From being “at risk” to being “a risk”: Journeys into parenthood among disadvantaged young mothers

Parenting and early education
Wednesday 25 July, 1150 – 1210


Dr Megan Blaxland
Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales

Disadvantaged young people access multiple service systems to obtain the resources they need. These systems position disadvantaged young people as certain kinds of policy subjects, such as “at risk” of poor education, mental health, or criminal justice outcomes. Disadvantaged young mothers are frequently positioned as in need of intensive parenting support and surveillance to circumvent possible harm to the child. Young people experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage engage in “navigation and negotiation” (Ungar, 2005) through and across systems and services. When disadvantaged young women become pregnant and have a child, the landscape of formal resources they are navigating is reconfigured as they are constructed as a new kind of policy subject, accompanied by a shift in eligibility and focus in the service systems around them.

How do young mothers experience, navigate and negotiate this repositioning, and what does it mean for the extent to which their service needs are being met? This paper explores this question, drawing on biographical narrative interviews with eight young mothers in New South Wales, in which they were asked about their experience of support systems over time.

The paper suggests that, when these disadvantaged young women became pregnant or had a child, they experienced a “gaze-shifting” of the service systems around them, so that the focus of service systems is on the needs of their child. As a result, some services become easier to access, most notably housing, while others, especially child protection, became substantially more challenging to navigate.