Sasheenie Moodley //

Some teenagers say that loving a baby means giving a baby what he needs, not what he wants. Attending to a baby’s needs is a form of mother love, protection, and care. Some teenage mothers seem to ‘delay’ love until they can overcome or reconcile the ‘mistake’ that is teenage pregnancy.

In this article, I explore what happens to teenage mothers—and the way they live their lives—after their babies are born. I ask: how do teenage mothers adapt to the presence of new babies? I focus on mother love. This article is based on my DPhil ethnographic fieldwork with 33 (HIV-negative and HIV-positive) pregnant adolescents and teenage mothers in a township located in South Africa’s Free State province. This research was carried out with permissions and ethical approvals from the University of Oxford, University of the Free State, township hospital, and Free State Department of Health. All names have been anonymised to protect the identity of adolescents and their families.

Some teenagers tell me that loving a baby means giving a baby what he needs, not what he wants. I argue that a key dimension of teenage motherhood is ‘mother love.’ My conversations with Letsoba explore this. Letsoba is HIV-negative and lives in Robedi section. She was a teenager when her daughter was born. Now, her daughter is four years old. During my fieldwork period, Letsoba was dating her daughter’s father. They were making marriage plans. Letsoba told me this was stressful because of her boyfriend’s drinking habits. In some ways, Letsoba concentrated her energy on mothering as a coping mechanism. She did not want one more thing to go wrong in her life, she said. On one occasion, we were discussing what makes someone a ‘good mother’ (Badinter 1981). I share Letsoba’s response here:

Let’s say you give your child R2.00 for lunch in primary school. Then she will have friends in primary school. When she moves to junior school, let’s say you give your child R2.00 again. But there are new friends at the junior school. They have R5.00 now. So, your child will go to her boyfriend and ask him for R3.00 to make R5.00. The mother must not give the child R5.00. The mother must give her child the lunchbox. The mother must teach her child that you get money when you work for it. See me, I still carry my lunchbox—even now. The mother must fill the lunchbox with nice things: all the things her child likes. If you give your child the lunchbox, she will not want the boyfriend. You must give your child the love inside the house. Then she will know that the love from outside [the house] will never be as good as the love from inside. A good mother will not give her child everything, like the whole R5.00. A good mother will not spoil her child, but will take care of her child. (Letsoba 2019, emphasis in original narrative)

It is difficult to ignore Letsoba’s underlying message here. She is alluding to sexual dangers in the outside world. Letsoba subtly blames her own mother’s neglect for her teenage pregnancy. Letsoba implies that if her mother had given Letsoba love ‘inside the house’ then Letsoba would not have looked for love ‘outside the house.’ That is, Letsoba believes she would not have become pregnant when she was a teenager. Furthermore, this anecdote is meaningful because Letsoba describes a good mother’s actions. That is, what she does—and will continuing doing—to be a good mother to her child. She explores three facets of the love she gives her child.

First, Letsoba talks about providing food. Like Letsoba, many teenagers talked to me about food. Some told me they would never let their babies starve. Others told me that there would always be food in the house for the child. Providing food is a powerful way for a teenage mother to show love. A lunchbox is a poignant symbol of mother love. In South Africa, a lunchbox is usually a plastic or fabric bag containing food. A child takes the lunchbox to school and eats the food during breaks. The lunchbox may contain sandwiches, fruit, beverages, and snacks. For most families, it is more affordable to pack food in a lunchbox than to give a child cash (‘pocket money’) to buy food at school. This is especially true in the Free State province, in which Botshabelo is the largest township. In 2014, more than seven out of ten (76%) people were unemployed in this province (Free State Department of Health 2014). A family’s needs often exceed their income. Household funds are spent as sparingly as possible on electricity, groceries, clothing, or furniture. Yet, in this social economy, Letsoba prioritises her child’s lunchbox. So great is this mother’s love that the lunchbox must contain ‘all the things’—a variety of food—that her child likes. Abundant food symbolises this mother’s abundant love.

Second, Letsoba addresses the tension between what a child ‘wants’ and ‘needs.’ To do this, she compares pocket money to a lunchbox. Letsoba says that ‘a good mother will not spoil her child, but will take care of her child.’ Spoiling a child means giving a child what she ‘wants’—namely the R5.00. A mother who spoils her child is a ‘not good’ mother. On the other hand, taking care of a child means giving a child what she ‘needs’—namely the R2.00 and a lunchbox. A ‘good’ mother chooses the latter option even though this requires more time and effort.

Third, Letsoba compares a ‘good’ mother’s love—inside the home—to the love outside a home. To do this, she shares a vivid image of social spaces. She clearly separates the space ‘inside’ a house from the space ‘outside’ it. A ‘good’ mother packs a lunchbox inside the house. This is one form of ‘mothering work’ (Sandelowski & Barroso 2003a). Because the lunchbox originates ‘inside’ the house, the lunchbox symbolises love inside the home. This is a nurturing, nourishing kind of love. By comparison, the boyfriend is ‘outside’ the house. The resources he can provide—the R5.00—symbolise the love outside the home. This is a material, lustful kind of love that Letsoba associates with money, boyfriends, and intimacy. By separating these social spaces, Letsoba distinguishes the love ‘inside’ the home from the love ‘outside’ it. A good mother must teach her child not to want the love outside the home—love from a boyfriend. Letsoba provides two reasons why. First, the love outside the home ‘will never be as good as the love from inside’ the home. A good mother’s love is better—and ranks higher—than a boyfriend’s love. Second, Letsoba believes that a boyfriend’s love can lead to sex and teenage pregnancy. Letsoba believes that teenage pregnancy is a ‘bad’ thing.

Every day, Letsoba practices her ‘good’ mothering. She takes care of her seven-year-old brother and her four-year-old daughter. Letsoba’s mother passed away a few months after her younger brother was born. ‘They are both like my children because my mother died. So, my young brother is like a son for me,’ Letsoba says (2019). Letsoba packs a daily lunchbox for her daughter and her brother. Her daughter attends a nearby crèche. In a few years, when the child begins primary school, Letsoba says she will provide pocket money and a lunchbox. This is what Letsoba does for her younger brother, who is currently in primary school.

Letsoba does what she does for her child and her younger brother in an effort to be a ‘good’ mother. She says: ‘A good mother will not spoil her child, but will take care of her child. … I will be a good mother because I love my child’ (Letsoba 2019). Love is a meaningful part of her mothering experience.

‘Love’ or ‘mother love’ has been discussed in the literature. Based on work in the United States, Sara Ruddick (1980, 1989) explored ‘maternal thought.’ She writes:

Maternal thinking … is an attitude governed, above all, by the priority of keeping over acquiring, of conserving the fragile, of maintaining whatever is at hand and necessary to the child’s life. (Ruddick 1980:350)

Cherryl Walker (1995) echoes this in the South African context. She suggests that a mother’s role is to nurture, preserve, and protect her baby. Ruddick goes on to say that mother love is ‘natural’ (1980). Based on work in the United Kingdom and Europe, Elisabeth Badinter explored ‘mother love’ as a natural or nurtured trait in mothers (Badinter 1981; Coser 1982): that is, whether mother love is a ‘maternal instinct’ or not (Borstelmann 1983:566). Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993) explored motherhood and infant mortality in Alto do Cruzeiro, Brazil. She suggests that mother love ‘grows slowly’ (1993:357). In the context of her ethnographic work—amidst poverty, starvation, and infant death—this meant that a mother’s love grows when a child has ‘proved’ that he or she will survive:

Mother love is anything other than natural and instead represents a matrix of images, meanings, sentiments, and practices that are everywhere socially and culturally produced … Consequently, mother love is best bracketed and understood as (m)other loves … On the Alto do Cruzeiro, the birth of a child is hardly a time of rejoicing and mother love follows a tortured path, often beginning with a rocky start and fraught with many risks, dangers, separations, and deaths. (Scheper-Hughes 1993:341-357)

I reference Scheper-Hughes’ work not because teenage mothers in Botshabelo are facing the same kind of infant mortality or poverty that plagued Alto do Cruzeiro at the end of the twentieth century. Rather, I aim to highlight the way both types of mothers ‘delay’ a deep attachment to—or love for—their babies. I argue that a teenager’s love for her baby grows slowly and with time.

Adult mothers in Alto do Cruzeiro ‘delayed’ love until their babies proved their worth. Only ‘strong’ babies with a will to survive ultimately gained a mother’s love. Weak babies were ‘returned’ to God through death.

Teenage mothers in Botshabelo ‘delay’ love until they can overcome or reconcile the ‘mistake’ that is teenage pregnancy. In this social world, teenage pregnancy is the source of incredibly intense disappointment, guilt, and shame, not to mention punishment and stigma. For many girls, having a baby thwarted schooling and dreams of a career and tainted otherwise upstanding family reputations. When a baby is born, a teenager must face her new reality. Her ‘mistake’ has manifested as a human being. In some cases, she may understandably ‘reject’ the child. I did not come across this. At the other extreme is the possibility that she will ‘love’ the child. She will at least learn to live—co-exist—with the child. This is what I observed during my fieldwork.

The arc of a teenager’s life is forever changed after the baby is born. At the very least, she must start to see herself as a mother. This is not easy. It takes time for girls to connect with their babies. Slowly but surely, however, mother love grows. A teenager begins to see herself as a mother and she grows attached to her baby.

Featured Image by Nick Fewings on Unsplash


Badinter, E. (1981). Mother love: Myth and reality; motherhood in modern history. United States.

Free State Department of Health. (2014). Annual performance plan Free State Department of Health for MTEF 2013/14 – 2015/16. South Africa: Free State Department of Health.

Ruddick, S. (1989). Maternal thinking: Toward a politics of peace. Boston: Beacon.

Ruddick, S. (1980). ‘Maternal thinking.‘ Feminist Studies, 6, 342-364.

Sandelowski, M., & Barroso, J. (2003a). ‘Motherhood in the context of maternal HIV infection.’ Research in Nursing & Health, 26(6), 470-482. doi:10.1002/nur.10109

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993). Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Walker, C. (1995). ‘Conceptualising motherhood in twentieth century South Africa.’ Journal of Southern African Studies, 21(3), 417-437.

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