Sasheenie Moodley //

In this article, I explore what happens to teenage mothers – and the way they live their lives – after their babies are born. This article follows one of my earlier pieces in Synapsis titled “Teenage mother love.” Here, I argue that there is another dimension of teenage mothering that complements ‘mother love.’ In this piece, I ask: how do teenage mothers adapt to the presence of new babies? I explore the important (yet often demanding) connection between a mother and her baby.

This article is based on my DPhil ethnographic fieldwork with HIV-negative and HIV-positive pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers in one of South Africa’s townships. 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 teenagers and their families.

In the township where I did my fieldwork, there is a sense that teenage mothers are deeply connected to, and sincerely concerned about, their babies. This was the case for Letsoba. She is HIV-negative and lives in Robedi section. She described a deep ‘connection’ to her baby during one of our phone conversations in 2019.

Sasheenie: How are you?

Letsoba: I am not fine, because my baby is sick. She has been vomiting all night. She is weak.

Letsoba suggests that ‘she’ is not fine because ‘her baby’ is not fine. Letsoba is physically uncomfortable when her baby is physically uncomfortable. She is deeply concerned that her baby is ‘sick’ and ‘vomiting.’ Her words are powerful. They suggest that she feels deeply connected to her baby. Her words also highlight that the young mother feels responsible for the child. She is deeply concerned about the child’s health and welfare. Letsoba confirmed this a few days later. While walking around Robedi section, Letsoba and I were talking about her family. She explained how her older brother had mistreated her when her baby was a newborn. Her brother reprimanded her, because household costs (food, water, electricity) had increased after the baby was born. Letsoba was unemployed at the time, and lived in her brother’s RDP home. The siblings have been orphans since 2016. Both of their parents passed away with TB, possibly as a result of HIV. Because her brother complained about costs, Letsoba limited the household resources she used:

I use one kettle of water when we bath. And we eat from the same plate. We share one plate of food. (Letsoba 2019)

The young mother used “one kettle of hot water” to bathe herself, and her baby. She, and her baby, shared one plate when they ate a meal. Letsoba did not eat enough food to produce breastmilk. This anecdote highlights that Letsoba cared for her baby in the same ways that she cared for herself. When she bathed, her baby bathed. When she ate, her baby ate. Her baby ate what she ate. This empirical evidence highlights her diligent childcare, and her connection to her child. As a young mother, she is neither negligent nor indifferent to her baby. Instead, she is deeply thoughtful. She seems to prioritise childcare as much as she can.

There are examples of this in the literature. In France, some scholars observed that mother and baby strive to form one “unit” when hospitals separate the duo (Poinso, Gay, Glangeaud-Freudenthal, & Rufo, 2002). In Brazil, amidst poverty and infant mortality, Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993) describes the way some mothers feel physically connected to their babies. For example, one mother, Lourdes, calls her baby “her filho eleito, her ‘elect’ or favorite son, her arms and legs” (1993:347). She talks about her baby as if he is part of her physical body. She compares him to her essential appendages. She cannot live without her son in the same way that she cannot live without her arms and legs. She feels deeply connected to her son. In the South African context, Suzanne Maiello (2000) writes about her work with a mother and baby in Cape Town. The scholar shares the isiXhosa term “mdlezana” to describe a woman who has just given birth:

Mdlezana stands not only for the mother after delivery, but, and this is specific to African culture, it includes the child as well. It is the ‘mother-and-child in their union and togetherness.’ (Maiello, 2000:87)

I believe that this isiXhosa term exemplifies a powerful connection between mother and baby. Mother and baby are linked in their togetherness. The pair are united. They make ‘one’ person.

Like Letsoba, other teenage mothers seem deeply connected to – and talk about being responsible for – their babies. Baby-Boo discusses this. She is HIV-positive, and lives in Tshelela section. During her pregnancy, Baby-Boo says that she avoided stress. She did this so that she could protect her baby from stress. Her connection to her child meant that her child could feel what she felt.  

I think when you are pregnant you have to take it easy, because if you stress, you also stress the baby. (Baby-Boo 2019)

A teenager’s feeling that she is deeply connected to her baby is perhaps the height of ‘good’ mothering. Perhaps not. Either way, this is a powerful dimension of teenage motherhood, partly because of the intimate connection that links mother and baby. Yet there is a time and place for this intimate mother-baby connection. In certain situations, some teenage mothers feel they must ‘separate’ themselves from their babies. This was the case for Maipato. She is HIV-positive, and lives in Robedi section. She was infected by her ex-boyfriend. The relationship ended, because he was unfaithful:

I don’t want to see him ever again. It is too hard. It is too painful. …I love my child, but she needs a father too. Then she will have less pain. So, he will come to visit. I don’t know how I will feel. (Maipato 2019)

It is not only his infidelity that caused pain. He gave Maipato HIV. Yet she wanted her ex-boyfriend to be part of, and in, her baby’s life. Maipato wanted her baby “to have a father,” because Maipato did not have a father. To achieve this, Maipato seemed to ‘separate’ herself from her baby whenever her ex-boyfriend visited. This was an emotional, physical, and temporary separation. For Maipato, this separation was painful, but necessary. Inviting her ex-boyfriend back into her life, so he could be in her baby’s life, was also painful. The teenage mother endured both kinds of pain to ‘protect’ her baby from the pain of being fatherless. Because Maipato ‘loves’ her baby, she says she wants more for her baby than she ever had. She seems to believe that her baby’s joy of knowing a father will be greater than her pain. It seems that the teenager recognises that she and her baby have different needs. Maipato does not need her ex-boyfriend, but her baby needs a father. The teenage mother says that she wants her baby to feel a father’s presence. “Then she will have less pain,” Maipato says. What is good for the baby (feeling a father’s presence) actually hurts Maipato. Yet she places her baby’s needs above her own. Maipato’s self-sacrifice demonstrates dimensions of love and protection.

In this article, I show that most teenage mothers try – in various ways and often to the best of their abilities – to be “good mothers” (Badinter 1981). I argue that young mothers do this by practicing various dimensions of good mothering, despite difficult circumstances. Their actions suggest that there is no right or wrong way to be a good mother. There are, however, various ways to love and connect with a baby if a young mother has the courage to try.

Featured Image by Tembinkosi Sikupela via Unsplash


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

Maiello, S. (2000). The cultural dimension in early mother-infant interaction and psychic development: An infant observation in South Africa. Infant Observation, 3(2), 80-92. doi:10.1080/13698030008406149

Poinso, F., Gay, M. P., Glangeaud-Freudenthal, N. M. C., & Rufo, M. (2002). Care in a mother-baby psychiatric unit: Analysis of separation at discharge. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 5(2), 49-58.

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

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