“My Age Really Doesn’t Matter”: Norms on Young Motherhood

By Marijke Sniekers

This article has been part of the ‘Women On The Timelineprotect, initiated by Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns.

Daniëlle[1], an 18-year-old mother, speaks of becoming a mother: “It really doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. It’s all new and will be hard at times.”Young mothers continuously need to prove that they are great moms, successful and that they deserve respect like any other woman/mother/youngster. They often need to fight stigmas and stereotypes of being incapable of raising children, being a moral and socioeconomic problem and a risk to themselves and their children.

The ‘problem’ of young motherhood (under the age of 24 years) in the Netherlands seems not so big, considering the low numbers of young mothers in the country. Teenage fertility rates in the Netherlands are the second lowest in Europe, and among the 10 lowest in the world. In Dutch society in the 1950s, young motherhood was common. The mean childbearing age for women has risen from 24 years (1970) to 30 years (2019). Nowadays, young motherhood is uncommon and undesirable.

Until 1955, women were legally ‘incompetent’ and could be laid off from civil service once they married. Equal pay for equal work was legalised in that year. Since then, norms about women’s economic independence have started to change. From the late 1980s, women have entered the labour market in large numbers, leading to current high labour market participation of women. Unfortunately, women still receive unequal pay for equal work, experience an unequal gender and age bias in selection for and promotion at work (‘glass ceiling’), and face discriminatory practices at work due to pregnancy. Expectations for women have not changed much in terms of work-care balance and the gender division of labour. Women are commonly expected to become mothers.

Dutch norms on motherhood, education and employment constitute a motherhood ideology of viewing women as child carers and men as breadwinners. This means that mothers should be the main carers, should always be present for their children, and should focus primarily on their children’s needs. Unlike in most European countries, heterosexual couples in the Netherlands commonly conform to the 1.5 wage earner model, according to which men usually work full-time and women part-time in so-called ‘mother contracts’ of work during children’s school hours. Women generally perform the unpaid care and household tasks, even when they also have full-time paid employment. Formally, parental leave days have increased for fathers in paid employment. However, in reality are men reluctant to take leave, because of traditional role patterns at home, because work culture does not facilitate it and because of a lack of role models.

Young mothers are caught in the middle of such stereotypical, dominant gender patterns and norms around motherhood, care and employment. On the one hand, as youngsters they are expected to be in school and continue with paid employment. On the other hand, as mothers they are expected to stay at home and care for the children. You are a good mother if you take care of your child yourself and are there for your child. Young people are expected to complete the highest possible education, after which they find a job at that level and in that sector. After that they can settle down with their partner and have children.

Such dilemmas and norms regarding the socioeconomic independence of young mothers were the focus of my PhD study, for which I spend time with young mothers. Daniëlle (quoted above) explains that any first-time parent experiences difficulties and struggles with new responsibilities and structure in daily life. Femke explains how lack of support from a partner made raising her child difficult, because she could not share the responsibility with someone else: “I had to rely on myself and have been sacrificing my own needs”. Manon and Agnes say that combining school and work with caring for children is hard, since their parents cannot babysit (they have their own jobs) and day-care is too expensive or does not match their working hours on weekends and evenings as a nurse. Their stories illustrate that it is not their young age, but circumstances such as being a new mom, a single parent or working parent that led to problems in their lives.

Attending education or going to work is often a practical puzzle for many young mothers, especially single ones. Manon says: “I had a night shift at my work, and when I came back, I made my child his sandwiches, took my child to school and then his teacher said: ‘You look bad.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t slept yet.’ That was hard.” Some women say that they do not have children to have them cared for by day-care or relatives. They feel a strong need and pressure from people around them to be present for their child, instead of completing their education or working. Floor wants to be a role model to her child, which is expected of her from a motherhood perspective. However, this is ‘bad’ from a motherhood ideal, because working and earning wages means she cannot take care of her child herself all day. Even with policies and subsidies in place, young mothers still face contradicting norms. Studying and working parents can receive subsidies for day-care, but schools and the state do not offer free childcare facilities, so young parents have to pay for private childcare services. Policies and organisational structures that are supposed to increase young people’s socioeconomic independence are, in reality, counterproductive.

Schools, particularly, are not used to students with children. Daphne says: “I was lucky to give birth during Christmas holiday, so I could go back to school two weeks later.” Other student-mothers are lucky to have a teacher that gives extensions for deadlines or extra assignments when the women had to stay home, because their children were ill. However, schools are usually not very flexible in assignments and attendance, and do not provide for maternity leave. Student-mothers do not want any study delay, because that means that they will have to pay back their student grant. Getting into debt because of an education is not a pleasant prospect.

Student grants together with fears of not completing the education within the time limit required for the grant, make young mothers often choose for a practical vocational study (BBL) (instead of theoretical vocational, Bachelor’s or Master’s studies). “I’m smart enough to do a Bachelor’s degree, but my child will be two and I want another child. Combining a Bachelor and a child is harder than doing vocational studies with a child, and vocational is fine too for a job and raising two children” says Valerie.

Young mothers like her are more likely to opt for the practical vocational education (BBL), because at the short term it provides them with work experience, job guarantee and wages they need to provide for their children. For better long-term opportunities, it is, once having started to work, hard for young mothers to get back to school after a few years when their children have reached the school-age of four years. This means they get stuck in a low paid job in which they can hardly plan their own working hours and have to work weekend and night shifts. A low paid job also means that they need to pay all their earnings to the day-care centre. Furthermore, the jobs young mothers end up with when doing a practical vocational study are often jobs in health care of elderly care, affirming traditional gender roles of women as carers.

Despite the developments since the fifties and the policies and subsidies that are in place, these young mother’s stories show the ongoing need to contest gender and age stereotypes leading to inequalities. We need to recognise different values and experiences. Even though young mothers exert agency, this is not enough to reconcile conflicting norms on their own and solve structural problems individually. Dominant norms should not stand in the way of people who walk different pathways than what is commonly expected. This column is based on the results of the study Acknowledging the agency of young mothers: A qualitative study into young, motherhood and socioeconomic independence by Marijke Sniekers


[1] The names of the women are pseudonyms.

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