Hip Mama’s Nina Packebush recently got a chance to sit down with photographer and film maker Jendella Benson to talk about the Young Motherhood Project, her documentary photographic and film project. Jendella Benson traveled around the United Kingdom photographing and interviewing women who are, or have been, young mothers to hear directly from them what their experiences have been.
Hip Mama: I’m wondering what drew you to this topic of young motherhood?
Jendella: I was drawn to it because I have a lot of friends who have been young moms, who still are young moms as well, so I’ve kind of grown up with them to a certain degree. I’ve seen them go to uni, go to school and work really hard and raise their children in just such an amazing way. I felt like, why doesn’t society want to acknowledge that? It’s more comfortable to stick with the same old stereotypes and the same old assumptions, so I wanted to do something that would not only honor them, but would hopefully create a positive change in society.
Jendella: Quite a few of them are friends, and then there’s also friends of friends. From there the word just kind of spread out so I got contacted by a lot of people that I didn’t know at all. So it was mainly through Facebook and twitter and social media and word of mouth recommendations.
Hip Mama: What is the age range of the women you featured?
Jendella: It varies. There’s quite a few in their 20s, there’s a few in their 30s and 40s. The oldest person was in their 60s, a grandmother.
Hip Mama: Your project was recently featured at the Young Motherhood Exhibition at the House of Commons. That had to be really exciting. How did it go?
Jendella: It went really well. For the young moms that came there it was just such a positive atmosphere to be in where young motherhood was celebrated. There was a lot of really honest conversation about how we can make things not only better for young moms, but how as a society we can be more inclusive and not so prone to marginalizing people who might have made choices different to us in life. One of the MP’s who sponsored it, Theresa Pierce, was actually a young mom herself, so she spoke about her own experiences as well. People She really engaged with the project.
Jendella: Definitely. I wanted to do something that was essentially putting my beliefs into action, so rather than just sort of talk about stuff and having the never-ending debate that you can have about these kinds of things I thought, well let me do something that’s actually combining my interests, my talents, my beliefs, and try to create something positive. Like action rather than just talk, I guess.
Hip Mama: As a young mother myself, I had my first child at 18, I have found that young mama is still a huge part of my identity. I’m 47 years old and still very much identify as a teen mom. Did you find this to be true with the women in your project?
Jendella: Yes, I think almost everyone who has had a child at—what people think of as such a young age—it’s still a massive part of their identity. I think that because it’s such a label that’s used to define people that it does stick with women for quite a long time, but that’s not a bad thing at all because there’s a lot of solidarity and community in that.
Hip Mama: A few years back I wrote an article for Loudmouth magazine on teen parenthood. While researching my piece I came upon a study done by the Carnegie Mellon University that found that teenage mothers tended to be more self-sufficient and earned higher wages than women of similar socioeconomic backgrounds that delayed childbearing. This study found that having a child generally caused the teenage mother to have more financial success at the age of 34 than their age-mates of similar socio-economic backgrounds who delayed childbearing. Did you find this to be the case with the women in your project? Did young motherhood turn out to be an empowering and motivating factor in their lives?
Jendella: Oh yes, it was 100% motivating. In a previous interview I did someone said, “Oh you’ve really kind of looked for the stories of redemption and the good ending stories.” I didn’t have to look for those stories. I accepted and I photographed everyone that came to me. I didn’t know what they’d say. They could have been like, “Oh my gosh, my life’s so hard and terrible,” but each person said that it was a life-defining moment that made them realize who they were. It’s made them more independent, made them more confident; it’s made them realize what they wanted to do at a younger age. For everyone it’s been such a great opportunity and that’s one of the things I think people don’t realize. Everyone wants to paint it like being a young mom is a catastrophe, but more than that it’s an opportunity.
There were some women that took part in the project that readily admitted that they were going down a wrong path in life; they weren’t really going to be much, but as soon as they got pregnant and had their child they were like, ok this is it. I’m going to succeed; I’m going to complete university; I’m going to go for the career that I want; I’m going to try to provide for my child more than I would have potentially tried to provide for myself as a single individual. I think that definitely is something that’s really kind of overlooked. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re overlooking it on purpose because obviously it doesn’t fit the narrative that a lot of people are comfortable with, but for everyone I interviewed it was just an amazing opportunity and it changed their lives for the better.
Jendella: I guess you have the practical things like financial obstacles and also the kind of obstacles that parenting as a single woman can bring for those that are single, but more than that most people said that their biggest thing was other people’s opinions and the kind of judgment and reaction that they get from other people. Some people had really negative experiences with health professionals, to the point that it was almost like discrimination. Like the way midwives treated them during labor or with health visits, and that kind of thing. A lot of times it seems that people want to see young moms fail just so they can say, well I told you so. It’s like they’re doing things—whether consciously or subconsciously—to actually put obstacles in the way, or make it harder for young moms.
Hip Mama: I found a few pro-life site using your project to promote their views, is this a prolife project? Do you identify as pro-life?
Jendella: Oh wow, no it’s not a pro-life project. It’s not about the abortion debate or anything else like that at all. I find it a bit annoying that people are trying to highjack it for that sort of thing, that’s not what it is about. The women who took part in this project, I didn’t ask them…I mean abortion did come up at times because a lot of times they were told to have abortions and that kind of thing. And there were some women who had abortions previously and then chose to have their child this time around and there were others who said, “In this case abortion wasn’t for me, but I wouldn’t judge anyone who did.” So obviously when it comes to talking about young parents and young women having children, I guess the whole conversation about abortion is going to come up, but it’s definitely not pro-life. It’s not, “Oh here look guys, these people did it so every single person that gets pregnant has to do it as well.” It’s not that all.
Hip Mama: It’s frustrating to me because it seems that if say a woman in her 30′s has a child nobody frames it as pro-choice or pro-life, but as soon as teens have kids or young people have kids then abortion gets thrown into it.
Jendella: It’s actually quite funny because in the UK, there was a study done recently that showed that the growing rate of abortion isn’t with young parents, it’s actually with moms who are in their 30s who are saying, “I can’t afford to. I can’t have a child right now.”
Hip Mama: Can you briefly share one or two of you favorite stories from the project?
Jendella: One of the women, she had her child at seventeen and it was actually a choice. She had wanted to have a child since she was fifteen or sixteen. So she had a child at seventeen and her daughter became the first person in her family to go to university even though her cousins had children in more traditional circumstances at older ages and married. She was the young single parent, but it was her daughter who was the first one to go on to the university. I really liked that story and it’s something that’s reflective of so many of the other moms who have kids that are older now. They’re all doing great. They’re not dysfunctional or terrible. It’s something that I was thinking of including; talking to the children of teen moms and young moms as well because so much of a narrative is also placed on their lives as to what they can expect out of life, but it seems that they’re all doing fantastic.
Another story that I really liked was this lady, Andrea. She actually didn’t think she would be able to have children at all, so when she got pregnant at nineteen it was like the best news ever. She and her partner took it straight to her parents like, “Mom, I’m pregnant!” And everyone in her family was sort of over the moon because they thought she wouldn’t be able to have a child. She went off and did her education and her family really supported her and rallied around her.
Obviously if you don’t have that family support it doesn’t mean you’re doomed either, because a lot of women do it without the support of anyone, but it just highlights how important it is for young moms to have a community of people whether it’s family, whether it’s other young moms, whether it’s a just a community in general who will really just support them. And not just because, “oh we think you’re going to fail so we’re going to do everything to make sure you don’t,” but more like, “we value you, we value your life, and we value the life of your child. We think you’re amazing and we’re going to help you in whatever way possible.”
Watch the film trailer here: Young Motherhood Project