Published on April 26th, 2018 | by Jen Bryant0
The Faces of Young Motherhood
“The same story can be told a thousand times, but that doesn’t mean that it’s true.”
This simple, powerful idea led Jendella Benson to create the Young Motherhood project in 2013. Benson, a London-based writer, photographer, and filmmaker, was inspired to act after observing friends who became mothers at a young age. Their experiences weren’t accurately represented in the media, so Benson photographed and interviewed young mothers and their children, intent on creating a reality-based view of young motherhood to combat the misrepresentation her friends faced.
The Young Motherhood project has been featured in The Guardian, BBC Radio 4, and at the House of Commons. In 2017, Benson released a book based on the project, “Young Motherhood: The Triumphs, The Challenges, The Truth.” Packed with gorgeous photographs and candid interviews, the book shines a light on a group that’s rarely asked to provide their opinions on young motherhood: young mothers themselves. – Jen Bryant
JEN BRYANT: What’s the origin story behind the Young Motherhood project? What were your goals starting out, and how have they changed or evolved over time?
JENDELLA BENSON: I have a few friends who had children at a young age and I realized pretty quickly that people’s perceptions of women who have children at an age that society deems ‘too young’ are completely different from the lived reality of those women. There was a lot of stigma and prejudgment that did not reflect at all the lives of the women I knew who were doing an amazing job raising their children alongside their own work and ambitions. I wanted to create a project that shows this alternate reality while also honestly talking about the challenges that these women face — a lot of times, these challenges come from society at large because of the existing ideas around young mothers. I also wanted to uplift and encourage other women who might feel like they’re alone in their experiences, especially because one of my young mum friends felt like she had to stay with her abusive partner because he was the father of her child and she didn’t want the added stigma of being a single mother as well as a young one. I wanted to show her, and other women who might feel pressured about their circumstances, that other women have been through similar and not survived, but thrived!
I think I started with the naive idea that it was simply a means of education: educate the masses, educate politicians, and everyone will realize that they were wrong and make the appropriate changes in their attitudes, responses, and legislation. But over time I’ve realized that, like all social myths, there are people who are heavily invested in making scapegoats out of young mothers. So this project is now more about bearing witness to these amazing women and others like them, and also encouraging other women.
JEN BRYANT: What sort of feedback have you gotten on the project? Did you face any obstacles in promoting your work?
JENDELLA BENSON: There were a lot of enthusiastic responses to the work from people of all backgrounds and life experiences. It’s been particularly nice to hear feedback from the children of young mothers who have been like, “My mum had me at 17 and she’s the best and I’m so glad that you’ve shown how amazing young mothers can be!” Then there have been more questionable responses, such as “What about the fathers?” or “Are you trying to promote young girls going and having babies?” and that reveals in and of itself how invested people are in the existing narrative. I think there have been some who want to co-opt the project for their own agenda as well, but I’ve hopefully managed to avoid that. But for the most part, the good feedback has drowned out the more questionable feedback.
JEN BRYANT: The mothers involved in your project have different stories and backgrounds. As you interviewed them, did any common themes emerge in regards to their experiences of young motherhood?
JENDELLA BENSON: There were a few common themes, one being how much many of them would have liked to have had more robust relationship education when they were growing up. Many assume that young women get pregnant because they don’t know about contraception, and so the focus of education is always on contraception, but from interviewing all these women — and thinking back to my own education — the absence of relationship education is a big thing. Some of the interviews expressed regret, not in having children, but in having unsuitable partners who were manipulative intimidating, or they felt like they couldn’t assert what they needed for themselves or their children. This isn’t just a problem that young mothers face, or even that young women alone face. The way many of us are socialized into relationships is problematic regardless of if a child is involved or not. So that’s something that I feel quite strongly about after doing this project.
There was also the realization that a lot of the mental and emotional burdens that young mothers face are not inherent to their situation — motherhood is tough no matter how or when you become a mother — but it’s what is projected onto them by outsiders. So it’s how family react, or how healthcare professionals treat them, or what strangers do or don’t do in the street. This is often what can be the difference between someone having a challenging but generally good experience of motherhood and just a terrible one. I spoke to a friend who is not a mother who said that what really struck her was the fact that some of these women didn’t even get a simple ‘congratulations’ when they found out they were pregnant; from the start, it was treated like a disease and she said that made her think about how she reacted to the young women around her when she found out they were pregnant. She felt really challenged by that and I’m glad.
JEN BRYANT: So much of the press surrounding teen motherhood is negative, both in the UK and the US. Your photographs tell a different story — there’s such a sense of pride and happiness in your subjects. How did being involved in a positive project about young motherhood impact the mothers and children that you worked with?
JENDELLA BENSON: I think many of them just wanted to tell their story and felt happy to be able to. Some of the women who are older now with grown up children also remarked that they never really had time to process or think about what they had been through, so they found getting involved almost therapeutic. I think it’s really important to be able to feel like you’re telling your story when so much of what you see about women like yourself is negative and terrible, so I was really glad to be able to play a part in that.
JEN BRYANT: Did becoming a mother affect your relationship to the project in any way?
JENDELLA BENSON: I think doing the project took away a lot of my own fears about motherhood. There is this general fear of inadequacy and competency that is what the billion-dollar parenting industry is built on — “Are you really doing the best by your child if you aren’t doing/buying/reading this?” — but sitting down with these women and hearing all their stories was a very helpful wake up call. Motherhood is hard and challenging and all that stuff, but it’s amazing and wonderful, and I realized ultimately I could do it because I had the will to do it. My own entrance into motherhood was not the smoothest and so many times the advice, the encouragement, and the stories of the women involved came back to me to encourage and spur me in. So I don’t know if becoming a mother affected my relationship to the project, as much as the project affected my relationship to becoming a mother myself.
JEN BRYANT: The Young Motherhood project led to a book as well as a video series. Do you have any future plans for the project?
JENDELLA BENSON: Originally I wanted to edit a feature-length documentary based on the project. That’s not completely off the cards, but I don’t know if it’s the right vehicle (as well as having technical issues that have been a spanner in the works). I’m currently in talks about having the project exhibited in the US. I wanted to the project to stand as a long-lasting resource, so I’m pretty open to what else can be done with it.
JEN BRYANT: Was there anything about working on the project that surprised you?
JENDELLA BENSON: I think I didn’t realize how much working on the project would impact me personally, in terms of motherhood but also in terms of my own confidence as a creative and storyteller. I just started this project because it had been weighing on my mind for a couple of years, but doing the project was a big learning curve for me, in a good way.
JEN BRYANT: When people view your work, what’s the biggest takeaway you hope they’ll have?
JENDELLA BENSON: I just want them to be personally challenged and/or encouraged. I’ve gone from the idea of changing the world to changing individual perspectives. If it makes someone think to show more empathy towards a young mother they know or might see out and about then that’s brilliant. If it encourages young mothers to continue to kicking ass, then that’s just what I’d hoped!
All photos courtesy of Jendella Benson.