This article is Part II 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. 

In the anecdotes below, some teenagers highlight reasons why their families help with childcare. Many teenagers mentioned their mothers:

My sister and my mom help me, because my sister has her own babies so she knows things. Or it’s because they love me, or because God says to help your neighbour and family. They care for me, and my baby. (Mahlony, 2019)

My mom helps me because she loves me. She was angry about the pregnancy at first, but now, she helps me too much. I know she will help when the baby comes. (Seipati, 2019)

My mother, she helps me with every baby. Now, this is my third child. Every time I come to live with my mother. Because the newborn is a lot of work. But I love it. And my mother loves my babies. (Dineo, 2019)

Mahlony suggests that her mother and sister help with childcare because they teach her what she does not know, and they love her. She also alludes to a faith-based motivation for familial care: helping others is what God prescribes. Mahlony is the only teenager who invoked religion in these childcare-related discussions. Like Mahlony, Seipati and Dineo suggest that their mothers help with childcare because they love their daughters and their daughters’ babies. At this time, Seipati was in the final trimester of her pregnancy. Dineo’s baby was two months old.

Although their families help, some teenage mothers are the primary caregivers for their babies. These teenagers prioritise childcare. They learn about parenting from mothers, sisters, or grandmothers. Thereafter, families step in if and when they are needed. Mahlony highlights this above. Her sister, and mother, help with childcare by teaching Mahlony ‘how’ to take care of her baby.

It is important to note that familial care is not always guaranteed. This support may only be granted over time. Other work in South Africa echoes this (Kaufman et al 2001:158, Preston- Whyte, 1993:64; Preston-Whyte et al., 1990; Varga 1998:109). In Place of Refuge, some parents may be ‘too’ disappointed in, or angry with, their teenage daughters. Seipati describes this above. Many parents may not initially accept teenage pregnancy. By the time babies are born, however, many parents adjust and accept teenage motherhood. Most families go to great lengths to accommodate new babies.

I believe that these anecdotes offer quite profound reasons why some teenagers’ mothers take care of new babies: love, empathy, self-sacrifice. It seems that these profound reasons are bundled with practical or pragmatic reasons. Many teenagers cannot ‘learn mothering’ on their own. Furthermore, these anecdotes highlight that familial care requires on-going negotiation. 

After a baby is born, many families must redistribute their resources so they can accommodate new babies, and help with childcare. For some families, helping with childcare means reorganising who works in a household and who stays at home. Most families work hard to achieve balance here. I argue that the ability to provide familial care is closely linked to the household’s economy. That is, whether the household can survive with less money and a new mouth to feed. In some cases, familial care may be a question of affordability. Some families may want to help teenagers with childcare, but they cannot afford to do this. Not all households can sacrifice employment, even if they want to. In Place of Refuge, teenage motherhood is set against a backdrop of unemployment and poverty.

Fiona Ross (2009) has explored social relationships and household formation in Cape Town’s settlements.

…incomes may not be equally distributed within households and women’s coping strategies in such contexts link people in relationships across household boundaries. Their work demonstrates that ‘the household’ is both a porous construct and one that disguises diverse and often conflict-filled relationships. (Ross, 2009:90)

What Ross describes here agrees with other research in South Africa. Based on his work in the Eastern Cape, Zolani Ngwane (2003) found that the making of a household is a continuous process that usually arises from conflict and compromise among families (Ngwane, 2003:688). ‘The household’ is a fluid concept and a goal toward which families relentlessly strive. This is also true in Place of Refuge. More specifically, there are shifting contradictions embodied in ‘the household’. The household is a site of tension in so far as this is a place for verbal disagreements (most often between pregnant teenagers and their mothers) about key sources of value (education, unemployment, marriage) and how teenage pregnancy has endangered these. Yet the household is also a place of refuge wherein pregnant teenagers can ‘hide’ from public scrutiny and witches. This illustrates the ever-shifting nature that is the making of a household (Ngwane, 2003:635).

I think it is deeply significant that the process of “householding” (Ross, 2009:90) is taken on by women who are both carers and providers in Place of Refuge. The way women cope with and safeguard household dynamics is a social project in so far as both coping and guarding relies on women’s relationships with each other and their communities. This is true for older women (teenagers’ mothers and grandmothers) as well as young women (pregnant teenagers and young mothers). This social project demonstrates fluidity and adaptiveness in the household. Indeed, the household (and the relationships it encapsulates) survives the scandal that is teenage pregnancy and later celebrates the joy that is welcoming a new baby.

End of Part II


Works Cited 

Kaufman, C. E., de Wet, T., & Stadler, J. (2001). Adolescent pregnancy and parenthood in South Africa. Studies in Family Planning, 32(2), 147-160. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4465.2001.00147.x

Ngwane, Z. 2003. ‘“Christmastime” and the struggles for the household in the countryside: Rethinking the cultural geography of migrant labour in South Africa’. Journal of Southern African Studies, 29 (3): 681–99.

Preston-Whyte, E. (1993). Women who are not married: Fertility, ‘illegitimacy’, and the nature of households and domestic groups among single African women in Durban. South African Journal of Sociology, 24(3), 63 71. doi:10.1080/02580144.1993.10432905

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

Ross, F. (2009). Raw life, new hope: Decency, housing and everyday life in a post-apartheid community. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.

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

Header Image: Swaddled baby by Heather Spears, 1999. Wellcome Collection,

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