Sasheenie Moodley //

In this article, I explore the ways in which teenage mothers protect their babies. This article follows my earlier pieces in Synapsis: “Teenage mother love” and “Teenagers connecting with their babies”. The way some girls protect, love, and connect with their babies is a testament to what Elisabeth Badinter (1981) has called ‘good mothering’. Here, I argue that a powerful dimension of teenage mothering is protection, that is, providing stability, ensuring childcare, and planning for the future.

This article is based on 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, and the Free State Department of Health. All names have been anonymised to protect the identity of teenagers and their families.


Providing stability

Some teenagers protect their babies by providing stability. Lavas is HIV-negative, twenty years old, and lives with her mother. She told me that her parents are “divorced” (2018). She is dating her baby’s father, and will continue to do so. Here, Lavas describes something that could be read as stability:

“When you are a mother, you must be responsible and be protective of your child.” (2018)

Lavas suggests that she wants to give her child a stable home with two parents. Like Lavas, Mahlony describes a need to protect her child. Mahlony is HIV-positive and twenty-seven years old. She is engaged to her baby’s father, and making wedding plans. After she discovered her pregnancy, Mahlony was determined to finish high school. This was the best way she could secure a future for her child, she tells me. Mahlony says:

“I want to work and give my child a home sweet home…” (2019)

In addition to providing a house, a ‘good’ mother might also try to give her child financial stability. One way to provide this stability is by finishing school. Nator explains this further. She is HIV-negative, and twenty years old. She broke up with her boyfriend after he cheated on her. Nator lives with her mother, who has taught her about being a good mother. Nator repeats to me what her mother taught her:

“…you must work to make sure your baby goes to sleep with a full stomach… My dream is I want to be a teacher and be a good mother for my child, and make my child proud of me. I want to be successful in life and make sure I don’t want help from my babymaker (baby’s father). … I need to study hard at school to make sure my baby is going to live in a better place, and be educated without having a father.” (2019)

Some teenagers told me that education is the best way to find employment, and thus secure financial stability and (in turn) their babies’ futures. Maipato, for example, strives to be a paramedic so she can “earn a stable income” and take care of her baby (Maipato 2019). In practice, however, education cannot always guarantee employment (Bray et al., 2010).


Ensuring childcare

Some teenage mothers strive to protect their babies with thoughtful childcare. Yet this is not always possible. HIV, for example, can limit some girls’ physical capabilities. They may therefore be unable to work or finish school. That is, these mothers are unable to be ‘good’ mothers in the ways that are socially prescribed, or expected. Despite these challenges, some girls manage to make meaning of teenage motherhood in earnest. This was the case for Bohlale. At the beginning of 2019, I visited 20-year-old Bohlale in her home. She is HIV-positive, and lives with her young brother in her mother’s house. After talking with Bohlale in the front yard, her mother emerged from the house. Bohlale’s baby boy was strapped to her mother’s back in a brown towel. The way Bohlale’s mother interacted with the baby made it seem like he was hers. The way Bohlale did not interact with the baby seemed to confirm this. I was struck by how detached Bohlale was. She did not check on her baby. She did not pick up his toys when they fell. She did not even flinch when her baby tripped, and started crying. Bohlale’s detachment was not because of her indifference, but rather due to her lack of (physical) capacity. At the time, the baby boy was more than three months old. Yet Bohlale remained weak. HIV limited her physical capabilities. She had been sick since she gave birth. Her appearance – the way she looked – surprised me. She was emaciated. Because Bohlale could not actively take care of her child, she found another way to ‘protect’ him. She made plans for her baby and his future:

“One day, I will build a school. It will offer karate and chess. Then youth won’t become gangsters. … I know that life. I did it with drugs, and trucks. … My boy will finish school. The school will keep my child and other children here safe.” (2019)

Because she dabbled in drugs, Bohlale told me, she knew what it was like to “take risks” (Bohlale 2019). She also dated a number of truck drivers and gangsters. Largely because of these experiences, Bohlale planned a different future for her baby. Unlike her, the child will finish school. She dreams that her baby will attend the school she will build. There, he will have the opportunity to learn karate and chess. He will have after-school activities outside of drugs, alcohol, and dating. Outside of dreaming and planning, Bohlale has few other ways to ‘protect’ her baby’s future. Yet she does not want her baby boy to have “that kind of life” – the life she had (Bohlale 2019). She does not want him to contract HIV. She does not want him to become the truck drivers and gangsters she used to know so well.  By building a school, Bohlale believes she can keep her baby, and other children in the community, safe.

Scholars have explored motherly protection in the context of HIV. Ruth Anne Van Loon (2000) worked with a group of HIV-positive adult mothers in the United States. She found that some mothers hold onto their mothering roles by “looking out for” their babies, not just “looking after” them. Proactively planning child custody, for example, is one way a mother can ‘look out for’ her child. A mother may do this when HIV limits her childcare capabilities. Bohlale’s experiences emphasise what Van Loon observed. Bohlale does not always have the capacity to take care of her baby in the ‘present’. As a result, she resorts to planning a ‘future’ for her child.

The plans Bohlale makes for her baby are one result of, and thus reveal, the complicated relationship between HIV and motherhood. Margarete Sandelowski and Julie Barroso (2003) have explored this relationship. They worked with a small group of HIV-positive mothers in the United States. These scholars suggest that there is a reciprocal, and paradoxical, relationship between HIV and motherhood:

The duality of motherhood, in the context of maternal HIV infection, appeared to reside not only in the paradoxical effects that motherhood had on HIV infection and vice versa, but also in the contradictory effects of the same maternal action, and the common effects of opposing actions.” (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003:475)

The scholars suggest that HIV can harm, or help, motherhood. For example, they discuss what happens when a mother discloses her HIV status. Telling her kin about HIV can increase the familial support she receives as a mother. Yet disclosing her HIV can also impede this support. This is how HIV paradoxically affects mothering.

Reciprocally, motherhood can harm, or help, HIV. For example, being a mother can “aggravate” HIV symptoms (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003:475). Yet motherhood can also boost a woman’s self-esteem, and give her a “reason to live” (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003:475). Sandelowski and Barroso describe the paradox, and reciprocity, of HIV-positive motherhood as the “duality” of motherhood. In Botshabelo, Bohlale’s experiences highlight this duality.

How does her HIV affect Bohlale’s mothering? HIV restricts her physical capabilities. Thus, she cannot take care of her baby. Yet having HIV has also made life more valuable to her. She wants to live long enough to see her baby grow up.

How does motherhood affect Bohlale’s HIV? Motherhood has exacerbated her declining health, and HIV-related infections. Yet motherhood has given her the ability to do something – make plans for her baby – at a time when she is unable to do or be anything else. Making plans – being a ‘good’ mother – gives her purpose.

Furthermore, motherhood has reframed the way Bohlale looks at her life. Before motherhood, her life seemed lonely. Now, she sees that her life is filled with her family. “They are so supportive,” she says, “because they take care of my baby” (Bohlale 2019). In fact, seeing the way her family dotes on her baby has improved her relationships at home. She is more grateful for her family because she acknowledges their care and support.


Planning for the future

The plans Bohlale makes for her baby are a form of “mothering work” (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003). Bohlale talks about what her baby will learn at school, the kind of career he will have, and where he will travel. This is how she connects with, and protects, her child.

I find it interesting that it is not only HIV-positive teenage mothers who plan their babies’ futures. That is, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative teenagers seem to look ahead. Like Bohlale, Popi also makes plans for her baby’s life. Popi is twenty years old and HIV-negative. She lives with her grandmother and four other siblings in Robedi section. Both her grandmother and her boyfriend supported her through her pregnancy. Now, her grandmother is helping Popi raise the child. Popi plans a safe and successful future for her baby:

“I have a dream for my child. I hope he can listen to me, and get educated to make me proud. I love my child with all of my heart. I hope the love that I have with him will never change. I don’t want to see him being a thief or see his life end up being in jail, or see when he is a drug dealer. I pray all the time. I hope God will protect him during day and night.” (2018)

Both Bohlale and Popi are teenage mothers who make plans for the future. I suggest that ‘protecting babies’ may be an important way for some teenage mothers to take care of their babies regardless of HIV status. In other words, the way teenage mothers protect their babies – by planning for the future – is part of a shared mothering experience.

All in all, it seems to me that motherly protection may manifest in different ways. Planning for the future, for example, complements other forms of motherly protection, such as seeking ways to provide stability and looking out for and after babies. While methods of protecting a baby might differ among teenage mothers, what these methods share is a mother’s intention to care for her baby to the best of her ability despite challenging circumstances.

Featured Image by William Fortunato via Pexels


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

Bray, R., Gooskens, I., Kahn, L., Moses, S., & Seekings, J. (2010). Growing up in the new South Africa: Childhood and adolescence in post-apartheid Cape Town. Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press.

Sandelowski, M., & Barroso, J. (2003). Motherhood in the context of maternal HIV infection. Research in Nursing & Health, 26(6), 470-482.

Van Loon, R. (2000). Redefining motherhood: Adaptation to role change for women with AIDS. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 81(2), 152-161.

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