suggesting that many could undertake this task. Nevertheless, he still evoked the figure of
the young mother as the prime example for women who are incapable of becoming ‘good
enough mothers’. Criticising the practice, still common in Mother and Baby Homes in the
early 1960s, of requiring every mother to look after her baby for six weeks after its birth,
he argued:
all too often, the mother and baby are just stuck together and left to get
on with it. This tends to produce either a disastrously unsatisfactory
nursing couple or a ‘tender trap’ in which it is very difficult for the
mother to see things clearly. I have seen many cases in which things
seemed to be going seriously wrong with an infant’s development and
response to mothering as the result of endless battles with a young
mother who was incapable of providing ‘good enough’ mothering, but
who was, nevertheless, compelled to go on tending him, for six or more
weeks (Gough, 1966a).
As this quotation illustrates, Gough is concerned with the negative impact that certain
mothers have on the development of their babies. Using Donald Winnicott notion of the
‘good enough mother’, he proposes that certain mothers, particularly those who are
young, are unable to provide adequate care. Significantly, it was not only the baby’s
healthy development which concerned psychiatrists and council officers. In the case of
adolescent mothers, it was their own healthy development which was seen as being in
danger. Gough argued that the ‘problem’ of teenage unwed motherhood involved ‘two
sets of children’ who were put at risk. He stated: ‘[u]ltimately, it is unhappy for the
country itself, because it is often very doubtful whether these two sets of children can be
assured the provision for normal emotional development which will enable them to
become emotionally healthy citizens’ (Gough, 1966b).
Although Gough was still discussing only young women who were unmarried, he
articulated three key assertions that would subsequently underpin the problematization of
teenage motherhood more generally. He argued that teenage girls are psychologically
immature. Second, as a result of the young mother’s psychological immaturity her
healthy development and that of her child were at risk. The third is a governmental
strategy: addressing the health of an individual as part of an effort to improve the health
and well-being of the population (Foucault, 1998; Macleod, 2002). Notably, health and
social care professionals argued that the fact that the teenage girl was a child was also to
an advantage: with the right professional intervention, both the young mother and her
child could still become, in Dr. Gough’s words, ‘emotionally healthy citizens’. A
governmental field was opened up.
The discursive shifts which Gough articulated did not immediately take hold across the
London area. Some Mother and Baby Homes continued their work, much in the same
way they had before. However, by the late 1960s Homes were experiencing a decline in
demand, which moral welfare workers viewed as a sign of growing tolerance within
society towards unmarried mothers (Lambeth & District Moral Welfare Association
Papers, 1967). More women who became pregnant out-of-wedlock were now able to stay
in their parents’ home during their pregnancy and this inevitably led to a decrease in the
number of applications for a place in an institution. A similar process was occurring
throughout the country and many Mother and Baby Homes were closing down (Kiernan
et al., 1998). Some Homes were converted into hostels offering supervised
accommodation for young mothers and the moral welfare associations previously
responsible for these Homes were now managing the new facilities. By the late-1970s,
Janet Evanson, a senior moral welfare worker with the Southwark Diocesan of Wel-Care,
described her organisation’s work in the following way:
The girls who need our help today…are unsupported and alone in
the world at the time of the birth of their baby, are likely to be
under 20 years old, to have had family troubles and sometimes to
have been brought up in care of the Local Authority (Evanson,
1977, unpaginated)
The young mother, Evanson further argued, may be unable to care for her child properly.
Even the Southwark Diocesan of Wel-Care, was now engaged in protecting the wellbeing of immature mothers and their children.
Five decades after London County Council officers began separating ‘pregnant children’
from older women who conceived out-of-wedlock, governmental concern with ‘children
having children’ persists. Several truth claims underpinning this concern were already
being articulated in the 1960s. These include the suggestion that teenagers are
psychologically immature, that they may be unable to parent adequately, and that this
will have a lasting impact on their health and that of their children.
In their account of the emergence of teenage pregnancy in the U.S., Arney and Bergen
identify a shift from a ‘moral’ to a ‘scientific’ problematization of out-of-wedlock
problematization was characterised by the exercise of punitive and exclusionary power,
while the ‘scientific’ problematization signalled the rise of a normalising and corrective
form of power (Arney and Bergen, 1984). The account presented in this article suggests a
different conceptualisation of this shift.
The moral-Christian discourse was certainly punitive: women were required to denounce
their sexual transgression and undertake a life of self-sacrifice for their child. This was a
strict code of behaviour and those who did not obey were penalised. Yet this discourse
also proposed that individuals can change. Women who chose to conform to the
prescribed behaviour could escape being problematized. This possibility was lost in the
shift to ‘children having children’. Being a teenager is not a subjectivity that one could
alter at will. No amount of responsible behaviour would disprove the proposition that a
young person is emotionally immature and therefore ill-equipped to parent. As a result,
teenage motherhood and fatherhood are rendered inherently problematic.
This governmental problem may yet escalate further. Recent neuroscientific research
proposes that brain development continues throughout the teenage years and that it is
only in the twenties that full maturity is attained. The parts of the brain that are not fully
mature during adolescence are those that are believed to govern impulsivity, planning and
the ability to consider risks: capacities that are important for those who are to become
responsible for a baby (Casey et al., 2008). If we follow these scientific claims, then
there may be a discrepancy of up to ten years between the age at which a young person
becomes physiologically able to bear children and the age at which she is deemed to have
achieved ‘neurological maturity’.8 What could be the way out of this governmental
challenge? Truth claims regarding young people’s bodily and mental ‘maturity’ fail to
acknowledge the historical and cultural contingency of contemporary Western notions of
‘teenage’. More crucially, however, they fail to capture the way in which a person’s
experience and activity alters his or her subjectivity. As long as contemporary scientific
claims regarding young people’s maturity go unchallenged, the ‘problem’ of teenage
parenthood will persist.
I would like to thanks Prof. David Armstrong, Dr. Angela Davis, Prof. Rosalind Gill, Dr. Rhodri
Hayward, Prof. Thomas Osborne and Dr. David Oswell for their comments on earlier versions of
this work. My thanks also to Prof. Sander L. Gilman for his mentorship and the anonymous
reviewers for their suggestions.
Although the examination of institutional work is restricted to the London area, the account of
the moral-Christian and psychological discourses pertains to England more broadly. My
description of the moral-Christian discourse draws on nationally circulated journals. Similarly,
the psychological discourse identified in this article was being disseminated nationally through
publications and conferences.
The Moral Welfare Associations whose records were examined include: Wandsworth and
Putney Moral Welfare Association, Greenwich and District Moral Welfare Association,
Wimbledon, Merton and Morden Moral Welfare Association, Lewisham Moral Welfare
Association and Battersea, Clapham and Brixton Moral Welfare Association. The records
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