Stop Shaming Drug-Using Moms Like Teen Mom 2's Jenelle Evans
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You can see this play out every week on the MTV reality show Teen Mom 2, a spin-off of Sixteen and Pregnant, in which young mothers struggle to make ends meet now that they are responsible for another life.
MTV’s failure to truly grapple with issues like the difficulty of raising a kid on a low income has led many critics to call the show voyeurism rather than education. This week, we have another excuse to gawk and to judge.
On Wednesday, Teen Mom 2 star, 21-year-old Jenelle Evans, was arrested on heroin and assault charges following a violent dispute with her husband, Courtland Rogers, who was also charged with assault. It's not the first time she’s been in trouble. Evans’ run-ins with the law date back to October 2010, when she and her then-boyfriend were arrested with drug possession and breaking and entering. Since then, in addition to her latest charge, she’s been arrested for assault, harassing phone calls, violating probation by testing positive for drugs, and violating a domestic violence protection order.
Making judgments about the instability of the show's cast is central to its entertainment value. And Evans, who is regarded by many as one of the "worst" mothers on the show (though she did sign over custody of her son, Jace, to her mom in 2010), provides an easy target for judgmental viewers; there is little sympathy for a young mother who, by society’s understanding, chooses to use drugs during what should be the most important role of her life.
As Michelle Dean wrote in Bitch magazine, Teen Mom viewers develop opinions not “about the systemic disadvantage young and often single motherhood entails” but “opinions about whether these young women are doing the best they can in crappy and impossibly difficult situations....Opinions about whether they are being, above it all, ‘good moms.’”
It is the bad moms who help viewers feel better about themselves. Even Jezebel, a feminist website, mocked Evans’ latest arrest as her “working her way up to having enough mugshots to make her own novelty deck of cards.”
But pregnancy does not flip a “good-parenting” switch that magically matures young women into able caretakers. Conception is not a cure for substance abuse problems. Giving birth does not erase the scars of intimate partner violence.
On the contrary, young women like Jenelle Evans who engage in risky behavior like fighting, smoking and using drugs are more likely to become pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is also correlated with higher incidents of intimate partner abuse. The trend continues after women give birth. Young mothers are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs than those who did not become pregnant. One study found that about a quarter of pregnant women in their late teens experienced violence before, during or after their pregnancies.
Still, when confronted with a troubled young mother dealing with substance abuse issues, we act surprised by her "bad behavior."
“We have a really difficult relationship with the notion that young women use drugs and sometimes they have children,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We don’t know how to reconcile those things, and tend to err on side of caution in wanting to make sure the child is protected, but at same time deny struggling young women access to services that could make a big difference in their lives.”