Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s and fuelled by the Labour government’s desire to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate, a lot of research was published about teenage pregnancy and motherhood. Since policy has changed direction, young motherhood has become less popular as a research topic and a quick review of the literature showed us that much of the research about young mothers, their lives and their entry into work and education was out of date.
The Young Women’s Trust
In 2016, the Young Women’s Trust decided to take a new look at young motherhood. We wanted to expand the topic beyond conversations about teenage pregnancy and include young women who have babies up to the age of 25. We also wanted to focus on the views and experiences of young mothers themselves. Our report What matters to young mums? is the result of that work.
Young Women’s Trust is a charity supporting women aged 16-30 in England and Wales who live on low or no pay. We advocate for fair financial futures for young women, with fairly paid, good quality work at the core of that vision. Consequently, What matters to young mums? identifies the barriers to young mothers working and makes recommendations about how to remove them. Isolation, expensive or inflexible childcare, low pay and a lack of part-time or flexible work have combined to discourage mothers from working. Young women also have little confidence in the support to find work provided by the social security system.
A review of academic and policy literature published between 2010 and 2015 led us to conclude that there was plenty written about teenage parents but little about mothers aged 20-25. We also found there were fewer publications about the personal experiences of teenage or young mothers themselves. Consequently, we went on to conduct six focus groups with mothers under 25, to let them speak for themselves.
We visited existing groups of mothers in spaces they were comfortable with, to make it easier for them to participate in the research. These included a communal kitchen in a mother and baby unit and a children’s centre attached to a local library. We also adapted the structure of the session to suit each group and create an informal, open atmosphere – for example, we ate a meal prepared by the mothers before beginning one discussion. The groups often took place in noisy settings with children clamouring for attention. Therefore, the researchers kept the group engaged through a range of participation techniques using colourful props. We used methods including brainstorming (alone and collectively), pair discussions, whole group discussions and voting. This kept the session varied and catered for different ‘learning styles’ within the group (Honey and Mumford 1982).
Following the focus groups, we designed and commissioned a survey for a sample of over 300 young mothers using the polling agency Survation (the tables are available on their website.) This enabled us to generalise from some of the themes that emerged in the groups, such as their views on the high cost of childcare. We also asked some questions that we didn’t think mothers would have answered in the groups, around their loneliness and about poverty.
As a charity, Young Women’s Trust is committed to young women’s participation in the work we do to support them, from guiding our campaigns and services to writing and speaking out about the issues that matter to them. Accordingly, mothers who took part in the research were encouraged to stay in touch with the charity and all the opportunities it could offer them. For example, one of the focus group participants wrote the foreword to the final report through a WhatsApp conversation with one of the researchers.
Main findings: What matters to young mums?
This was only a short project − the fieldwork was completed in four months – but it led to some clear conclusions about young mothers and their relationship with the world of work.
The costs of childcare
Young mothers mostly preferred to leave their children with relatives, but in general formal childcare was considered to be good for their children’s development. However, formal childcare is expensive. Furthermore, mothers usually had prospects of low-paid work because of their youth or because they were starting out in their careers. Mothers agreed that if they were to work, childcare costs would total more than their earnings or only just allow them to break even. Missing out on their children growing up for no financial return made work a less attractive prospect; the mothers also conveyed a sense that whether they chose to work or stay at home, they would be making a sacrifice.
The pressure to a ‘good mother’
Other research has highlighted that young mothers are under pressure to prove they are good mothers. This may be prompted by their awareness of stereotypes about feckless single teenage mothers; it is also shored up by their families’ and communities’ expectations (Ellis-Sloan 2012; Maguire and Mckay 2016). The cost of childcare and prospects of low-paid work may combine with societal stigma to push them towards mothering at the expense of working. Improving access to free childcare could help change this. For example, extending the 15 hours of free childcare policy so that it is available year round would encourage young mothers to work, while widening access to Care to Learn support would make retraining more affordable. Raising pay would also increase mothers’ incomes, for example through extending the National Living Wage to under-25s.
Their social life
In addition, becoming a mother disrupts young women’s social connections. They see their friends less and become lonelier, with 26% leaving the house once a week or less. At the same time, out-of-work mothers of young children have either negative or sporadic interactions with Jobcentre Plus. Our research suggests that this has the potential to keep mothers further from the labour market. One-to-one support or mentorship to develop mothers’ relationships outside their family units might ease their move back into education or employment.
Their working conditions
Finally, we found that employers’ attitudes and conditions for working were integral in helping young mothers to work. Mothers reported experiencing discrimination, some of it illegal: for instance, 39% had been questioned in a job interview about how being a mother affected their ability to work. Mothers also said it was important for them that more jobs were advertised with flexible or part-time hours.