Is teenage childbearing pathological? Anthropologist Linda Burton argues otherwise in her study of an African American community, and she cites other researchers who have come to similar conclusions:
Hamburg (1986) suggests that teenage childbearing, within certain poor black subgroups, reflects an alternative life-course strategy rather than a nonnormative life event. […] Furthermore, the long-term outcomes of teenage childbearing in these subcultures are not necessarily as devastating as mainstream impressions imply (Furstenberg et al. 1987). Rather, early childbearing may be perceived as a viable option that fosters individual growth, family continuity, and cultural survival in an environment in which few other avenues for enhancing development are available. (Burton, 1990, p. 124)
By viewing teenage childbearing as a reproductive strategy, with its own logic and life goals, we may better understand why it happens and know how to prevent it. Viewing it as a pathology has simply given us “solutions” that don’t work … and endless rationalizations for their failure to work.
Among African Americans, this reproductive strategy has one key characteristic: an accelerated family timetable. All life stages begin and end earlier:
Childhood: 1 to 10 years of age
Adolescence: 11 to 13
Motherhood: 14 to 26
Grandmotherhood: 35 to 45
Great grandmotherhood: 56 to 68
There is also separation of reproduction from marriage. Parenting is provided by the child’s mother and maternal grandmother. The father is usually absent. Households tend to be multigenerational with much exchange of services between younger and older generations and between siblings.
[…] given the fact that teenage childbearing families have more children per generation, it is likely that they have a broader array of potential caregivers, including older children who can assist in the care of their younger siblings, young adults who can help older family members, and young grandmothers who can parent the infants of teen mothers (Burton, 1990, p. 128)
Burton found that some African American women “covertly and sometimes overtly encouraged their teenage daughters to bear a child.” They wished to have the experience of rearing children—an experience denied them when they themselves had to rely on their maternal grandmothers many years earlier.
Once the maternal grandmother becomes a primary caregiver, the cycle of early motherhood tends to self-perpetuate. This is suggested by comments to Burton from a 35-year-old potential grandmother:
I suspect that my daughter (14 years old) will have a baby soon. If she doesn’t I’ll be too old to be a grandmother and to do the things I’m supposed to do, like raise my grandchild. (Burton, 1990, p. 132)
Similarly, a 58-year-old great-grandmother told Burton:
The best way to make sure that you have enough able bodies to take care of the needs in the family is to start the women having children as soon as they can. (Burton, 1990, p. 133)
Similarities and dissimilarities with the African marriage system
So far, most of the above sounds like the African system of mating and reproduction, as discussed in the last two posts. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, however, polygyny is not institutionalized. Instead of being secondary sources of childcare, men are typically absent altogether:
In contrast to the duties of females, the role responsibilities of males in the family are ambiguous. Both the male and female respondents indicated that few familial duties are assigned to males. As young children, boys could assist girls with household tasks. Once male children reach later childhood, however, their energies are invested outside the home. Beginning at about age 10, the socialization of boys is primarily in the hands of peers and older men in the community who instruct them in the ways of survival in Gospel Hill. These instructions focus on job opportunities for black men, male/female relationships, and sexual behavior. (Burton, 1990, p. 135)
As in sub-Saharan Africa, the mother identifies first and foremost with her own kin. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, however, she isn’t just less attached to the father. She is estranged from him, and this estrangement borders on hostility if the father consorts with white women. The following comment is from a 14-year-old mother:
Ever since I can remember I always expected to have a baby when I was 15 or 16 but I never believed I would ever have a chance to get a husband. One of the things my grandmother always said, “Pay your dues to your kin because they will take care of you. There ain’t no reason to waste your time on a colored man because they don’t want us no way.” (Burton, 1990, p. 133)
Curiously, while citing Patricia Draper’s study on African marriage systems, Linda Burton attributes this polygyny and low paternal investment to factors that are specific to the United States. Hence, racism and the shift from manufacturing to services is said to prevent African American men from getting good jobs and becoming active fathers (Burton, 1990, p. 127).
Future of teenage childbearing among African Americans
While teenage childbearing can provide effective means of family formation, often more effective than later childbearing, it is not without its weaknesses. One of them is the willingness of maternal grandmothers to become primary caregivers. Personal autonomy is becoming a supreme value in all age groups of American society, including middle-aged and older women:
The majority of young grandmothers studied refused to assume the primary role in rearing their grandchildren. These grandmothers felt that being a surrogate parent for their grandchild did not fit with their current lifecourse activities–that included a variety of “young-adult” roles involving work, education, friendships, romance, and even their own continued childbearing. (Burton, 1990, p. 128)
Easier birth control, especially abortion, is also having an impact. Even when women wish to have children early in life, they still tend to postpone this kind of momentous decision—if given the choice.
African American fertility is now 2.2 children per woman, i.e., replacement level. And this rate is being buoyed up by a very fertile subculture of teen mothers. Most African Americans have, in fact, entered the zone of below-replacement fertility.
This teen mother subculture displays many elements of the African marriage system (polygyny, low paternal investment, high value placed on childbearing, strong ties with maternal kin). These elements, however, have to operate within Euro-American legal and cultural constraints, which are modeled on the marital norms of Eurasia in general and Western Europe in particular (long-term monogamy, high paternal investment, voluntary limitation of family size, relatively weak ties with kin beyond the nuclear family).
These constraints meet with varying degrees of compliance among African Americans. At one end of the continuum are those who fully comply. At the other are those who comply as little as possible, i.e., the teen mother subculture. The middle encompasses those who comply more or less.
Certain factions, notably the Black Muslims, have sought to create a new set of constraints that would be more in line with the African marriage system. But such efforts have largely failed. For the near future, at least, the teen mother subculture will become increasingly problematic, particularly as more and more older women refuse the obligations of grandmotherhood. The African American community as a whole will thus continue its slide into below-replacement fertility.
Burton, L.M. (1990). Teenage childbearing as an alternative life-course strategy in multigeneration black families, Human Nature, 1, 123-143.
Draper, P. (1989). African marriage systems: Perspectives from evolutionary ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 145–169. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=anthropologyfacpub