Astrid Runs: Decolonial-Intersectional Resistance in Dutch Teen Mothers

Astrid Runs

Decolonial -Intersectional resilience of Dutch teen mothers 

In our time the very categorical and/or conceptual frameworks through which we explicitly or implicitly perceive our sociopolitical realities and our own subjective (private) contextual insertion are very much in question. There is a desire to construct our own (women of color) epistemologies and ontologies; and to obtain the interpretive agency with which to make claims to our own critical theory.

[ Norma Alarcon, 2007]

In this article I problematize the implicit assumption of the linear life stage model that is present in the scientific and societal debate about Dutch teen mothers. The linear life stage model does not provide the right tools to cover the ‘success experiences’ of teen mothers of diverse social and ethnic background. Firstly I will critically assess the linear life stage model. Following I provide support for an decolonial – intersectional perspective as an alternative approach, in order to better grasp the resilience of these teen mothers.

Within the scientific debate about teen mothers they are heavily problematize as society mishaps because a linear thinking model is used. In the figure below there is a depiction of the dominant linear thinking that grounds adolescent girls their life cycle. The assumption is that the life cycle follows a chronological line. It is expected that adolescent girls need to focus firstly on education and their self actualization during their teens and early twenties (Graham & McDermott, 2006; Bute & Russell, 2012; Neale, 2016). After finishing their education the focus is on establishing a career in order to get self supporting. Then a heterosexual partnership relation comes in sight and afterwards the decision is made to have a child, the

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choice for motherhood. It means that women are in their late twenties, early thirties when they get their first child (de Graaf & van Galen, 2014), if this linear life stage model is followed

Figure 1 Linear life cycle model

This linear life stage model is presented as a historic, universal and natural for all Dutch young females. The ones who dare to deviate from this norm and become young mothers, awaits a life in poverty according to:

“The [Dutch] teen mother would do better to finish her education instead of taking the care of a child upon her. A degree/diploma is better for her self-actualization and her chances on the labor market. Therefore also better for society: more contented females with work, whom are in a stable [heterosexual] relation in which setting children are born whom will not grow up in structural poverty”

August Hans den Boef [Bron: Volkskrant.nl, 16/04/12]

The linear life stage model is presented as a universal norm that needs to be followed by young females regardless of class, ethnicity and geographical location. The norm is closely linked to the hetero patriarchal view that motherhood needs to be planned preferentially within a heterosexual relationship. It is also assumed that certain conditions need to be in place such as, the right age, a completed education and financially stable environment in which care is provided. These assumptions fit well within a western white middle class environment where the rational planning process of one’s life is dominant. Strongly linked with the neoliberal economic perception of the rational individual that makes/takes planned decisions. Thus having children became manufacturable. Moreover the economic needs for highly and middle educated people needs to be fulfill. Education and work are seen as meaningful for females.

The linear life stage norm became more institutionalized due to the project of civilized modernity of the 20t h and 21t h century, the goal was to promote social mobility for working class white females and combat the underdevelopment of migrant females from the third world – former colonies like Suriname and the Dutch Antillean – . The proposed solution by the government as well as the feminist movement was that the use of anti-contraceptive pills, the right on abortion, enables women to participate in the educational process longer and this increases their chances to become financially self-supporting (Hulleman & Marijs, 2016). According to Salem (2014) we “ have to move away from an individualistic liberal framing, which will show that taken-for-granted solutions to gender inequality such as education or employment at the micro-level are not value-free.”

Based on the linear life stage model a dichotomy is made between young females which adhere to the norm and the ones who do not. Especially young females with a migrant background such as Dutch Surinamese and Dutch Antillean, are problematized based on this norm. Not following the norm is associated with underdevelopment of one self, your children and society as a whole. Migrant teen mothers and their children are thus seen as ‘underdeveloped pockets’ within the modern western Dutch society.

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Within the scientific and societal debate these migrant teen mothers are stigmatized based on their ethnic, cultural and national markers as uncivilized. In line with Eurocentric white middle class – the linear life stage model – and neoliberal underpinnings, adolescent girls need to focus firstly on their self-actualization through education and work. These ideas are closely related to economic development, production and profit maximization for the overall society (Alexander, 1994). Within this perspective there is little attention for the interpretation of self – actualization based on care for others, motherhood.

Within the societal and scientific debate there is a blind spot for the normativity of the linear life stage model. There is insufficient awareness that what is seen as normal, is a privilege from white middle class groups and that this norm is not easy met and experienced in the same way (Elg & Jenssen, 2012). According to Salem (2014) migrant women are living in the privileged locations in the West, which are still under the influence of the neoliberal imperialistic undercurrents that plays a role in the production and reproduction of hetero patriarchal perceptions. Wekker (2016: 3) suggest that their is a Dutch imperial racial economy, with its gendered, sexualized, and classed intersections, that continues to underwrite dominant ways of knowing, interpreting, and feeling of white and [ non white subjects]. That is why concepts – the linear life stage model – which were developed to enlighten women their lives are not necessarily instrumental for bringing about thorough change (Salem, 2014).

Limitations of the linear life stage model

Earlier I stated that the present epistemological assumptions concerning the linear life stage model does not cover the ontological reality of my research group of teen mothers who succeeded in getting a degree and combining work with care for their children. Before I present an alternative perspective we need to look closer at the linear life stage model and the problems it possesses.

The problem with the linear life stage model is that teen motherhood is foremost depicted from an individualistic perception. The social reality of these teen mothers is presented in binary positions in which the agent (teen mother) is put against the societal structures. All too soon the argument is that these teen mothers lack agency. This would reveals itself in the attitude of the teen mother in her lack of power for not using anti conceptions pills in a planned and systematic way. It is also said that they lack a planning for their life which align with the linear life stage model.

A social identity is created in which teen mother are seen as actors who lack will power and are seen as a societal threat. They are stigmatized based on their age, ethnicity, sexuality and class and seen as object of knowledge instead of subjects of knowledge. That there self definitions and experiences are viable for getting insight in how they succeeded in managing the challenges of motherhood, combined with finishing their education and/or work. As speakers they are in general absent in the scientific and societal debate, thus they suffer from epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007). The consequence is that an uncritical use of the linear life stage model reproduces a one dimensional and singular category of teen mothers, which is seen in the quote of August Hans den Boef. The diversity in age, class and ethnicity from the group of teen mothers is absent.

What is also concealed are the a-historical setting of the phenomenon of teen motherhood. Therefore the phenomenon is not analyzed from intersecting points like colonialism/modernization and the continuation of inclusion/exclusion based on age, class and ethnicity. We need a better understanding of the historical condition its emergence.

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Another limitation is that the individual teen mother is not seen as belonging to a social network (Berlo et al. (2005); Distelbrink & Pels (2008); de UNA (2010 ) . The dominant view is that the family ties of migrant teen mothers are eroded due to the fact of migration, geographical dislocation of families and individualization process. Social support is not given to these teen mothers by their social networks. Research from Keinemans (2010) and the Nationaal Jeugd Institute – National Youth Institute (2014) – shows the contrary.

The linear life stage model assumes that a chronological biological life stage is followed, that ends with motherhood. Absent in this line of reasoning is that the model does not considers the social inequality structures and the different views about life, motherhood and work. Life stages are messy, unexpected and chaotic. A young women can get pregnant and decide to accept the pregnancy. It does not mean that she cannot finish her education or that she cannot meet the challenges of motherhood. A rethinking of the linear life stage model is thus necessary. By presenting an decolonial – intersectional approach I suggest that these shortcomings can be redress, and a perspective is provided in which the self definitions, experiences of the teen mother as actor and her resilience is shown.

Decolonial intersectional lens

Both the intersectional approach as a theory, praxis and ‘methodology’ as well as decolonial thinking has a rich body of knowledge. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to explain in depth these school of thoughts; I will focus here on the strands of intersectional and decolonial thoughts which can function as a lens for looking at the experiences of teen mothers.

Intersectionality came to light during the seventies of the 20thcentury. In the eighties the critically acclaimed article of Crenshaw (1989) and book of Hill Collins (2000) in the late nineties provided a prism for studying black women their everyday experiences of racism, sexism, classism and the way they intersect on a domination matrix of inclusion and exclusion. Black females are positioned against the social marker the white middle class females. This is problematic because the relational characteristics of these ‘unmarked’ markers are not always fully deconstructed. And it is desirable that a theory makes transparent the dominant and the subaltern positions (Elenes, 2002).

Recognition of the importance of intersectionality has impelled new ways of thinking about complexity and multiplicity in power relations as well as emotional investments (Phoenix & Brah, 2004: 82). Power structures, power isn’t perceived as neutral, but is defined differently by diverse researchers. Collins (2000) uses the term matrix of dominations which gives a hint of the working of power on the intersecting axes of social life, and how it influence individual their lives. Crenshaw (1991) uses power more in the meaning of structural, political and representational.

Intersectional thinking has a rich history, as a theory, analytical tool and methodology, within the last 40 years it traveled from America to Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. We notice some main characteristics that Prins (2006) and Bredström (2006) have made such as:

  1. Systematic intersectionality (US based – structure). Intersectional research that focusses on the social institutional structures, political, economic, judicial – social categories who intersect and describe/analyse how exclusion takes place. Thus a macro structure of intersectionality is the research analytical unit. This approach we see especially in US based research, articles.

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  1. Constructionist (UK/European Based – agency). Intersectionality is used to focus on the agency of the Agency is perceived as fluid and individuals can claim different identities because they belong to different social categories. The microstructure is the centre of analyses.
  2. Contextualized intersectionality . Bredström (2006) argues that systems of oppression are seen as mutually constructing one another and suggests that the primary concern should be with ‘ the ways in which notions of otherness [racialization] are constructed through a gendered and sexualized idiom’.

Limitations of intersectional thought:

  •  The constructionist and contextualized approach does not fully take into account the colonial context, because the theory was developed by black female from the West. Therefore there is a danger of a bias in which exclusion, power, is defined only from a western perspective (Prins, 2006).
  •  There is a danger of identity politics and too much focus on certain markers of a select social group (Phoenix & Pattynama, 2006). Especially when the systematic and contextualized approach is not included in the analyses.
  •  Agency does not always get the attention that is needed in case a systematic approach is used.
  •  Prins (2006, 280) suggest that within the systematic approach power is narrowly defined as 
unilateral and absolute, but power is relational. The danger is that an interpretation of power of 
domination and marginalization, is presented which determines the individual.
  •  Reflection on the white female as marker/researchers is mostly absent (Sterk, 2004). 
Intersectional analysis keeps white middle class females central to feminism and exclude women of color and women from the global south from the feminist conversation table according to Zack (2005).
  •  Gary (2011) proposes that intersectionality is neither a methodology, nor a theory of power or oppression. 
Despite these limitations of intersectional thinking it is relevant for looking at the phenomenon of teen mothers. Especially the perspective of Hill Collins (2000) about the matrix of domination is useful for describing and analyzing the intersecting explanations/discourses on how teen mothers are excluded and stigmatized as a group. The systematic approach (Hill Collins, 2000) “the system model” is useful for the interpretation of life stages as more circular. The system model of life stage takes, is nonlinear and takes into account de socio-historical context, social networks, in which social support is given and resilience is developed. From a system model perspective life stages are more circular and overlapping, education, motherhood and self-actualization do not mutually exclude each other. Life is messy, chaotic and it means falling down and getting up and learning how to be resilient. Anzaldua (1987); Mohanty (2003a, 1986b), Hill Collins (2000) mention the context of struggle concerning women of color. The historical context of these struggles – specifically motherhood within the colonial and neocolonial context -. Motherhood in black (and white labor class) groups was always fraught with challenges, upbringing of children was a collective process, which was messy and chaotic. The collective female networks ‘other mothers’ (Collins, 2000), was/is a trait that is frequently seen within black diaspora communities. These and other networks enabled resilience, and provided females with knowledge how to combine motherhood and labor, despite challenges they faced. Mohanty (1986b) arguments that an ‘insiders’ perspective is much needed, in this case the perspective of the teen mother, to deconstruct the linear life stage model, in relation to the matrix of dominant perspectives of teen motherhood. So we can make a more critical analyses.

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To amend the shortcomings of the intersectional approach decolonial thinking is a welcome complementation. Salem (2014) her argument for combining decolonial thinking with intersectional thinking, is that it provides us with tools to look beyond the neoliberal individualistic basis of concepts like resilience and certain strains of intersectional theory, where the subject is left out of the analyses and a myth is produced of ‘universal and objective truth’. Decolonial thinking facilitates the epistemic justice for marginalized and excluded groups. Thus a subaltern knowledge is brought to the foreground by teen mothers.

In the tradition of decolonial thinking epistemic disobedience is necessary, to unearth the ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano, 2000) concerning the discourses about teen mothers. Decolonial thought provides tools for critically assessing the linear life stage model that came to light during modernity. The linear life stage model fitted well in a civilization offense which was foremost used in the western countries on adolescent girls from a working class background (Wiemann, 1997). It intersected with the democratization of education and the emancipation process of women. There was a need for more highly educated females for the economic development within the West. Teen motherhood which was the norm for centuries began to fade during the late years of the 20t h century; and it was perceived more and more as deviant behavior. Teen motherhood is a construct of modernity or better said the neocolonial powers/knowledge structures. In this narrative teen motherhood is seen as a sign of underdevelopment, the teen mother is stripped of her agency, because she is the root cause of her own underdevelopment and that of her child(ren). Further exploration is needed concerning the project of modernization, the civilization offence, the need for economic surplus, the project of feminism and the colonial context of Suriname and the Dutch Antillean in relation to teen motherhood.

A decolonial thinking enables us to unearth the agency of dehumanized and racialized groups which were created by the coloniality of power during the colonial period and are still prevalent to this day (Quijano, 1989; Mignolo, 2011; Lugones, 2010). By searching for the own knowledge, experiences of these marginalized groups, whom are seen as invalid by the colonizer, they can be empowered. And solutions can be created which are narrowly based on their own social realities.

Where Intersectional thought only hinted on the existence of resilience. Decolonial thinking provides tool to explain how resilience of teen mothers comes into play. The linear life stage model which came to light during modernity, is blind for the resilience of teen mothers. In this linear thinking ideas it is unthinkable that teen mothers can achieve success. Decolonial – intersectional thought arguments that resilience is part of the collective female networks which are historically located due to the collective struggle against stigmatization and obstacles that especially black mothers have endured. B outeldja (2014); Hill Collins (2000); Bell Hooks (1982) emphasizes that the historically located experiences of role models – mothers, grandmothers, older sisters of women of color whom have always resisted and shown resilience are part of these collective struggles of female networks. Narratives, poems and songs are a testimony of this collective resilience (Bouteldja, 2014; Hill Collins, 2000; Bell Hooks, 1982; Anzaldua, 1987; Angelou, 1969). Empirical data shows that teen mothers from Dutch Surinamese background looked at their aunts and mothers as role models, concerning juggling different task like motherhood and/or finishing an education combined with work. The role models are part of their female centered networks.

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Characteristics Decolonial Intersectional resilience

From a decolonial – intersectional perspective resilience has always been a part of the lives of marginalised and stigmatised groups, like teen mothers. Rather we are following the historical enactment of the oppressing ←→ resisting relation (Lugones, wd: 10). Decolonial – intersectional resilience starts from the assumption that teen mothers struggle for recognition, empowered visibility and having a voice. To resist means having/developing resilience. The experience of the intersecting manners of marginalization and exclusion, by these teen mothers influences how their resilience comes to light. These are experiences that are clearly marked in the specificities of ethnicity, class and form part of the construction of resilience. This is seen for example in the essays of Maya Angelou (1969) the book ‘I know why cage birds sing’ where she accounts about how as a teen mothers, her resilience was developed within a context where life stages overlap/intersect. It means that getting pregnant and accepting the pregnancy will mean to learn how to become a mother, in relation with eventually finishing an education and working means falling and getting up. There is no single, linear way of motherhood. In light of what was said earlier the main characteristics of decolonial – intersectional resilience are a:

  •  Integration of the socio – historical background in the analysis.
  •  Common context of struggle of marginalized and stigmatized teen mothers which are orientated 
to be heard and seen (Mohanty, 2003a, 1986b).
  •  Life stages are non –linear, messy , chaotic and not without hope; that they are also embedded in:
  •  Female centered networks (Hill Collins, 2000) which have a more informal character and provide 
social support.
  •  Family history of the teen mothers are a testimony of experiences with inclusion/exclusion.
  •  Resilience is embedded in the sociocultural background of the marginalized and stigmatized 
groups of teen mothers. Resilience is interpreted from a multi – ethnic, multi – class and relational view. There is a positive perspective present that the teen mothers need to be empowered by the social support of others. Resilience is not understood from a neoliberal individualistic perspective, where there is little room for the historical socioeconomic setting, and only eye for the individualistic characteristics. 
Concluding remarks 
According to a linear life stage model teen mothers can never be perceived as successful and/or resilient. Reasoning from a decolonial – intersectional line of thinking shows the contrary, that teen mothers are part of an intersectional female centered network and that their life stage is more align with a system model. In which life stages are overlapping and complementing. Situated in a critical decolonial – intersectional analysis I suggest that resilience provides an account of materials which is more fruitful for interpreting my empiric data. It complements the research on Dutch teen mothers.

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