What constitutes an “acceptable” family? When it comes to teen parents, society’s negative assumptions—often based on racist, classist, and sexist sentiment—can be an obstacle to improving the lives of young families. “In our society we’re not supposed to say anything good about teen motherhood. It’s a taboo topic,” says anthropology professor Betsy Krause. “Young parents are constantly subjected to stigma and shame. Their lived experiences are in a world of exacerbated inequality.”
As an antidote to the marginalization experienced by many teen parents, Krause has teamed with health promotion and policy professor Aline Gubrium to develop and direct Hear Our Stories, a project that invites young Latina parents in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to share their experiences and create short digital films that paint a more realistic and well-rounded picture of their lives. The films focus on experiences ranging from fighting false accusations of abuse to the excitement of welcoming a new sibling. It’s what Gubrium calls a “dignity-based approach,” and it’s at the forefront of a movement to counter the bias and shame surrounding teen pregnancy.
"Young parents are constantly subjected to stigma
and shame. Their lived experiences are in a world of
“The ways that teen pregnancy and parenting is talked about is very different from the lived experience,” says Gubrium. “Being a young parent is sometimes a motivator rather than a detractor.” Using the technique of narrative intervention, the teens work together to find their voices and reframe their life stories, gaining self-esteem, support, hope, and a sense of purpose in the process.
"It’s what Krause and Gubrium refer to as “narrative shock” in their most recent major publication, an article titled “‘Scribble Scrabble’: Migration, Young Parenting Latinas, and Digital Storytelling as Narrative Shock” in the June 2019 issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Medical Anthropology. As the authors explain, the disparities experienced by young parents are exacerbated by the sometimes constant migration and movement that make up a large part of their lives.
That’s one reason the program also includes a policy component focusing on areas where young mothers often face discrimination, such as access to housing and schooling, as well as a strategic communication aspect. “People think we’re trying to promote teen pregnancy,” explains Krause. “Things get put so quickly into a binary. We’re trying to create a third way—to figure out how to humanize young parents and recalibrate the narrative.”
That work is being done in part through public forums where participants show their films and answer questions—some of which are surprisingly judgmental, says Gubrium. But the young parents are prepared, often telling stories they’ve never told before. “They were able to call people out on statements that were blithely cast, saying ‘That isn’t my experience.’”
“As they become observers of their own lives, they gain confidence,” says Krause. "They go from an object of stigma to realizing they have voices."