From being ‘at risk’ to being ‘a risk’: journeys into parenthood among disadvantaged young mothers

Stream: Young parents, lone parents and social policy
Date: Monday, 9 September 2019
Time: 3.40 pm – 5.00 pm


Disadvantaged young people access multiple service systems to obtain the resources they need. These systems position disadvantaged young people as certain kinds of policy subjects, such as ‘at risk’ of poor education, mental health, or criminal justice outcomes. Disadvantaged young mothers are frequently positioned as in need of intensive parenting support and surveillance to circumvent possible harm to the child (Romangoli and Wall, 2012; Macvarish, 2010). Young people experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage engage in ‘navigation and negotiation’ (Ungar 2005) through and across systems and services. When disadvantaged young women become pregnant and have a child, the landscape of formal resources they are navigating is reconfigured as they are constructed as a new kind of policy subject, accompanied by a shift in eligibility and focus in the service systems around them.

How do young mothers experience, navigate and negotiate this repositioning, and what does it mean for the extent to which their service needs are being met? Drawing on biographical narrative interviews with eight young mothers in New South Wales, in which they were asked about their experience of support systems over time, this paper explores this question. The paper suggests that, when these disadvantaged young women became pregnant or had a child, they experienced a ‘gaze-shifting’ of the service systems around them, so that the focus of service systems is on the needs of their child. As a result, some services become easier to access, most notably housing, while others, especially child protection, became substantially more challenging to navigate.


Megan Blaxland (Presenter), Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Dr Megan Blaxland, BA (Hons); PhD, Sydney) is a Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW since 2007. Her research interest is in Australian and comparative family policy analysis. Her research experience has included projects on young people with complex needs and their families, income support programs for families; and early childhood education and care, particularly family day care.

Myra Hamilton, Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Dr Myra Hamilton (BA (Hons); PhD, Sydney) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW. She is a sociologist and social policy researcher whose focus is on work and care across the generations. Her program of research brings together research on patterns of, barriers to, and experience of work, with research on patterns of and experiences of care, and how these interact in complex ways across the generations and at different stages of the lifecourse.

Jennifer Skattebol, Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Jennifer Skattebol, Dip Ed (EC), B.Ed., PhD, joined the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW in 2008. Her research explores issues of economic inequality and how they are experienced by children and their families. She is interested in how constructions of family are lived and experienced and how the nexus of the family is a site where inequalities and power focus, operate, are resisted and transformed. This work includes consideration of how young people manage tensions between family and school (and other services) and how services might be more responsive to the needs of disadvantaged citizens.