These days, most adults approach the concept of teenage pregnancy along the lines of that old adage: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Having a baby before reaching adulthood can be a difficult process that takes a toll on every aspect of life—it can even influence future generations.
There have been periods of time wherein teenage pregnancy wasn't viewed as an issue or strange at all. In fact, the concept of the 'teenager' wasn't noted until the 1920s in the US, and the actual term didn't come into existence until decades later, explains US History. The world was divided between children and adults until—believe it or not—the introduction of the automobile.
Other factors besides the automobile have changed our beliefs about what teenage people are capable of and should do. Improvements in health care; a shift in the kinds of economies that are most prevalent today versus in past centuries; a far more nuanced understanding of the structure of the brain and the ways in which it continues to change and grow at different times: these things have all contributed to a shift in how we perceive so-called adult behaviors in teenagers.
The hold of religion and the power of the church has also continued to wane in Western cultures at the same time that the role of women in society has radically changed. Teen pregnancy hasn't disappeared, but it is on the decline.
Here are 10 Reasons Teen Pregnancy Used To Work (And 10 Why We Now Wait).
Why It Used To Work
It's important to note the difference between lifespan and life expectancy. While humans have probably maintained a lifespan of 70 years or more for thousands of years, the life expectancy—how likely we are to survive from birth—was historically probably much lower than it is today, according to VeryWell Health. If the birth was attended by danger and the weaker immune system of childhood was plagued by infectious diseases, after surviving all those childhood illnesses, it makes sense for a teen to begin a family as soon as the body indicates biological readiness.
As overall health and well-being have improved, the average age for first time pregnancy has increased dramatically.
The nuclear family, or the household style with which most in the US are familiar, has not always been the primary structure and indeed still isn't in many parts of the world.
Extended families were common and provided a multidimensional network of several generations in a single household, as per Early Modern Europe. A teen pregnancy or young marriage could be incorporated into the family dynamic and the larger household far more easily than in the independent nuclear unit.
If an unplanned pregnancy did occur, an extended family made it easier to handle, since there were many older children, both teens and adults likely contributing to the good of the household.
In much of medieval Europe, the legal minimum age at which a girl could get married was 12. While most girls didn't actually marry until around 16, this young minimum meant that many began their child-rearing in the midst of their teens. Divorce was difficult to obtain from the church, which held a lot of power during this time, as per the Medieval Times.
The church required proof of a serious misdeed, and behavior on the part of the husband was not usually considered grounds for divorce or annulment. Even into the Renaissance and beyond, young wives were taught to emulate the biblical Mary as the Ideal Mother, according to the Victoria And Albert Museum.
The age of adulthood in the US today is still considered to be 18, although many things don't actually become legal until a person has reached 21 years of age. The historical age of consent in England and much of Europe was once as young as ten years of age. Even girls who did not give consent were usually judged on their appearance, according to Children And Youth In History.
Consent and adulthood for girls were at one point more closely tied to the onset of puberty and menstruation than it is in Western countries today. Menstruation in a girl was considered the sign that her body was able to begin reproduction.
One increasingly researched anomaly in the history of teen pregnancy in the US is the boom of births to teen moms in the 1950s. During the long and brutal years of WWII, girls and women flooded into jobs and factories left empty by men, but when that ended and the men returned home, there was a huge cultural shift back to an idealized sense of family and home life, as per History, Art & Archives.
Because such a huge emphasis was placed on the importance of marriage and family, teen girls weren't encouraged to explore professions or higher education, unless as a means of meeting a potential husband.
A teen girl who became pregnant in 1955 was far more likely to get married than a teen mom is today, a reflection of a significant shift in social norms, according to USA Today. Often, women in the past were given little choice by family and society and were forced into marriages to preserve respectability.
Another turning point in agency came with the proliferation of birth control in the 1970s, allowing women greater freedom over their own bodies and choices, explains Our Bodies Ourselves. This agency corresponded to increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and higher education, turning away from reliance on a husband for their needs.
Teens were expected to work, whether in the home or by being loaned or apprenticed out to someone else for much of history. Girls, however, were only expected to work in domestic positions until they either fulfilled their obligation or were able to marry, and this work was literally backbreaking, according to Shapland et al., as published in Medieval Archaeology.
Very few professions and apprenticeships were ever open to women, but many families struggled to feed their children, with the result that a daughter was often sent to work in the home of a wealthier family. Beginning a family of her own and fulfilling her societal obligations may have been a welcome relief.
Until recently, marriage and the keeping of the home were considered more important than any job or profession a woman could hold. Birth control was also taboo in many Western societies. At the confluence of these two concepts is the teen mother who entered into marriage for respectability, and because society strongly discouraged any indication of her behavior out of wedlock, according to the National Park Service.
Women who didn't conform—or preferred to labor—were treated like second-class citizens or worse. Fashionable and proper women did little or no work, and they only achieved recognition as a respectable adult in society when they became wives and mothers.
Social success and the thread that knit much of the cultural fabric together in historic times was the ability of a woman to prove she could conceive and produce a healthy, preferably male heir, as per Medievalists. Fertility was an incredibly important issue for families—especially the wealthy and the noble—and the emphasis was most often on the fertility of the woman, rather than the man.
Noblewomen tended to marry at a much younger age than the general population, and couples were often urged to consummate the marriage as soon as possible in order to generate an heir to establish the union as legitimate.
Young women are just more likely to successfully conceive than older women.
While modern views on teenage pregnancy make finding fertility statistics difficult for women aged 19 and younger, research has indicated that women are most fertile before the age of 24, according to Baby Centre UK.
Although women can continue to conceive well into their 40s or even rarely into their 50s, the likelihood they will successfully conceive and bring to term a viable fetus decreases with age.
By her late teens, a woman's menstrual cycle has usually stabilized, and she historically would have been in better health at this point than she would be by her 30s or 40s.
Why We Now Wait
The onset of menstruation is not an indication that the teenage girl has finished growing and developing, so many teens who become pregnant find that their bodies struggle with diverting energy and resources from the mother's continued development to that of the fetus, as per Smith College. In fact, the younger the teen, the greater risk she has for poor weight gain, or for developing anemia or severe complications.
Her baby is more likely to have a lower birth weight or to be born with serious, life-long developmental issues, and both mom and baby are at greater risk for a difficult and dangerous labor, or even fatality.
Neurobiologists have determined that the teenage brain isn't usually as developed as the teen appears to be physically. The brain—and more specifically, the frontal cortex—hasn't matured in most people until the early 20s, as per PBS.
It's not that they don't have a frontal cortex, it's that teens often lack the connections that allow them to think about the decision they want to make.
Teens don't do as well with controlling impulses, feeling empathy and handling emotional shifts.
Adding in the incredible pressure of pregnancy in the teen years places an inordinate strain on the emotional health of the teen girl in a society that stigmatizes teen pregnancy.
Modern babies cost parents thousands of dollars. The costs come from the prenatal care and hospital bills for some. Once the baby has arrived, all the items—from diapers to clothes and beyond—cost more money than a single income stream can accommodate, according to Money Crashers.
Single teen moms are also less likely to be married—fewer than 20%, as per Teen Vogue. The teens most likely to get pregnant these days are the ones with less economic resources, to begin with.
The cost of having a child is so prohibitively high that women are waiting until well into their 30s or later.
The higher the level of education a person achieves in today's economy has a direct correlation with what she'll likely earn over a lifetime. The kind of economy that teens live in is a far cry from the agrarian and pre-industrial revolution economies of past centuries.
Only 50% of girls who give birth during their teenage years in the US graduate high school.
Teen moms who give birth by the age of 17 rarely make it to college—only 2% have completed a college degree by the age of 30, as per Do Something. A barrier to education reinforces cycles of poverty in the modern economy.
Modern Western economies support teenagers well enough so long as those teens don't have children.
Arranged marriages are still the norm in many parts of the world, but they are very rare in the US, even amongst the shrinking number of teens getting pregnant. They were once common in the Western world as well and are most often designed to bring social or economic benefit to one or both parties, according to Brandon Gaille.
Much of US culture is focused on the individual's right to choose for herself in all aspects of her life, so there is less of a social benefit to a teen pregnancy or marriage.
The family unit in the US today is a far cry from the family units most often seen in historical times, and the family size has been steadily shrinking as well, according to Statista.
The average US family size is now three, and divorce rates have recently been falling but remain high. Marriage rates are falling with younger generations. Teen parents don't have the same safety nets and protections they did in the past.
While teen pregnancy often resulted in a fast marriage that wasn't always ideal, it still provided more economic stability with the aid of the extended families on both sides.
How we view teenagers in the US today continues to be in flux.
A century or two ago, we would have considered it normal for a teenager or even pre-teen to be sent to work that was strenuous or even dangerous, jobs like farming and coal mining. We have a long history of sending teenage men to battle. The paradox is that at the same time, we are also shifting our ideas of when a child mentally and emotionally becomes an adult, as per American Heritage.
After decades of this conflicting debate, teens themselves have absorbed the idea that they are still children and are too young to begin families of their own.
Being a teen mom has a direct impact on the health of the baby and increases its risk of developmental delay.
Babies born to young moms are at higher risk for low birth weight, being born premature, and worse, according to Revere Health. Babies born at a lower weight—under 5.5 pounds—are more likely to develop a dangerous infection in the first few weeks after birth.
Modern medicine can improve the health of babies that likely were not able to thrive a few centuries ago when teen pregnancy was more common. Up to 10% of teen moms give birth to low-weight babies.
Teens living in poverty are more likely to become teen moms and continue living in poverty. The children of teen moms are more likely to become teen moms themselves, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that is hard to escape in the modern economy that is offering stagnating wages to an increasingly competitive jobs market, as per Vittana.
Teen pregnancy causes and is caused by poverty.
Poverty is most often improved when a teen and can get an extended education, but teen pregnancy is a proven educational barrier. While many teen pregnancies are unplanned, a surprising number plan their pregnancy because they don't have confidence in their professional prospects.
Even moms in their 20s and 30s can experience some social isolation if they're having a baby and their friends are not, and they may have to search for a group of women with similar experiences for social interaction. Teen mothers feel even more isolated. Many drop out of high school and lose contact with all of their peers, according to Livestrong.
The stigma of teen pregnancy and the prevailing theme that a teen girl who gets pregnant has made poor choices further ostracize her from other teens.
Teen moms are also often too busy to socialize in the way that other teens do.
References: VeryWell Health, Early Modern Europe Victoria And Albert Museum Children And Youth In History History, Art & Archives USA Today Our Bodies Ourselves Medieval Archaeology National Park Service Medievalists Baby Centre UK PBS Revere Health Vittana Livestrong