Teenage mothers with an older adult partner may engage in more risky behavior and live in less-favorable circumstances than those with a partner close to their age, according to analyses based on a sample of young mothers in Texas.1Twelve months after giving birth, young women with an adult partner five or more years their senior were less likely than mothers with a partner about their own age to be in school or working. They also were more likely to say that they use condoms infrequently, that their partner refuses to use condoms and that they had already had another planned pregnancy or were trying to conceive. The proportions reporting these circumstances were highest among young mothers who had an older partner and did not live with a parent or guardian.
All women who gave birth at a hospital in Galveston in the mid-1990s before age 19 were eligible to participate in the study if they identified themselves as Mexican American, African American or white; they planned to keep their baby; they had at least a fifth-grade reading and writing level (in English or Spanish); they had no major psychiatric disorders; and their infant was healthy and weighed more than 1,500 g. Participants were interviewed within 48 hours after delivering and agreed to complete a follow-up survey 12 months later that asked about their demographic and reproductive health characteristics, risk behaviors, experience with intimate partner violence, social support and current partners.
To study the effects on teenage mothers of having older partners, researchers divided the sample into two groups--312 women whose partner at follow-up was within two years of their own age and 184 whose partner was at least 20 years old and was five or more years their senior. They used chi-square analyses and t-tests to compare the two. (Women with partners 3-4 years older were excluded from the analyses.)
In most respects, women with partners close to their age and those with older adult partners at the time of the follow-up survey reported quite similar demographic characteristics: On average, they were about 18 years old; the majority were Mexican American or black and lived in a household headed by someone who worked full-time. Most were still involved with their baby's father; about one-quarter were seeing someone else. However, teenagers with an older adult partner were significantly less likely than those with a similar-aged partner to have completed more than a ninth-grade education before giving birth (63% vs. 83%), to be currently enrolled in school (27% vs. 37%) and to be employed (23% vs. 33%).
The two groups' reproductive health behaviors also were fairly similar. For example, no differences were found in the proportions who had had a repeat pregnancy or an unplanned pregnancy since entering the study, or in the proportions using reliable contraceptives. Yet women with an older partner were significantly more likely than those who were involved with someone roughly their age to say that they either had had a planned pregnancy during the study period or were trying to conceive (9% vs. 2%), that they use condoms infrequently (74% vs. 65%) and that their partner will not use condoms (37% vs. 23%). Levels of intimate partner violence and substance abuse (by the young mother or her partner) were statistically indistinguishable between the two groups.
Regardless of their partner's age, fewer than half of the women were married a year after giving birth, but those with a partner close to their age were more likely than those involved with an older man to be living with an adult authority figure (62% vs. 45%). Although the two groups reported similar levels of contact with their friends, women with similar-aged partners were less likely than their peers with older partners to report having infrequent contact with their mothers (14% vs. 28%). Furthermore, they rated both the support they received from their family and their overall support significantly higher (on a five-point scale) than did those with older partners.
To assess whether living with a parent or guardian affects teenage mothers' behaviors and experiences, the researchers conducted another set of comparisons, according to the young women's living arrangements. These analyses revealed that young women who lived on their own were significantly more likely than those living with an authority figure to be involved with an older man (46% vs. 30%).
Few differences emerged among teenagers living with an adult authority figure: Those with an older partner were significantly more likely than those with a same-aged partner to say that they had had a planned pregnancy during the past year or were trying to conceive (9% vs. 1%), and were more likely to report that their partner drinks daily (16% vs. 6%).
By contrast, several differences were apparent among young mothers not living with an adult authority figure. Women in this situation who had an older partner were somewhat younger than those with a same-aged partner (17.9 vs. 18.3 years) and were more likely to be Mexican American (53% vs. 33%). They were considerably less likely to have completed 9-11 grades of school before delivering (39% vs. 80%), to be in school (13% vs. 29%), to be working (20% vs. 33%) and to say that they have enough money to live on (62% vs. 78%).
Reproductive health behaviors were poorer among women not living with an adult authority figure who had an older partner than among those involved with someone close to their age: The former group were the more likely to have had or be planning a repeat pregnancy (10% vs. 3%), to say that their partner will not use condoms (40% vs. 25%) and to report that he will not permit the use of contraceptives (12% vs. 3%). Among women living with no parent or guardian, mothers with an older partner had a lower level of substance abuse than others (0% vs. 4%); they rated their overall level of support lower and were more likely to have infrequent contact with their mothers than were women with a similar-aged partner (41% vs. 19%).
In the last set of analyses, the researchers compared teenagers whose partner at follow-up was their baby's father with those who were involved with another man. These results indicated that among women who were still seeing their baby's father, those with an older partner were slightly younger than those with a similar-aged partner (17.8 vs. 18.1 years). They also were less likely to have completed grades 9-11 prior to giving birth (45% vs. 76%), to be in school (22% vs. 36%), to have a job (18% vs. 34%) and to live with an adult authority figure (33% vs. 55%), and were more likely to see their mothers less than once a week (33% vs. 15%). In addition, these women rated their family and overall support lower than did young mothers whose partner was about their age.
Among mothers who were currently involved with someone other than their baby's father, a completely different set of factors distinguished those with an older partner from those with a partner close to their age. Women with an older partner were more likely to say that they had had a planned repeat pregnancy or were trying to conceive (8% vs. 1%), that their partner refuses to use condoms (35% vs. 13%), and that he drinks daily (20% vs. 5%) or uses marijuana weekly (18% vs. 8%).
Noting that this study was largely descriptive and that the results may not be widely generalizable, the researchers nevertheless conclude that for teenage mothers, having an older adult partner may produce a "negative educational and financial impact," as well as increase the risk of a planned repeat pregnancy. They point out that given young mothers' "limited educational attainment and family support, a subsequent pregnancy could easily place [them] and their offspring at considerable financial and educational disadvantages."--D. Hollander
1. Agurcia CA et al., The behavioral risks and life circumstances of adolescent mothers involved with older adult partners, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2001, 155(7):822-830.