A new generation of mothers

Daisy is a head-turner, with her honey-coloured, curly hair. She is now 16 - and obviously pregnant
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The Independent Culture
LET US call her Daisy. When I met her some years ago, she was a beautiful child of ten. Her mother is black British and her father a white American who had scurried off back home to Philadelphia when Daisy was six months old. Two months ago I bumped into them again. Daisy is still a head-turner with her honey-coloured, curly hair and almost black eyes. But she is now 16 and quite obviously pregnant. Her mother, who is now a qualified youth worker, is beside herself with worry, guilt, and anger.

Once an amazingly energetic and determined person, who seemed undefeated by life as a lone mother on a housing estate, she is now cowed. She feels impotent, believing she tried but could not save her daughter from the sexual jungle which is out there and where predators are now hunting younger and younger victims. She blames advertisers, film-makers, teen magazines, pop stars, the whole sick world for corrupting her child's life. Daisy refused to have an abortion, will not tell her mother who the father of the child is, still wants to be a doctor and now sticks pictures of the two parturient Spice Girls on her walls.

The reason I noticed them was because they were arguing in a shoe shop about whether Daisy should have those stupidly altitudinous shoes that the two Spice mothers-to-be are defiantly wearing at present. It all seems such a terrible waste of a bright young life and you realise too that this could and might easily be your daughter one day. The way the statistics are going, none of us can be complacent any more.

Already higher than other European countries, according to the Office of National Statistics, teenage pregnancies in this country have risen 11 per cent this last year. Approximately one in a hundred young girls gets pregnant in Britain before she is legally old enough to have sex. Ever since the figures were released earlier this week, stories of such teenagers have been poking us in both eyes.

Two sisters, Miranda and Charlene Way, one 15 and one 16, put on the pill by their mother when they were 14, are both pregnant, with babies due on the same day. Another girl has just given birth at 14, six months after her boyfriend committed suicide. A baby with the umbilical cord still attached to him was left abandoned in a small Norfolk village by, it is believed, a frightened young mother.

A Government policy paper on this vital issue has been delayed and delayed again, some think because this has is yet another policy area which has become over-politicised, causing nervousness to replace conviction.

This must be why the four task forces led by ministers Tessa Jowell and Estelle Morris to co-ordinate a comprehensive strategy never did produce the goods, and why there has been such a farcical dithering over when the policy paper will now be published, this time by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit which was handed the responsibility for the issue this summer. The transfer is telling. It immediately changes the problem from being one that affects us all to one that is only found among those sordid subterranean creatures known elsewhere as the underclass.

Yes, it is mostly teenagers in poorer households who are having children, thereby imprisoning the next two generations in that same poverty. They are often girls who have been in care, are failing in school, or daughters of women who were teenage mothers too. But it would be highly irresponsible to suggest that this is the only problem. Middle class teenage girls are also getting pregnant, though not in the same numbers as those who live in deprivation. These girls, on the whole, have abortions and carry on with their education. The pregnancies do not mean the end of opportunities for them.

This begs several questions: are we only to be concerned about the young girls who are procreating too young? Or should we begin at the beginning and try to grapple with the problem of young people - boys and girls, of all classes - who are becoming sexualised too young and are increasingly defining themselves in terms of how they add up as sex items?

I do not believe that middle class girls having their pregnancies sorted out by their parents is but a small diversion on an otherwise well managed journey. We know the health risks when young girls have early sexual encounters with multiple partners. We must at least try to extend our understanding of how complex this problem is. This means resisting the lure of ideological bun-fights and simplistic instrumental approaches which have been ineffectual. We need the imagination to do more than finding new ways of telling the poor how not to breed like young rabbits.

Unlike the 1950s, many young girls today want to be mothers. They don't find themselves pregnant, with no access to abortion, which is what still happens in Third World countries and the United States, where teenage pregnancy figures are even higher than here and where abortion when needed is often impossible to obtain because of the power of anti-abortion fundamentalists. Our pregnant teenagers choose motherhood, because, as Anne Phoenix, author of Young Mothers says: "Having a child is very nice, they think. It is more creative than working in McDonald's or going to school where they are getting nowhere."

The young men who are impregnating young girls are in similar positions and understanding this is crucial says David Bartlett, who manages Newpin, a young father's project in South London. The fact that the problem of teenage motherhood is almost non-existent in the Scandinavian countries might have something to do with the fact that these countries do not have class-ridden societies where those at the bottom get the worst education and housing and where life is so miserable that bringing another life into that misery provides the only hope.

All western countries are guilty of promoting child sexuality, and I have yet to be convinced that this has no bearing on the problems we are now having. Peer group pressures which arise out of such a culture undermine parental guidance and educational advice.

The new book by Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, argues that the role of parents in what children do is much less central than we would all like to imagine. This is even truer now that so many parents have also been brainwashed into thinking that they must not be too hard on their children; that the world being what it is, the only way is to surrender to it.

There are parents who reject this defeatist approach, and who also try to erect cultural barriers between their lives and those of mainstream societies. In Chinese, Vietnamese, and Asian communities, and among some white and black Christian families, it is still relatively rare to have teenage mothers and - although pre-marriage sexuality is increasing in all ethnic communities - the mechanisms of shame and social order based on sex within marriage are still managing to hold.

When we are finally treated to the policy paper on this issue, I suspect there will be much about better sex education, even perhaps, more clinics and easier abortions.

The Social Exclusion Unit will also, I imagine, tie this in with education and training for young people and emphasise responsibility. But will they have the guts to ask big businesses and celebrities to take up their responsibility not to carry on sexualising the world of our young? And could they start by apologising to Daisy's mother for having made the Spice Girls into their official role models for young girls?