ST. LOUIS -- A new Saint Louis University study rebuts the assumption that all teenagers who have babies face a future of dismal failure.
"Earlier studies exaggerated the long-term negative consequences associated with teenage mothering," says Lee SmithBattle, R.N., DNSc, professor of nursing at Saint Louis University Doisy College of Health Sciences and principal investigator of a qualitative study that analyzed the experiences of teen mothers a dozen years after they had given birth to their first child.
"This study and several others show that teen mothers fare better over time than our assumptions suggest," she says.
SmithBattle, who has been researching teen mothers for 17 years, found that early motherhood has not ruined their lives.
She has followed the lives of mothers and their families every four years, starting when their babies were less than a year old. For this article, SmithBattle analyzed interviews conducted when 11 moms were in their 30s to show how becoming a mom as a teen affected their lives. Her article appears in this month's issue of Western Journal of Nursing Research.
Some women in their early 30s found great meaning in parenting, marriage and their work. Others were also devoted parents but they lacked fulfillment in marriage or a career. A third group of mothers found much less meaning in parenting and felt powerless to cope with the responsibilities of motherhood.
"In spite of adverse childhood experiences, mothering for some teens provides a corrective or turning-point experience," SmithBattle says.
Some women "first find their voices in loving and caring for a child," she says. "Mothering placed them on a new path and gave new meaning and depth to their lives.
Mothering transformed their worlds and created a new moral horizon for how they should live.
"Some mothers face many challenges but it's not strictly because they had a baby when they were teenagers."
She says many teen mothers have difficult childhoods and come from disadvantaged communities with poor schools so they start out with many strikes against them. There's little hope or support to finish high school or go to college. Becoming a mother is almost seen as inevitable.
And once they become mothers, the lack of support for education and job training for anything other than low-skilled positions without health benefits reinforces the disadvantage that often led them to become teen parents in the first place.
"We stop them dead in their tracks," SmithBattle says. "Those strikes are not just from their family situation, but from our shortsighted social policies."
Nurses who visit teen mothers in their homes can be critical in helping a teen mother grow into the responsibilities of parenthood.
"The responsive presence of a nurse can help a teen to imagine and carve out a meaningful future," she says.
Nurses also must intervene when educational, health or social policies make it even tougher for teens to succeed as mothers, SmithBatte says.
"Clinicians can play a key role in mentoring and nurturing young mothers when their sense of self, agency and future are nascent and fragile. Nurses also play a pivotal role in linking teens to resources to complete school, obtain day care, access health care and mental health services and gain life skills."
Long a leader in health professions education, Saint Louis University began its nursing program in 1928 and the first baccalaureate degree program in an allied health profession in 1929.
Today the Doisy College of Health Sciences offers degrees in nursing, clinical laboratory sciences, health information management, investigative and medical sciences, nuclear medicine technology, nutrition and dietetics, occupational science and occupational therapy, physical therapy and a physician assistant program.