This article is Part I in a series of articles wherein I explore teenage pregnancy and young motherhood in the context of HIV, specifically the ways in which young mothers interact with their families beyond pregnancy and into young motherhood. 

The experiences I describe herein are based on my ethnographic fieldwork with teenagers and young mothers living in one of South Africa’s townships. I will call this area Place of Refuge. 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.

This article follows my earlier pieces in Synapsis that have explored the mother-child relationships between young mothers and their babies. I have suggested that 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 shed some light on familial relationships that surround young mothers, that is, the relationship young mothers have with their own mothers beyond pregnancy and into young motherhood. 

Following the nine months of pregnancy, most teenagers must consider what life will look like after their babies are born. This period of teenage motherhood seems complicated and chaotic for most teenage mothers, and their families. Some teenagers can rely on their mothers to take care of new babies. This intergenerational care is observed in other parts of South Africa (Bray et al., 2010:124; Chohan & Langa, 2011; Dubb, 1974; Jewkes et al., 2009; Josephine, 2019; Marwick, 1978; Nkani, 2012; Pauw, 1963; Preston- Whyte et al., 1990:14; Varga, 1998:11; Zabin, 1993) and other parts of the world (Arensen, 1994; Clemmens, 2003; Smithbattle, 1995; Smithbattle, 1996; Smithbattle, 1998). Some scholars found that families take care of new babies so teenagers can return to school or find employment (Chohan & Langa, 2011; Mkhwanazi, 2010; Mkhwanazi, 2014b; Morrell et al., 2012; Ngabaza, 2011; Nkani, 2012). Sometimes, I argue, families must help with new babies just so (new) young mothers can cope. This requires adjustment and sacrifice based on each family’s respective situation. The anecdotes below illustrate this.

My mother is coming from Bloemfontein. She stays with us. She helps me with the baby, teaching me. She will leave after two weeks. She must work. (Lerato, 2019)

I started working in the factory. My mother stays with the baby in the house. She is older and she cannot work in the factory. (Nthabiseng, 2019)

My grandmother helps with the baby sometimes. But when the baby is crying, then I must do it. I can’t sleep. My grandmother says I’m lazy. And I must do the nappies. But sometimes she helps, and my sister too. I live with my grandparents since my father died. I miss him too much, but I see him in my dreams. (Kananelo, 2019)

My mother is sleeping with the child. She feeds the child. I am too weak. My brother helps too. But not when he has school or homework. And my grandmother helps when she comes to visit. But she is old. She comes from Lesotho. They love my baby so much. I see how my family cares. (Bohlale, 2019)

I came to stay with my mom when I gave birth. I live in Welkom with my boyfriend. But I see my mother when I come to (Robedi section) clinic for (ARV) treatment. And now, when I gave birth. My mother helps me. But what we need are Pampers or Huggies. He (the baby boy) is seven weeks but he is a little bit big. He’s not taking size seven weeks Pampers. So, 0-3 months will be fine. Also, for Huggies, he wears size 2, size 3 or 4 for the newborn. (Dineo, 2019)

After Lerato’s baby was born, Lerato’s mother temporarily took time off work. Nthabiseng’s mother also stopped working so she could take of the new baby. The elderly woman traded retirement for childcare. Nthabiseng started working in one of the township’s factories to maintain the household income. Kananelo had help from her grandmother and older sister. Her grandmother is a pastor, and takes days off work to help with the baby. Kananelo is an orphan. Both her parents passed away after contracting tuberculosis. She tells me that she misses her father terribly, although she connects with him in her dreams. Like Kananelo’s grandmother, Bohlale’s mother is also a pastor. Her mother takes time off, from the church, so she can look after Bohlale’s baby. Other family members – her seventeen-year-old brother and her maternal grandmother – also help with childcare. Because of her HIV and relentless opportunistic infections, Bohlale spends most of her time resting in bed. Like Bohlale’s mother, Dineo’s mother takes care of Dineo and the new baby. During fieldwork, Dineo had just given birth to her third child. She has had three Caesarean deliveries. She is HIV-positive. Her mother feeds, bathes, and entertains the baby while Dineo heals. After each childbirth experience, Dineo has spent almost three months at her mother’s house. What Dineo suggests here is that she needs help acquiring material goods: diapers for the newborn. She seems to have enough emotional and childcare support from her mother.

End of Part I 


Works Cited 

Arensen, J. (1994). Strengths and self-perceptions of parenting in adolescent mothers. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 9(4), 251-257.

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.

Chohan, Z., & Langa, M. (2011). Teenage mothers talk about their experience of teenage motherhood. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 25(3), 87-95.

Clemmens, D. (2003). Adolescent motherhood: A meta-synthesis of qualitative studies. MCN, the American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 28(2), 93-99. doi:10.1097/00005721-200303000-00010

Dubb, A. (1974). The impact of the city. In Hammond-Tooke (Ed.), The bantu-speaking peoples of Southern Africa . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jewkes, R., Morrell, R., & Christofides, N. (2009). Empowering teenagers to prevent pregnancy: Lessons from South Africa. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 11, 675-688.

Josephine, A. M. (2019). “Motherhood is hard”: Exploring the complexities of unplanned motherhood among HIV-positive adolescents in South Africa. Sage, 9(2).

Marwick, M. (1978). Household composition and marriage in a witwatersrand African township. In W. J. Argyle, & E. M. Preston-Whyte (Eds.), Social system and tradition in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Mkhwanazi, N. (2014b). Revisiting the dynamics of early childbearing in South African townships. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(9), 1084-1096. doi:10.1080/13691058.2014.930512

Mkhwanazi, N. (2010). Understanding teenage pregnancy in a post-apartheid South African township. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 12(4), 347-358. doi:10.1080/13691050903491779

Morrell, R., Bhana, D., & Shefer, T. (2012). Books and babies: Pregnancy and young parents in schools. Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press.

Ngabaza, S. (2011). Positively pregnant: Teenage women’s experiences of negotiating pregnancy with their families. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 25(3), 42-51.

Nkani, F. (2012). An ethnographic study of teenage pregnancy: Femininities and motherhood among pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers at school in Inanda

Pauw, B. (1963). The second generation: A study of the family among urbanized bantu in east London. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Preston-Whyte, E., Zondi, M., Mavundla, G., & Gumede, H. (1990). Teenage pregnancy, whose problem? realities and prospects for action in KwaZulu/natal. Southern African Journal of Demography = Suidelike Afrikaanse Tydskrif Vir Demografie, 3, 11. Retrieved from

SmithBattle, L. (1998). Adolescent mothers four years later: Narratives of the self and visions for the future. Advances in Nursing Science, 20(3), 36-49.

SmithBattle, L. (1996). Intergenerational ethics of caring for adolescent mothers and their children. Family Relations, 45, 56-64.

SmithBattle, L. (1995). Teenage mothers’ narratives of self: An examination of risking the future. Advances in Nursing Science, 17(4), 22-36.

Varga, C. (1998). Health care utilization, nutrition, and pregnancy outcome among adolescent primigravidas in KwaZulu/natal, South Africa: A rural/urban perspective Available from Dissertations & Theses Europe Full Text: Science & Technology. Retrieved from

Zabin, L. S. (1993). More thoughts on the adolescent pregnancy ‘problem’. Family Planning Perspectives, 26(3), 132-136.

Header Image by Heather Spears, 2001. Wellcome Collection,

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