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Getting My Education: Teen Mothers' Experiences in School Before and After Motherhood

by Elizabeth M. Zachry - 2005

In this study, I have examined how teenagers who become pregnant experience school and how their beliefs about school are affected by their pregnancy and motherhood. Using a grounded theory approach, the perspectives of 9 young mothers in a teen parents' program were analyzed to determine how these women reflected on their educational experience both before and after their pregnancy and on how having a child may have affected their self-understanding, particularly in relation to their schooling. The overarching theme that arose from participants' responses was that having a child substantially influenced their perspectives of both their schooling and their future. Although each stated that her pregnancy initially led her to drop out of school, the participants argued that having a child increased their interest in their education and pushed them to see how education would help them provide a better future for their children, increase their employment opportunities, and help them get off public assistance. In contrast to previous research, which has argued that teen motherhood puts women at a greater risk for school difficulties, this study reveals that motherhood may also be a factor in helping women reevaluate their perspective of school and school's importance for their lives.

I want to better my education for my kids, and myself . . . because I’m their role model and they’re only gonna learn from what they see from me. — Wendy

These words were spoken by Wendy, a student in the pre-GED classes in a Boston adult education program, as an explanation for her recent return to school. Wendy, like many of the students in this adult education program, dropped out of high school as a teenager and is now returning to obtain her high school diploma. Although she found little value in school during her adolescence, Wendy’s perspective of education began to shift as she looked toward her future as a mother. With little income and low academic skills, Wendy’s situation differs little from the situation of the hundreds of thousands of teenage women who are becoming pregnant and having children today. Although Wendy is a few years older than these young women, teen mothers in this country face her same difficult choices: choices about what they will do with their futures, how they will manage their schooling, and how they will construct the futures that they want for their children. However, rather than the few years of experience, maturity, and perspective that Wendy (at age 30) brings to the classroom, teen mothers face these decisions as older adolescents while they are struggling to construct their own identities, let alone their identities in relation to a new, young life.

This research study was undertaken to understand how teenagers who become pregnant experience school and how their beliefs about school and their educational commitments are affected when they become mothers. Through a literature review focusing on the discourse surrounding teenage pregnancy and educational longevity, this article will reveal how teen mothers and their educational status have been mediated by American political and racial ideologies. Additionally, it will show how teen mothers’ negative educational experiences have laid the groundwork for numerous scholars’ conclusions that education has little relevance or import for many women who become pregnant during their teenage years. In contrast to previous research concerning teen mothers’ involvement and interest in school, the teen mothers in this study assert a renewed concern for their own education and its importance for their futures as a result of becoming mothers and being involved in a quality education program. Through an analysis of these women’s own words about their experiences in school, this study will explore how the meaning of school may be reformulated as teen mothers encounter new responsibilities and dilemmas through the process of being a parent.


A discussion of teen mothers and their involvement in education is framed within a much larger dialogue about the significance of teenage pregnancy in American society. The debate surrounding teen pregnancy has had a long and complicated history in the United States, due in large part to the changing demographics of adolescent motherhood. Although there were actually more births to teenage mothers in the 1950s than there are in today’s America, births to teen mothers in the 1950s were more often to married young women. As can be seen in Table 1, the number of births and the birth rate among teenagers has actually decreased from 1955 to 1990. However, only 14.8% of all teenage pregnancies in 1960 were to single women, while 78.7% of teenage pregnancies in the year 2000 were to

Table 1. Adolescents having babies: Number of births, percent of all births, and proportion of births to unmarried women


Total Number of Births to Women Aged 15–19 years

Birth Rate

(per 1,000 women aged 15–19)

Proportion of Teen Births to Unmarried Women





















Source: The National Center for Health Statistics, “National Vital Statistics of the United States: Births to Teenagers in the United States, 1940-2000,” Vol. 49, no. 10.

unmarried women. It is this drastic increase in unwed teenage mothers that has helped create the furor over teenage pregnancy and that has dominated the political arguments of numerous American scholars and leaders.

The racial disparities behind these statistics may also account for the increased attention given to teenage motherhood. As can be noted in Table 2, White teenagers give birth to more babies than do Black and Latina teenagers. However, when examined by the proportion of the population of each race, the birth rate of Black and Latina teenagers is more than twice that of White teenagers. Thus, African Americans and Latinos account for a disproportionate number of teenage pregnancies when considering their proportion of the total population of teenagers (about 15% of all U.S. teenagers; Kaplan, 1997; Luker, 1996). Like the overall shift in teen mothers’ marital status, this high rate of teenage pregnancy also has been accompanied by an increasing number of female-headed households in the African American and Latino communities. Although only 25% of the births in the 1950s were to single teenage mothers, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 61% of the teenage births in the Black community and 43% of the teenage births in the Latino community were to single mothers (Kaplan; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989).

Table 2. Comparison of teenage births for Blacks and Whites (number, rate, and percent of all births)


Number of Births

Birth Rate (per 1,000 women, aged 15–19)










Source: The National Center for Health Statistics, “National Vital Statistics of the United States: Births to Teenagers in the United States, 1940-2000,” Vol. 49, no. 10.

The growth in the number of unmarried minority females having babies also became increasingly linked with minorities’ low educational and economic status. With the debate surrounding teenage pregnancy taking on an increasingly racialized and derogatory tone, politically prominent individuals such as Moynihan (1965) pinned the increase in teenage motherhood on Black families, arguing that their matriarchal focus perpetuated a system of absentee fathers and economic disadvantage. By arguing that Black families were caught in ‘‘‘a tangle of pathology’’’ (cited in Williams, 1991, pp. 1–2), Moynihan insisted that Black families’ deviation from the patriarchal norm perpetuated Blacks’ low educational attainment, increased crime rates, and unemployment (Williams). With the moral makeup of the Black family used to explain both the perceived rise in teenage pregnancy and Blacks’ lower economic status, these theorists were able to effectively link teenage pregnancy with minorities’ poor educational attainment and economic disadvantage (Kaplan, 1997). Additionally, this focus on morality steered the dialogue toward a more individualistic view of minorities’ own responsibility for their disadvantage and away from an understanding of how larger societal issues such as discrimination may have affected minorities’ opportunities (Kaplan; Williams).

Over the past few decades, political leaders and the media have helped to firmly entrench this perspective of teenage pregnancy within the American discourse. With Moynihan’s successors (Gilder, 1982; Mead, 1986; Murray, 1984; Novak, 1987) continuing to posit that teenage pregnancy was the result of faulty values and habits, researchers argued that adolescent pregnancy was an ‘‘epidemic’’ out of control and in need of help even though birth rates among teenagers were actually at their lowest in decades (Luttrell, 2003; Singer, Butler, & MacGrogan, 1993; Vinovskis, 1988; Williams, 1991). Other leaders connected this perceived rise in ‘‘illegitimacy’’ to an ‘‘explosion’’ (Nathanson, 1991, p. 34) in the welfare rolls, a perspective that was highly touted in the media and that helped pave the way for later politicians (e.g., President Ronald Reagan) to retract government aid to the poor and focus on reforming individuals’ values (Williams).

Push-back against such conservative perspectives of teenage pregnancy has existed from the beginning of this debate. Scholars such as Clark (1965), Wilson (1987, 1996), and Kozol (1994) have focused on the demographic and structural changes within the United States as more pertinent issues to raise when studying teen pregnancy. For instance, although these scholars acknowledge that the African American community has seen a ‘‘disappearance of the traditional married-couple family’’ (Wilson, 1996, p. 87), they have argued that this trend does not pertain to Blacks alone, but rather is consistent with the changing family structures of many racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Additionally, they show that scientific research has revealed little connection between the value of a welfare check and the number of out-of-wedlock births, with the rates of teenage pregnancy continuing to rise even as numerous countries have instituted stricter antiwelfare legislation (Luker, 1996; Wilson, 1996).

These scholars instead look to changes in the economic climate as an explanation for the association between teen motherhood, poverty, and poor educational attainment. They emphasize how the move of businesses and the Black middle class away from the city center has created an increasingly difficult employment situation for minorities living in urban settings (Wilson, 1987, 1996). They reveal how these shifts in the larger U.S. economy have resulted in higher rates of joblessness in today’s low-income communities and created a more ingrained sense of hopelessness, which they see as a more cogent explanation for the rise in teen pregnancy and diminished educational success. Rather than focusing on individual choice, these scholars argue that teenage pregnancy and the difficulties associated with it could be solved through broader, systemic means, such as investing in inner-city communities and creating viable economic alternatives to combat the hopelessness that results from continual economic decline and unemployment.

Despite these more liberal perspectives, the negative association between minority teen pregnancy, poor education, and poverty has become a powerful belief within American discourse and often provides the backdrop against which policy affecting teen mothers and teen mothers’ education has been defined. As Luker (1996) argued, this association has now become so mainstream that Americans ‘‘take it for granted that early pregnancy is one of the basic mechanisms sustaining poverty . . . [and] that the high birthrate among African American teens is the major reason for the fact that . . . blacks and whites continue to face very different life chances’’ (p. 112). This commentary reveals how teen motherhood is not a trend isolated from American political and ideological dialogue, but rather deeply connected with larger demographic changes and discussions. In the current era, in which focus is now centered upon welfare reform and the creation of school and work requirements for teen mothers, such arguments reveal how teen mothers’ educational opportunities and advancement have become heavily dependent upon the political and ideological landscape of those who define and wish to ‘‘control’’ the occurrence of teen pregnancy (Luttrell, 2003; Kelly, 2000).


Rather than focusing solely on these broader policy issues, recent research (e.g., Kaplan, 1997; Kelly, 2000; Lawson & Rhode, 1993; Luker, 1996; Luttrell, 2003; Musick, 1993; Polakow, 1993; Williams, 1991) has begun to look more closely at teen mothers’ perspectives in an attempt to understand the meaning of having a child in adolescents’ lives. Although most of these studies have focused on teens’ personal circumstances before and after becoming parents, some studies also have looked into how pregnancy affects teens’ educational longevity and the success of school programs specifically designed to work with teen mothers. In reviewing this research, I will show how scholars have found a consistent connection between teenage pregnancy and low educational achievement and often use this research as a platform to predict teen mothers’ future engagement with school.

Much research has documented the poor educational outcomes of those who become pregnant in their teenage years. Although males most often drop out of school for work-related reasons, females are most likely to leave school because of pregnancy (Anderson, 1993; McMillen, Kaufman, Germino, & Bradby, 1993; Rumberger, 1983). Differing statistics exist as to the actual percentage of teen mothers who drop out of school. While Whitman et al. (2001) and Coley (1995) found that 30% of adolescent mothers do not complete high school, Maynard (1996) argued that 7 out of 10 teen mothers leave school before graduation. Teen mothers’ dropout may also be related to their age at the time of giving birth or the number of children they have. For instance, women who had only one child were found to be more likely to finish high school than those who had more than one child, and younger teen mothers were found to be more likely to drop out of school than older teen mothers (Anderson; Williams, 1991). However, researchers do agree that teen mothers tend to face more economic hardship as a result of their low academic skills. Whitman et al. argued that even those teen mothers who do graduate or get a GED typically do not have sufficient academic skills or work habits to hold down a job, which may be the cause of teen mothers’ earnings averaging about half of the poverty level (Maynard).

Despite claims that pregnancy is the leading cause of teen mothers’ educational difficulties, other researchers (e.g. Luker, 1996) have begun critiquing this argument, positing instead that teen mothers’ decisions to leave school have more to do with school policy or their previous experiences in school than with their pregnancies. For instance, rather than finding that teen mothers leave school of their own volition, several scholars (Luker; Kaplan, 1997; Kelly, 2000) have pointed out that rigid school policies that did not allow pregnant and parenting students on campus often abbreviated teen mothers’ tenure in school. Prior to the outlawing of these policies in 1975, many pregnant teenagers were kicked out of school rather than choosing to leave (Luker; Kelly). Although such strictures have now been loosened, stories still abound of schools pressuring pregnant teenagers to leave, arguing that such teens should attend a special school for teen mothers or that they don’t belong on their campuses (Fine, 1991; Kaplan, 1997).

In addition to teen mothers being alienated by a school system that disavows their pregnancy, researchers have speculated that teen mothers’ lack of involvement in their education before they became pregnant may be more to blame for their school dropout than becoming pregnant. For instance, Luker (1996) highlighted research as far back as the 1950s in which students who ‘‘subsequently became teen mothers were more likely to come from poorer families, display lower academic ability, and have lower educational goals than did their peers who had no children’’ (p. 122). Thus, women who become pregnant are often from a population academically disadvantaged and already less involved in school. Luker further argued that the low academic motivation of teens who become pregnant increases their risk of academic failure. She explained that such individuals were already more likely to leave school because of these academic problems, regardless of whether they became pregnant.

Low educational aspirations may also put females more at risk of becoming pregnant and viewing motherhood as a viable option. As several researchers have found (Moore & Werthheimer, 1984; Scott-Jones, 1991; Luker, 1996; Manlove, 1998; Kasen, Cohen, & Brook, 1998), women who do well in school and view education as a means to adult success are more likely to delay childbearing and not become pregnant in their teen years. Such research is corroborated by the findings of Manlove, who discovered that high school dropouts were more likely to become teen mothers than were those who remained in school. Both Williams (1991) and Musick (1993) argued that many of the teens in their studies welcomed pregnancy as a means of escaping bad school experiences and saw motherhood as a means to adult success. Thus, for those who do not find value in school, pregnancy may be viewed as alternative option for gaining adult status and stability. Rather than being two disconnected issues, teen pregnancy and school involvement may actually be highly associated. This research supports the idea that rather than teenage pregnancy being the problem that leads to school dropout, students’ prior experiences in and attitudes toward school may be the primary factors shaping their lack of commitment to education.

This hypothesis is further confirmed by evidence that teen mothers’ continuation in school after their pregnancies is often related to their previous attitudes toward and experiences in school. Several researchers (Kaplan, 1997; Williams, 1991) reported that the teen mothers with whom they worked saw little value in school and thus saw little reason to continue in school after becoming pregnant. Similarly, both Leadbeater (1996) and Polit and Kahn (1987) found that prepregnancy academic performance was the largest predictor of teen mothers’ grade placement and choice to stay in school. Consonant with the argument that teen mothers’ dropout has much to do with their prior experiences in school, it appears from this research that teen mothers’ continuation in school depends primarily upon their past academic performance and beliefs concerning how education may affect their future lives.

Although pregnant and mothering teens’ continuation in school may at least in part be dependent upon their prior experiences with school and expectations for their future, this research does not currently address how teen mothers may view themselves and their educational aspirations differently after the experience of becoming a mother. Rather than focusing solely on these women’s perspectives of education before their pregnancies, this study seeks to examine teen mothers’ thoughts about school after experiencing motherhood. How, if at all, do teen mothers’ perspectives of school and themselves differ after having a child? Although previous research has addressed some of the ways in which low educational achievement may be linked to teenage pregnancy, little has been said about how motherhood may play a role in individuals’ self-concept and beliefs about education. The study presented here attempts to examine such questions to see how, if at all, motherhood may influence women’s self-identity and perspective of education.



The sample for this study was composed of 9 teen mothers from the Young Parents Program at a nonprofit learning center in Boston. As with most qualitative studies, this sampling strategy purposefully centered on students from this program in order to gain perspectives from individuals who were ‘‘experts in an area or were privileged witnesses to an event’’ (Weiss, 1994, p. 17). Additionally, the sample size was kept small in order to provide more rich narrative data for analysis (Maxwell, 1996).

The women in this study ranged in age from 18 to 20 years, and all had grown up in the northeastern United States. They identified themselves as Latino (6), Cape Verdean (1), African American (1), and Indian (1). They all came from poor or working-class families, a condition inferred from the women’s status as welfare recipients. These women had a range of academic abilities, with some women having reading and math skills at the upper high school level (approximately 10th grade) and other women having skills that were at the lower middle school level (approximately 6th grade). Their academic abilities were inferred from their placement in different class levels in the GED program and from their performance on the Test for Adult Basic Education (TABE). Participants were selected from a larger volunteer group, with approximately half of the women from the total population participating in the study (attendance at this program varies widely, although approximately 15–20 women are on the student roster for the program at any given time).

My choice to conduct a research project with adolescent mothers whom I had been teaching requires that several issues be discussed regarding the participants’ abilities to be honest and forthright in their responses. For instance, my previous contact with these women arguably affected the discussions that took place in this study. However, I saw this previous relationship as providing a vital foundation for my research, rather than a limitation. Similar to the tradition of participatory action research within the sociological, anthropological, and educational disciplines (see Ballenger, 1992; Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988; Lewin, 1951; Lopez, 2002), I saw this study as a vehicle for informing my own teaching practice and the collective practices within the field by using practitioners’ own reflections and research as a resource for reform. Although this study does not strictly follow the methods of participatory action research, I see my relationship with the participants in this study in a similar light, with my previous contact with the participants being an integral step in developing a clearer and more intimate understanding of teen mothers’ experiences in school.

Further concerns could be raised as to my participants’ objectivity and willingness to share their schooling beliefs with a researcher who was also their teacher. Because most teachers grade their students’ success in school, participants who are also students of the researcher may feel legitimate anxiety over sharing negative school beliefs or experiences. However, unlike most K–12 schools, the school that these women attended seeks to build students’ skills in preparation for taking the GED high school equivalency exam and does not require teachers to grade their students. Although my teacher-student relationship with these women undoubtedly affected their interactions with me, students’ fear of retaliation for speaking openly about their feelings in school may have been minimized by this less authoritative position. Additionally, I found that these teen mothers often had little fear in relating their true feelings about school or the classroom. On numerous occasions, in both class lessons and interviews, these women remarked on the frustrations with their work or the school system in general, with little fear of retribution from me or other teachers in the program. These interactions further led me to believe that the participants in this research project were willing to discuss openly and honestly their experiences in school.

Futhermore, my position as a White doctoral student at Harvard University may have placed me in a somewhat distant and privileged place; most of the women I interviewed were minorities and had fewer years of education. Although this status may have initially compromised their ability to trust me, I believe that my role as their teacher did much to negate the stereotype that many of these women may have had of me as a researcher from Harvard. Additionally, I have found through my years of teaching that many of the students in my classes have had little conception of the hierarchy of university educational levels (e.g., how a doctoral-level program differs from an undergraduate program). That said, I do believe that these women recognized the power that education holds—otherwise, many of them would not be attempting to further their own education—and that my position as a representative of this power may have swayed them to present their commitment to their schooling in a more positive light.

A further methodological limitation is posed by the choice to interview women who are already enrolled in an education program. These women could be seen as a select population and thus provide little generalizable information on teen mothers’ attitudes toward school. The women involved in this study were already enrolled in a school program, and their enrollment was required. As a part of the reform of welfare (State Plan for Temporary Assistance, 2004), teenage mothers in Massachusetts who receive welfare benefits are now required to attend high school or an alternative education program for at least 20 hours a week. Thus, these women’s participation in this education program was not of their own volition but a requirement placed on them by external forces.

Finally, this study does not attempt to generalize to the entire population of teenage mothers because individuals’ experiences in school and with motherhood are multifaceted and varied. Rather, the purpose of this research is to gain further insight into how individuals’ perspectives of school may be influenced by early parenthood. Although such findings may represent a smaller subset of the teen mother population, the analysis of their experience is intended to begin the discussion of how motherhood may play a role in the reformulation of young individuals’ understandings of self, future, and education. The themes that arise from this study may serve as a foundation for structuring later large-scale initiatives that develop more wide-ranging, generalizable themes about the influence that childbearing may have on the educational aims of a larger population of teen mothers.


In this study, I used three sources of data for my analysis: multiple-choice surveys, in-depth interviews, and field notes from class lessons intended to elicit more information about teen mothers’ experiences in school. All 9 participants in this study completed an independently created survey that consisted of a multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questionnaire asking about their experiences in school and about significant issues that may have influenced this experience. Questions centered on the types of relationships and supports that these women had during their childhood and adolescence1 and how those relationships may have influenced their experience in school.2 Other questions focused on individuals’ own personal commitment to their schooling,3 factors affecting their decision to drop out of school,4 and factors influencing their desire to return to school.5 The surveys were administered to women who had attended class on a given day and agreed to participate in the study. Each of the surveys was filled out individually and took approximately 15–20 minutes to complete.

Although I attempted to interview all 9 women, difficulties in scheduling allowed me the opportunity to interview only 5 of the 9 women surveyed. The interview was based upon a semistructured, open-ended interview protocol that sought to elicit information regarding the women’s school experiences and important relationships that may have influenced this experience (e.g., ‘‘Describe your experiences with education as a child,’’ ‘‘What were your reasons for not completing high school?’’ and ‘‘What were the primary reasons motivating you to go back to school?’’). Although these questions were generally used to begin the conversation, I was also open to move in whatever directions the participants saw fit in discussing their experiences. The interviews took place in a private room, typically lasted from 40 to 60 minutes, and were audiotaped. Additionally, I took notes throughout the interview to highlight responses for later examination.

Finally, I analyzed personal field notes of several lessons given throughout the year that were consistent with the research questions that I was pursuing. For instance, during one class, students were learning how to construct an essay and were asked to brainstorm about their feelings about school before and after having a child. During this brainstorming session, a great deal of discussion ensued about how their conceptions of school had changed. After class, I took notes about the issues discussed and recorded details from the students’ dialogue for later analysis. I then analyzed these notes along with the surveys and interview data to reveal a fuller picture of the participants’ thoughts about school and motherhood. These field notes were also used as a supplemental source of data for analyzing the perspectives of those women who completed a survey on their school experiences but could not be interviewed.


The surveys, interviews, and field notes were then examined for themes using a data-driven, grounded theory approach (Boyatzis, 1998; Maxwell, 1996; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The taped interviews, interviewers’ notes, related field notes, and surveys were coded to delineate themes among participants’ responses and work toward the development of higher-level codes within the data. An initial bank of themes was developed from the interview and field notes data, with similar responses on the survey questions being noted and included to further elaborate on the themes identified (Boyatzis). For instance, themes such as ‘‘difficulties with school after pregnancy/motherhood’’ or ‘‘school interest after pregnancy/motherhood’’ were noted through a review of the interviews and field notes. After creating a bank of potential themes, each of the interviews, field notes, and surveys was carefully examined to determine how particular themes might be related to or differentiated from one another.

After the initial themes had been reviewed and rewritten for heightened clarity and definition, they were then clustered under three identifiable axial codes based upon their related characteristics. This clustering analysis was based upon Strauss and Corbin’s (1990) definition of axial codes as those that relate certain categories of data to subcategories that ‘‘crosscut and link’’ to one another (p. 124). For example, an axial code would seek to show how the phenomenon of teenage motherhood is related to a specific context, condition, strategy, or consequence with which it may be associated. Thus, if one saw that teenage motherhood was often connected to low academic achievement, the process of delineating an axial code might seek to reveal under what conditions these two phenomena were linked. In this study, I use axial codes to provide a conceptual structure of how the initial themes related to one another and helped to organize the analysis in several overarching codes.

The teen mothers’ discussions of school and motherhood centered on several axial codes. Although numerous themes were discovered in the data relating to their changing conceptions of themselves as mothers and students, their experiences concentrated around three axial codes:

1. I don’t want to be in school (referring to teen mothers’ experiences with school before motherhood).

2. School is important to me (referring to teen mothers’ experiences with school after motherhood).

3. My child has made all the difference (referring to the impact that her child had on her view of education and self).

These three axial codes conceptually linked the themes that arose from teen mothers’ conversations and helped me to begin to build a working theory on how motherhood created a different understanding of school for these teens. In the following section, I will discuss how the open codes surrounding these teen mothers’ experiences conceptually link to these axial codes by providing narrative detail from their accounts and contrasting their views with recent scholarship on teen mothers and education.6



As noted in Table 3, the teen mothers in this study generally argued that they weren’t interested in school during their early adolescent years (before becoming pregnant). With the exception of two individuals, all women in this study argued that they had little interest in their schoolwork and believed that their school education played a minor role in their lives. I found that their disinterest appeared to center on three themes:

1. School’s not for me.

2. Hanging out with the girls.

3. My school was crazy.

School’s not for me

Consonant with the research findings that females who become pregnant are often less involved in their education, many of the teen mothers in this study argued that they had little interest in school during their teenage years. Although school was engaging for them during their elementary years, middle school and high school proved to be a more difficult period, during which many of these women found little value in their classroom education. For instance, most of the women discussed their lack of interest in school before having a child during several class lessons that were structured around a discussion of these women’s experiences in school. Tanya, Miranda, Rema, and Belinda each explained that their families had put little emphasis on education, and therefore, they saw little importance in going to school.

As will be discussed more in-depth in the following pages, the teen mothers’ lack of engagement in school generally revolved around problems with family, a lack of interest or learning within the classroom, or a desire to be with peers outside of the school context. Holly’s interview comments sum up the feeling of many of the women in this study. When asked if she was interested in her academic studies when she was in high school, Holly responded, ‘‘[I] didn’t think they were very important . . . I didn’t think I would use them in the real world. I didn’t think that they had nothing to do with what was going on right now.’’ Overall, 7 of the 9 women involved in this study argued that they were not interested in high school before they got pregnant.

Hanging out with the girls

These women also highlighted that their lack of interest in school was influenced by their peer relationships. Most often, the teen mothers in this study argued that they wanted to be with their friends rather than do their classwork or study. For instance, Miranda claimed that she ‘‘just wanted to do what [her]

Table 3. Teen mothers’ experiences in school before having a child: “I don’t want to be in school”




Number of Times Theme Emerged

(out of 5 interviews and 9 surveys)

1. School’s not for me.

Student identifies a lack of interest in school before pregnancy

“I didn’t think they [academic studies] were very important  . . . I didn’t think I would use them in the real world.”

4 out of 5 interviews

7 out of 9 surveys

2. Hanging out with the girls.

Student identifies peers as influencing her lack of interest in school

“I just wasn’t interested in it [school] . . .  because my thing was skipping classes with the rest of the girls and hanging out.”

4 out of 5 interviews

3 out of 9 surveys

3. My school was crazy.

Student identifies school environment or teachers as influencing her lack of interest in school

“Sometimes the teachers . . . they just wouldn’t stop to continue explaining . . . that’s what made it harder for me . . . . So it’s like, I don’t know the work, why go to class? That’s why I would skip a lot.”

4 out of 5 interviews

Surveys—not applicable

friend was doing,’’ while Belinda, ‘‘[I] just wasn’t interested in it [school] . . . because my thing was skipping classes with the rest of the girls and hanging out.’’ Similarly, during a class discussion, Tanya insisted that she wasn’t learning in school and instead liked to skip classes to do things with her friends, like party, shoplift, or steal cars. Like these women, 6 of the 9 teen mothers involved in this study stated that they preferred to skip class to be with their friends. Although these three women saw themselves as the primary instigators of skipping class, Holly’s comments presented an alternate perspective on how peers could influence this choice. For Holly, the hard part about going to school ‘‘was the peer pressure in high school—and a lot of my friends weren’t going to school. They were doing the wrong things and they wanted to hang out, go smoke or whatever—and sometimes I would follow them because I just wanted to be in the ‘in’ crowd—so I would just go.’’

Holly’s comment reveals the role that friends can play in pulling students away from their studies as they focused on fitting in with their friends. For Holly, school attendance was not based solely on her own desire to skip class but on her desire to be with friends who were not attending school and wanted her to do ‘‘wrong’’ things. Like the comments above, three women claimed on their surveys that they believed that their desire to ‘‘hang out’’ with their friends was one of the main reasons that they dropped out of school. Although some women argued that friendships led to their desire to not be in school, others maintained that conflicts with peers affected their involvement in their education. As Belinda put it,

in high school, there’s a lot of girls there that like to start trouble and I didn’t want to go through all that again. I didn’t want to beat some asses and end up in jail . . . That’s why I chose not to go to school neither . . . I’m a nice person, a decent person, but I can’t take a lot of bullshit . . . I’m that person that can’t stay shut.

Holly also reported similar feelings, arguing that when she was younger, she ‘‘used to fight and instigate fights a lot.’’

My school’s crazy

In addition to the negative influences that peers could have on their school interest, the teen mothers in this study argued that their disengagement in school was in part due to their negative experiences with teachers and the learning environment. For instance, along with having friends who didn’t want to attend school, Holly spoke of her school’s overwhelming disorganization and inability to create a constructive learning environment. For her, what was wrong with high school was

the people, the kids, the surroundings, the way that the teachers didn’t, couldn’t organize the kids—they couldn’t get them to go into the class. It’s like the teacher didn’t have no control over the kids. The kids would just control the whole school. We wouldn’t have no books for school—they would throw them out the window. We didn’t have no authority figures, no one would stop us when we was cuttin’ school. We would we just leave the school, leave the front doors and no one would say anything.

For Holly, teachers’ and administrators’ lack of control within the school building and students’ rebellious behavior made it a difficult place to learn effectively.

Other women emphasized the difficulties that they had with teachers who were unable to teach them or who were uninterested in teaching them what they needed to know. Ally explained,

after awhile, it was just hard understanding a lot of things . . . and sometimes the teachers . . . they just wouldn’t stop to continue explaining . . . that’s what made it harder for me . . . because I didn’t know how to do the work and they wouldn’t just take out the time to sit there and explain it to me. So it’s like, I don’t know the work, why go to class? That’s why I would skip a lot.

Holly had similar complaints, arguing,

[the teachers] didn’t teach. I had a teacher for math that didn’t know no English . . . I tried to explain things and he don’t know what I’m saying . . . without no books and no examples and the teacher not knowing English, it made it very hard—it made it very hard. And sometimes when we had classes, the teachers wouldn’t be there. It would be like a free period but no one would come in—no substitute, no teacher, no nothing.

For these two students, learning within the classroom environment was hampered by teachers’ limited ability to teach or lack of presence within the classroom. Although not a category of discussion detailed on the surveys, 4 out of the 5 women in this study highlighted in their interviews the important role that school leaders and the school environment had in discouraging their interest and engagement in their education.


In contrast to the lack of commitment that they had to their education before becoming pregnant, these women made strong arguments about their commitment to education after having a child. As shown in Table 4, the women’s changed attitudes toward education converged around several themes about their financial woes and their increased attention to their future opportunities. More specifically, these women noted that their renewed desire to return to school centered on several core issues:

1. I’m on welfare and I don’t want to be.

2. I can’t get a good job.

3. School’s different here and now.

4. School makes a difference in my life.

I’m on welfare and I don’t want to be / I can’t get a good job

Although not an issue highlighted within the survey, all the women interviewed in this study argued that they did not want to be receiving government assistance and saw education as the means out of this predicament. Because this perspective of welfare was often combined with complaints about an inability to find well-paying employment, I have combined these two themes under one discussion category. The connection between welfare and lack of work can be seen most pointedly in Ally’s words: ‘‘I came back because I don’t want to stay on welfare my whole life. It’s not doing anything for me and I know if I get a job now, it’s not going to be much, you know . . . I want my education.’’

Several other women more explicitly highlighted how their return to school was a direct result of their difficulty finding sound employment without a high school education. Rather than critiquing welfare’s mandate that they attend school in order to receive public assistance, these women argued that their involvement in their education had more to do with their own interest in their future. As Holly argued,

I would come even if it wasn’t required by welfare. I would want to come. I wouldn’t want to be home all day [not] doing anything. I mean, who wants to be stuck at home all day? I mean, I could go out and get a job, but I’d rather get more education so I can get a better job than just get a job and settle for less if I can make more of myself.

Belinda had a very similar perspective:

It’s hard for me coming in the morning but then I think, you know, I don’t want to be on welfare for the rest of my life . . . . It’s not because of that, you know, that I’m coming to school . . . . but because of me and my son. Like I said, I want to progress, I want to get up there . . . .

Table 4. Teen mothers’ experiences in school after having a child: “School is important to me”




Number of Times Theme Emerged

(out of 5 interviews and 9 surveys)

1. I’m on welfare and I don’t want to be.

Student identifies a negative perspective of welfare and a desire to not be on public assistance as a reason for wanting to return to school

“I came back because I don’t want to stay on welfare my whole life. It’s not doing anything for me and I know if I get a job now, it’s not going to be much. . .  I want my education.

5 out of 5 interviews

Survey—not applicable

2. I can’t get a good job.

Student identifies an inability to obtain well-paying employment without a high school diploma/education

“But right now, I have to be in the system because . . .  I don’t even have a high school diploma, and, you know, the jobs aren’t that good paying.”

5 out of 5 interviews

7 out of 9 surveys

3. School’s different here and now.

Student identifies school or teachers as being more positive for them now than in the past, and/or that this atmosphere increased their desire to stay in school

“Like, let’s say if I want to quit school or whatever, and I talk to them about it, they [teachers] give me good advice—you know, stay in school for a better life.”

4 out of 5 interviews

Surveys—not applicable

4. School makes a difference in my life.

Student identifies returning to school as having made a positive difference in her life

“I feel better about myself now that I’m going to school, now that I’m doing something with my life.”

5 out of 5 interviews

9 out of 9 surveys

I want to get a better education. I want to be able to maintain myself and my son. I don’t want welfare maintaining me or my son. I don’t want the government doing that for me, I want to do it myself. But right now, I have to be in the system because I don’t even have a high school diploma, and the jobs aren’t that good paying.

One woman, Beth, even argued that she purposely went on welfare so that she could return to school: ‘‘When I got to the office, they were, like, ‘Well, you have to go to school.’ I said, ‘Why I am here?’ I want to go to school. I don’t care about the money—I just want to go to school.’’

School’s different here and now

In their discussions of their experiences in school after having a child, most of the women interviewed also noted that they found their present educational setting to be more empowering and engaging than their previous schools. This issue was not one that was highlighted in the survey, but one that 4 of the 5 women interviewed brought up as significant in their current school experience. For several participants, this more positive experience in school revolved around the support that they felt from their teachers. In two classroom lessons, Belinda, Miranda, Holly, and Tanya highlighted the important role that the coordinator of the Teen Parents Program had played in helping them overcome difficult challenges and stay committed to the program. As they talked about how ‘‘life was hard sometimes’’ now that they had so many responsibilities, they emphasized the numerous times that the coordinator of the program had helped support them in their struggles.

More directly, Miranda highlighted how teachers in the school helped her to stay on track with her studies, particularly when she started feeling discouraged. In addition to her classroom discussions about the program coordinator’s assistance in her weak moments, Miranda stated during her interview, ‘‘Like, let’s say if I want to quit school or whatever, and I talk to them about it, they [teachers] give me good advice—you know, stay in school for a better life.’’

Ally, who had previously felt discouraged by her teachers’ lack of involvement in her education, felt like she was now getting the type of help she needed. In talking about how her current teacher helps her to focus on her work, Ally said,

he’s more strong—he’s more firm on what he wants . . . I like that because I feel that if he would have just let us talk in class, I wouldn’t get any work done . . . . If he would just let us talk, I’ll keep talking and talking and forget about my work . . . I think that helps me a lot because I have more time to focus on my work than to sit there and talk to whoever’s next to me.

Similar to Ally’s view that her teachers have enhanced her ability to focus and learn, Holly discussed how the extra hours that teachers spend after class and the one-on-one attention that she gets from her teachers helped her feel more committed to getting her work done. Although saying that she can ‘‘get frustrated easily,’’ Holly argued,

the environment here helps me stay because the teachers help me concentrate more . . . . You really gotta stay focused and the teachers here help you do that . . . . They make it interesting and they make it an easy way to learn it. It’s not like they are doing it the hard way to learn things—they’re making it as easy as possible for you to understand. And they will stay after school with you, too. If you need extra help, they’ll stay after school with you and teach you again, one-on- one. And that’s the thing—a lot of teachers don’t understand that— that sometimes children need one-on-one attention, whoever you’re working with needs to have one-on-one attention.

Holly, like Miranda and Ally, focused on the personal attention that she received from her teachers as a decidedly positive aspect of her present school and something that helped foster her belief that she could continue in her schoolwork even when she felt discouraged. Interestingly, each of these women also noted how having a well-disciplined classroom helped her to concentrate on her work. In contrast to their previous schools, where teachers appeared to have little control or failed to engage their students, these women highlighted how a strong, firm teacher made their learning experience more productive and meaningful.

School makes a difference in my life

As perhaps would be expected from individuals who have argued for the importance of school in their lives, all 9 women in this study believed that returning to school made a significant positive impact on their lives. As Belinda stated, ‘‘I like coming home from school, saying that I was at school . . . [laugh] because I’m doing something in my life. You feel proud of yourself . . . when you’re doing something for yourself and your family.’’ Ally echoed her words almost exactly:

I feel better about myself now that I’m going to school, now that I’m doing something with my life, and, and I feel that I do want to do more, that I don’t want to come and just get my GED . . . Now that I’m in school, it motivates me to just finish and do more.

School’s positive influence was also discussed during classroom lessons. For instance, after an announcement in class that the program was in jeopardy because of budget cuts, Tanya, Miranda, Holly, and Rachel launched into a lengthy discussion of how much the program had meant to them and how bewildered they felt at the possibility of its closing. They explained their need for the program and how they did not want to attend school in a different place. In their discussions with the center director, they expressed relief when she explained that the center would attempt to keep their classes open for them. Their emotional reaction to the possible demise of the program laid bare the important role that this school had played in their lives and revealed how greatly they had come to rely on it.

‘‘My Child Has Made All the Difference:’’ Impact of Child on Self and Education

In discussing the increasingly important role that education had begun to play in their lives, the teen mothers in this study continually focused on how their status as a mother had changed both their experience of school and reasons for attending. As is summarized in Table 5, these teen mothers’ beliefs centered on the influence that their children had had on their reassessment of themselves and their future. In particular, the teen mothers’ comments centered on four core themes concerning how their children had shaped their school and self understandings:

1. School’s hard because I’m a mother.

2. A future beyond my own.

3. I want to be a good role model for my child.

4. Kids make you grow up.

School’s hard because I’m a mother

Interestingly, all 9 women involved in this study stated that they originally left school because they got pregnant and had a child. They clearly emphasized the complications that pregnancy caused for their school continuation during this period of their lives. Several of these women emphasized how complications with the pregnancy itself had affected their attention. Both Ally and Belinda felt that the physical hardships of being pregnant made it difficult to concentrate. Ally emphasized that she was ‘‘tired all the time,’’ while Belinda stated, ‘‘ [when I was] around 8 months, I stopped

Table 5. Teen mothers on how children impact their view of education and self: “My child has made all the difference”




Number of Times Theme Emerged

(out of 5 interviews and 9 surveys)

1. School’s hard because I’m a mother.

Student identifies pregnancy or caring for infant as creating difficulties for continuing in school

“When I was around 8 months, I stopped going [to school] because it was just too much for me—you know, the mood swings in the morning.”

4 out of 5 interviews

9 out of 9 surveys

2. A future beyond my own.

Student identifies wanting to provide a better future for her child as influencing her desire to return to school

“If I get a better education . . . I think that I can have a pretty good job . . . and that would give a chance to give my son what I want to give him.”

5 out of 5 interviews

8 out of 9 surveys

3. I want to be a good role model for my child.

Student identifies wanting to be a role model for her child/children as influencing her desire to return to school

“I want her to be proud of me. I don’t want to stay home and then when she grows up she doesn’t want to go to school . . . I want her to say ‘my mom went to college.’”

5 out of 5 interviews

7 out of 9 surveys

4. Kids make you grow up.

Student identifies having a child as making her grow up, mature, or be more responsible

“He made me a little bit more mature from the way I was. Like, I’m not hanging out in the streets anymore like I used to.”

4 out of 5 interviews

Surveys—not applicable

going [to school] because it was just too much for me—you know, the mood swings in the morning.’’

After getting through the difficulties of pregnancy, motherhood posed additional challenges when these women thought about returning to school. Miranda, among others, argued that concentrating on schoolwork became even more challenging after having a baby. After dealing with the difficulties of her child’s asthmatic problems and needing to take care of her intensively, Miranda argued, ‘‘focusing on one thing for a long time was hard . . . I was tired. I didn’t have the strength to get up and just go to school.’’ Like Miranda, others also emphasized how their babies’ medical conditions made it difficult to attend school on a regular basis. Beth said of her premature baby, ‘‘[I] had a lot of bad situations and I had to take her to the clinic a lot and everything, so . . . I thought about not going to school ‘til I was over with that.’’

Such challenges also continued once they returned to school. During a class lesson, three of the women in this study (Tanya, Holly, and Miranda) discussed how they often felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood and that such feelings sometimes challenged their resolve to remain in school. For each of these women, the physical efforts that motherhood required and the emotional exhaustion that such demands produced made school attendance difficult. They argued that difficulty with childbearing was the primary factor behind their earlier choice to drop out of school, and the stress from childrearing continued to dampen their resolve to remain in school now.

A future beyond my own

As hinted at in their discussions of welfare, most of these women pointed to their children as the primary instigator for their return to school. All 5 of the women interviewed and 8 of the 9 women who filled out surveys emphasized how they wanted to ‘‘get their education’’ for their children. For instance, Miranda, who had previously dedicated little time to her studies and had been more interested in being with her friends than focusing on her schoolwork, argued that she now felt more involved in school: ‘‘I need my education . . . because now I have a child to look out for.’’ When Beth was asked why she returned to school, she said, ‘‘probably because I love my daughter and so I’m going to go to school.’’ Like Beth, 8 of the 9 women in this study responded on their surveys that they had returned to school in order to provide a better future for their child.

When pressed to discuss how school would help them in their goal to provide a better future for their children, many of the women insisted that school would help them obtain a better job and make them more financially able to support a child. Seven of the 9 women argued on their surveys that getting a GED would help them in their desire to find employment. Holly realized this after being confronted with the reality of the types of jobs that were available for people who had not finished high school: ‘‘Everybody would tell me—you have to go to school . . . but I wouldn’t . . . process it until I actually saw some of my friends working at McDonald’s or Burger King—that’s when it all clicked to me, like, wow, I don’t want to be stuck in a low-income job for the rest of my life.’’

Belinda also had a similar perspective. In addition to continual statements in class about the impact of motherhood on her outlook on life, Belinda talked in her interview about how her understanding of school’s import changed once she started caring for her child and thinking about how she would provide for him:

When I got pregnant, I was young and I really thought that it wasn’t a big deal . . . . But then when I had him, started to take care of him . . . when you want to buy something for them and you don’t have the money, you know, all of that changes your mind . . . about school . . . I just think that if I get a better education and I get somewhere in life and I get to go to college—I think that I can have a pretty good job, you know, a good-paying job—and that would give me a chance to give my son what I want to give him, the best in life.

I want to be a good role model for my child

Motherhood also appeared to have influenced these teens’ desire to be in school in order to be a good role model for their children and have their children look up to them. All 5 of the women interviewed and 7 of the women surveyed identified themselves as responsible for encouraging their children’s interest in education and modeling such behavior through their own actions. Beth summarized the feelings of many when she stated, ‘‘I want her to be proud of me. I don’t want to stay home and then when she grows up she doesn’t want to go school . . . I want her to say ‘my mom went to college.’’’

Other women emphasized their desire to have their children understand the importance of school and to set an example for them in this respect. Thus, Ally argued,

I came back to school for my son. I don’t want him to grow up . . . and have to wake him up every morning, fighting every morning to go to school, and for him to say to me, why should I finish if you didn’t finish? That would really hurt me . . . I want him to see me . . . and for him to be like, my mom did it—you know, it was hard for her even though she dropped out a few times but she still went on and she did it, no matter how hard it was.

Holly, in a separate interview, echoed these words almost exactly:

I think I am more involved in school ‘cause I want to be a good role model for my son. So I don’t want him to say, ‘oh, my mother didn’t go back to school,’ my mother didn’t just stay at home being lazy. I want him to go to school and finish. So I want to be a good role model for him . . . . That’s why I try to be here—so like he can grow up thinking, okay, I’m supposed to be in school, doing this, doing that—so he won’t be involved in the bad things in life . . . . You influence your kids. Like if they see you working, they see you doing something, most likely they’re gonna to grow up doing what you was doing. If they see you hanging in the streets, partying, and so on, and so on, they’re not gonna be good people.

Kids make you grow up

A common theme in their renewed interest in education also lay in these women’s beliefs that their children had helped them to grow up and take their futures more seriously. Like Belinda, who spoke of how the difficulties in taking care of her son had transformed her reasoning process, Miranda emphasized that being accountable to her daughter had made her more aware of the importance of doing well in school: ‘‘I don’t fail because now I have more responsibilities to look out for.’’ Holly also highlighted how her son had transformed her in important ways:

He made me a little bit mature from the way I was. I’m not hanging out in the streets anymore like I used to . . . he made me a better person, actually, more in control of my life, more in control of my decisions, too. . . . Maybe if I didn’t have him, I would be listening to my friends and stuff like that—they would have more of an influence on me. Now I have to worry about a child. So every decision I make I have to make sure that my child won’t get affected in any way . . . . Kids make you change a lot. They make you think—before, you don’t really think. Kids make you think about everything you do.

Although not a topic listed on the surveys, 4 of the 5 women interviewed identified their children as helping them to mature or grow in their understanding of themselves.


Motherhood is a drastic change in the lives of many women and arguably even more drastic in the life of a teenage woman. For many developmental theorists (e.g., Erikson, 1968; Lightfoot, 1997), adolescence is seen as a time when individuals engage in risky behaviors and have little perspective on how their actions may affect their future. However, the women in this study highlight the different challenges brought about by raising a child and how confrontations with this reality pushed them to look at their lives differently. These women discuss how childbearing created dramatic changes in their perspectives of themselves, their futures, and the roles that they played in defining such experiences. With their focus on motherhood as a change agent in their lives, the teen mothers in this study provide an interesting voice for how the meaning of education may be reformulated in the eyes of some women who become parents during their adolescent years. Their words provide further support for previous arguments documenting the complicated relationship between pregnancy and teen mothers’ educational longevity while also providing three new frames by which to view the effect that motherhood can have on teens’ perspectives of education and themselves.


These women’s stories show several continuities with previous researchers’ discussions concerning teen mothers’ educational status and the reasons underlying their reduced educational longevity. Most (7 out of 9) of the women in this study argued that they placed little value on education before their pregnancies. Such lack of interest in school differs little from numerous findings on the low academic aspirations of women who become pregnant during adolescence (Kaplan, 1997; Luker, 1996; Williams, 1991). Additionally, the connections that they made between their low economic status and their lack of education also supports researchers’ focus on the effect that low academic skills can have on teen mothers’ economic success (Maynard, 1996; Whitman et al., 2001). Although not a new finding, these women’s perspectives underscore the legitimacy of previous findings concerning teen mothers’ educational commitment and how low academic skills can lead to heightened levels of economic hardship.

The reasoning behind these women’s reduced educational interest also supports previous findings documenting the effect that school environment and peers can have on individuals’ schooling. Similar to the educationally disaffected adolescent mothers in other studies (Kaplan, 1997; Williams, 1991), the teen women in this study linked their lack of interest in education with several school-related issues, including a lack of meaningful connection with their education and a negative school environment. The comments that they made upon the structural disorganization and negative teacher interactions they experienced in their schools differ little from the poor conditions existing in many urban schools in which teen pregnancy is most prevalent (Anyon, 1994; Kozol, 1991; Maeroff, 1994) and are consistent with other adolescent mothers’ stories (Kaplan, 1997; Luker, 1996). These women’s negative characterizations of their school environments lend further support to the contention that schools can affect students’ ability and desire to learn while also revealing the detrimental effects that school disorganization can have on student outcomes.

Similar connections can be found in the women’s comments on the effect that their peer relationships had on their school interest. Like research that documents the large role that peers play in students’ engagement in school (Burt, Resnick, & Novick, 1998; Scales & Leffert, 1999), several of the teen mothers in this study argued that their relationships with their peers held an important place in their lives and often influenced their desire to attend school. Rather than pushing them to succeed in school, several of these women argued that their relationships with their friends—or, alternately, fights with their peers—discouraged them from attending school or de- creased their interest in their studies. It is interesting to note that some of these teens discussed how both positive and negative peer connections played a role in their school attachment. Although youth development theorists’ (Scales & Leffert) have noted the positive influence that peers can have on students’ commitment to school, these women’s comments appear more in line with urban educational theorists’ (e.g., Wilson, 1996) concerns that peers who are uninterested in school can promote further school disengagement in each other.


Although providing additional support for previous findings regarding the connections between teenage pregnancy and academic achievement, the teen mothers in this study also elicit three new frames by which to view teenage pregnancy and its effects on school engagement. Their words present clear challenges to the ways in which teenage pregnancy has been framed in policy and education debates while also revealing new commentary on how identity and educational beliefs are reconstructed through the process of becoming a mother.

Reframe I: Views of welfare

The first new perspective that these women provide concerns their view of welfare. Rather than seeing welfare as permanent source of income and a meaningful way of life, these women argue that welfare is a temporary step that allows them to gain the skills that they need to obtain well-paying, meaningful employment in the future. Their statements concerning their frustration with welfare ‘‘maintaining’’ them and their arguments against receiving public assistance for their ‘‘whole life’’ reveal a cognizance of the stigma attached to receiving public assistance as a means of financial support. Such awareness of the negative connotations of being ‘‘in the system’’ represents a marked contrast to policy debates that focus on welfare as a dependency-promoting system that women willingly choose in order to sustain themselves financially (Nathanson, 1991). Instead, these women argue that public assistance is a necessity because of the low-paying employment for individuals with low academic skills and their need to gain more academic credentialing to obtain better paying jobs. Rather than supporting the dependency-based rhetoric in their own reflections, the women in this study provide a more critical perspective of welfare’s purpose while highlighting its deep connections with economic opportunity, education, and individuals’ self-concept.

Reframe II: Pregnancy versus motherhood

A second new perspective that the women in this study provide revolves around their discussions of pregnancy, mothering, and its effects on their educational decision making. In contrast to dialogue focusing on the pregnancy as the critical event for teen mothers’ educational longevity, the women in this study tend to focus less on becoming pregnant and more on how the process of becoming a mother has altered their thinking. These women focus on how motherhood has forced them to look at their lives in new ways as they think about how they will provide and care for their children. They discuss the hardships that they have faced as they discover their inability to financially ‘‘maintain’’ their families, the positive influence that they want to have on their children, and the ways in which their children have forced them to grow up and ‘‘mature.’’

Through their focus on the long-term effects that motherhood has, these women highlight how decision making can be reevaluated through confrontation with new life challenges. Although the majority of the women in this study had originally been disengaged from and uninterested in school, each of them presented strong arguments for her commitment to school after becoming a mother. They asserted that their desire to return to school centered primarily on their role as mothers and how motherhood had influenced their need to be economically stable and a good model for their children. These women maintained that deepening their academic skills afforded them the opportunity to better themselves, both economically and personally. This commitment toward education was reiterated numerous times despite other challenges, such as their initial school dropout upon becoming pregnant, their required school attendance as welfare recipients, and the difficulties that motherhood posed for their continuation in school.

Such a shift in thinking represents a compelling twist on researchers’ findings that teen mothers’ engagement in school after having a child is highly associated with their previous experience in school (Leadbeater, 1996; Polit & Kahn, 1987). These women’s thoughts reveal that an evaluation of schools’ import is not a static one-dimensional conception, but one that may shift as individuals become enmeshed in new life experiences. As their reassessment of school reveals, teen mothers may have very different reasons for attending school after having a child than they did before they became mothers. Alternately, their lack of attendance after becoming mothers may stem from issues qualitatively different from those of earlier adolescence. Although teen mothers who previously had little interest in education may still have difficulties attending school after having a child, this difficulty may have less to do with their lack of interest or desire to be in school than with other issues that make school continuation difficult. Such findings draw into question whether previous researchers were identifying students’ attitudes toward school or inferring such attitudes from students’ attendance or performance.

Reframe III: Importance of a positive school environment

A third new comment that these women make about teen pregnancy and its links to educational achievement centers on the importance of a supportive and organized school environment in helping individuals achieve. Whatever their past feelings about school, each of the women in this study discussed how her current school was helping her to build a more positive future and increase her confidence in herself and her intellectual abilities. The women emphasized that the support and encouragement they received from their teachers was an important factor helping them to remain in school. Although these more positive feelings were often complicated by their difficulties attending school7 or frustrations with their schoolwork,8 women in this program focused on how the school environment at this center had helped them feel more in control of their lives and more confident in their ability to achieve the future they wanted for themselves.

Although the challenges of teen motherhood may be great, these women’s stories underscore the important role that schools can play in encouraging their students to achieve. Programs designed to help these women with the difficulties of caring for a child and continuing in school may be able to capitalize on some teen mothers’ renewed commitment to their studies. Indeed, many such programs have already been successful in helping teen mothers remain in school and graduate (see Amin, 1988;  Daria, 1988; Finkel & Thompson, 1997; LaRue & Miller, 1988; McSparrin, 1993; Pollack, 1987; Rogeness, 1981; Scholl & Johnson, 1988). Researchers have argued that programs such as these, which are open to teen mothers or specifically designed around their needs, are resulting in more teen mothers continuing their education, experiencing high levels of success, and even helping them to graduate at rates close to their nonpregnant peers (Gathron, 1990; Luker, 1996). It is these types of programs that should continue to be supported and built upon in order to more effectively reach mothering teens who are struggling to stay in school.

Finally, educational researchers and policy makers would benefit from working toward understanding how teen mothers conceptualize themselves and their role in their own school success. Narrowly focusing on teen mothers as welfare recipients or low academic achievers limits the broader ways in which these individuals may think of their economic and educational opportunities. Although becoming pregnant as a teenager may put women more at risk for negative economic and educational outcomes, the event of pregnancy does not have to be seen as the sole defining moment in the lives of these women. Rather, researchers and policy makers should consider the deeper implications that motherhood may have for how women may think about themselves and their roles in defining their futures. Opening a space that supports these women in their reflections and engages them in academically challenging work may provide a foundational step in helping teen mothers gain the education and skills that they need to build a future in which they and their children can take pride.


1 For example, ‘‘Who do you think was the most important influence in your life when you were a teenager?’’ with choices following.

2 For example, ‘‘How involved were your parents in helping you with schoolwork?’’

3 For example, ‘‘Do you feel like you were really interested or involved in your education when you were a teenager (in middle school and high school)?’’

4 For example, ‘‘What would you say are the main reasons you didn’t complete high school when you were younger?’’ with choices such as hanging out with friends, not interested in school, or bad teachers.

5 For example, ‘‘What do you think were your main reasons for returning to school?’’ with choices such as a desire to better myself, get a better job, encourage my children, or learn specific skills.

6 The quotes given in this article are the actual words from the participants in the study. In some instances, repetitive words or speech utterances (such as ‘‘you know,’’ ‘‘like,’’ ‘‘um,’’ or ‘‘ah’’) have been omitted.

7 Ally gave a more detailed perspective of what these ‘‘problems’’ can look like: ‘‘I’m always stressed with things on my mind—like, in a few weeks, I’m going into a shelter—I don’t know where they’re going to put me. . . . I do want to stay in school. I do want to finish, but, I mean . . . it’s gonna be real hard.’’

8 Ally gives a typical example: ‘‘Sometimes if I’m stuck . . . I don’t want to do it. And I don’t care how many times you explain it to me— if I don’t understand it, I don’t want to do it.’’


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 12, 2005, p. 2566-2598
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12252, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 1:25:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Zachry
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH ZACHRY is an advanced doctoral student at Harvard University Graduate School of Education in the Human Development and Psychology Program. She has been a Doctoral Fellow at the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy for the past three years and concentrates her research in adult literacy and the issues surrounding students’ dropout and re-engagement in school.
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