A U.K. photographer is working to challenge society's perceptions of women who become mothers at a young age.
Jendella Benson's project "Young Motherhood" features beautiful portraits and interviews with moms who had children in their teens and early twenties. The artist told The Huffington Post the project was inspired by her friends who were young mothers. "I could see first hand how hard they worked to raise their children and work and continue their education, which was in direct contrast with the stereotypes of irresponsible young mothers with no ambitions other than to get benefits (welfare) and a house from the government," she said.
"This myth is really pervasive, and it actually affects women in terms of how they are treated and perceived by society, from healthcare professionals right through to strangers on the street," she added. "I wanted to challenge these ideas as well as honor the work and lives of women who choose to have children at a young age."
Since she started the project in 2013, Benson has photographed 27 mothers with their children all across the U.K. Her subjects include friends, acquaintances and strangers she found through word of mouth and photo callouts. Through the process, the photographer has learned a great deal about their vastly different experiences.
"Young motherhood is very complex," she said. "There are a whole host of reasons why a woman gets pregnant and decides to keep her child, and the decision to be a mother at a young age is not a tragedy in and of itself."
Now a mother to a 7-month-old baby, the artist has reached even greater clarity about parenthood. "Most mothers, no matter the age or circumstances they are in, just want the best for their children and themselves," she said. "There's no difference when it comes to young mothers."
"All these judgements are made about their morality and their capability are besides the point and actually a real hindrance, but the amazing thing is that despite all the baggage others put on them, they do an amazing job," she added. "That should always be celebrated."
Ultimately, Benson hopes her Young Motherhood project will challenge the prejudice and false perceptions these moms face and instead foster empathy and a desire to know and understand strangers' stories. The importance of supporting all parents, rather than assuming young mothers deserve punishment for some sort of "errant behavior," cannot be overstated, she said.
Added the artist, "I wanted to create something that might also encourage other young women who may relate to the challenge of parenting under such scrutiny and judgement, and to let them know they aren't the only ones going through it and that despite what people may say they haven't ruined their lives or limited their chances."
Keep scrolling to see Benson's photos of women who became mothers at a young age and read excerpts of their interviews.
"We made our decision that whatever challenges come, we have to take [them] head on. I don’t think you can ever be prepared to have children, I think it’s just kind of like a day-to-day thing, you take the challenges as they come, you overcome, and you look back and say 'Man, that was hard, but we done it.'"
"I remember being on a hospital ward on a shift, and I had my name badge and underneath my name badge there was a picture of Daniel on the other side. And one of the patients saw this picture of Daniel and she said 'Oh, you’ve got a son.' I said 'Yeah, he’s two.' 'Oh, you’re not married?' I said 'No, I’m not married, it’s just me and Daniel.' 'Oh, you must still love him though, mustn’t you?' Well, yeah! He’s my son, yes, I do still love him!"
"The media and society really give young mums a bad name. [With] anything in this world, there’s bad and good, so whether you’re young or old, there’s bad and good. For myself, when I was seventeen I felt that I was really looked down upon, and I think I’ve turned out to be quite a good mum. The community and the government need to stop giving young mums a hard time, and just look at whether you’re a mum and doing a great job -- take out the title ‘young’ because that doesn’t need to be there."
"Where I lived at the time was renowned for having the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, so all the support was pretty much where I was. Not only did I have my family, I had the help from Connexions, I had a specific midwife that was trained to deal with teenage pregnancies, and she was fantastic. I’m still great friends with her now. I knew that I didn’t have to worry about school and [being] a mum and [doing] everything all at once. I had people that could set out for me a simple way of looking at it. Having specific teenage support stops you from feeling so alienated and isolated."
"[I was 17 but] I looked about 13, so I think I felt very aware of that and I wanted people to see me as an adult. Even when I was in the hospital giving birth, I felt that the midwives were mistreating me a little bit because I was young. I wanted them to acknowledge that I was a woman giving birth, but they didn’t. I didn’t want to be a stereotypical young mum, I hated the fact that I looked so young pushing a buggy down the street and people [saw] that. So I was determined to not be what people expected me to be."
"When I became pregnant I didn’t know anything about any government support. Even until after I had Ella, I didn’t know. I was totally unaware of so many things. A few weeks after I had her, my sister was like 'Do you know about this and do you know about that?' and I was like 'No.' Even months after, I went to see a health visitor and she was like 'Have you applied for this and have you applied for that?' And I was just like 'I didn’t even know that existed.' It would have been a lot easier and a lot better if I actually knew before I gave birth."
"Looking back now, I did it on purpose. I didn’t understand that was what I was doing at the time. There were lots of things going on in my life that I was very confused about and very worried about. With the hindsight of an adult, as someone who is much more mature and has had all the experiences that I’ve had as a mother and someone who has set their life up, I can see now what I was doing. I was trying to control my environment, and I was trying to control what was happening in my life."
"It made me super determined to do something with my life. Essentially when I got pregnant everyone wrote me off except for my mum. They said I wouldn’t amount to anything, I’d ruined my life, I’d never have a career, I wouldn’t be able to get a decent job. At the time, because I wasn’t with her father, it was like 'Nobody is ever going to want you, you’re never going to be able to get married, nobody’s going to take on you and a child.' I was super determined to prove them wrong. When I was able to, I went back to college and I studied and I worked, and I worked, and I worked to not fulfill that kind of stereotype."
"Especially him being a black boy as well, I have to make sure that I raise him in a way that he’s not deemed by society as being a problem. Even though he’ll have that stigma [that] he’s come from a young, single mum, I want him to know that he doesn’t need to be whatever anybody labels him to be. He will be special, he will be different, because he was raised right."
"The stigma of being a young parent is increasing because of feelings about welfare. I think people really don’t like young parents for a lot of reasons, but most of it is economic. It’s not acceptable to be homophobic or racist or sexist anymore, but you’ll often hear discrimination towards young parents. [You hear] that they’re scum of the earth and all the things that are said about their morality."
"I was in a really good relationship. I’d gone through some health concerns previous to that and there was a possibility that I may not have children. So when we found out that we were pregnant it was great news, so we took it straight to [our] parents! I decided to be a mother. A part of me did think 'Gosh, I’m 19, maybe I am too young?' But in my mind I felt like I was old enough to deal with the pregnancy and the forthcoming baby. I felt like I was grown, I felt like I was old enough to be able to handle what I was experiencing."
"Before I got pregnant, if I saw someone else who was pregnant and young I always thought 'How can they be pregnant? They’re so young!' And then when I was in the situation I was like 'Oh, so it can happen to anyone!' So I was very conscious of people around me and what they would think of me as well. There was another girl and she fell pregnant shortly after me and I remember her telling me and, it’s really bad, but I wanted to be by myself. I didn’t want to be grouped [with her], like the 'teenage mums,' I didn’t want to be put into that stereotype. But I was put into it anyway, because I was a young mum."
"I gave up on my studying, I worked, I had my child, I took time off, and then when he was about 8 months, I went back to work full-time. I remember I would go to work with tears in my eyes, because I felt like I was forced to go back to work, I felt like the government was tying my hands. I didn’t want to leave him so soon. I didn’t have any financial support from the father, and it was really all on me. As tough and as challenging as it was, you just do it. Somehow you just find the strength to cope. Each time I was telling myself 'I’m not just doing this for myself, I’m doing this for my child. I’m his whole world, so I have to do what I need to do.'"
"There is a sense now that I think ‘Ah, I didn’t do the university thing, I didn’t have any of those opportunities.’ But then actually I had a whole load of other stuff. I know some people now who are really struggling to conceive, now I’m at an age where people are planning or trying to have babies, and so it is that sense of I do feel a real privilege and a real blessing that I’ve had the opportunity to do that, even if it wasn’t in the best circumstances or in the planned way."
"It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s what I know now, and I really enjoy the fact that I’ve got my daughter. I’m her first teacher, she looks up to me and I love it because it challenges me to be a better person in myself. She’s a really good girl. Sometimes maybe I wish I’d waited til later, but now when I look at my daughter and she’s the age she is, [and] I’m the age I am -- we’ve grown [up] together. So I don’t wish I’d had her later, I’m glad I had her when I did."
"[I had] friends saying 'No, no, you like to go out, you like to do this...' and I was like “Is that life though? I’ve got a life in me!” It annoyed me a bit and I was quite upset with a few people, and to be honest, even to the point where if they comment about him now, like “Oh he’s so gorgeous!” -- well you didn’t think I should’ve had him! At the beginning I was quite bitter towards [them] because it upset me, because I wanted support. I never considered [abortion], I had my beliefs and I [didn’t] see abortion as a way out."
"I’m a teacher, so I deal with young people who become pregnant regularly. I just always say to them that things just take a little bit longer, you can achieve everything you wanted to achieve, but sometimes it will take a little bit longer. So I went to university, but I was just a few years behind my peers who went at the traditional age. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get there, but [also] you should enjoy your baby and not be ashamed of it."
"Throughout my pregnancy I definitely got more confident. I got more confident as a woman and I definitely felt the transition between being a teenager and being an adult. I had to leave a lot of friends behind, because it wasn’t about hanging out with your friends, having a drink and going to the pub, or messing about anymore. It was all about planning for the future and settling down, and doing what you need to do."