Reassurance, fearmongering or cautionary tales: what television teaches young women about motherhood


Curator's Note

The average age of a woman giving birth in England and Wales is now just a few short weeks away from her 30th birthday. Indeed, recent figures from the Office for National Statistics make it clear that for the first time since records began, more women are getting pregnant in their 30s than in their 20s. In short, women are becoming mothers later than their mothers and their mothers before them, and these women are exposed to a myriad of maternal representations on television before they ever experience pregnancy and new motherhood.

Examining the ways in which mothers are depicted in the media is crucial to an understanding of both media and motherhood studies due to the fact that the ways in which this group are represented have the power to inform and educate a generation of women about what it means to mother in the current pronatal period. That said, even though recent work exists to account for the ways in which motherhood is presented on the small screen (Feasey 2012, Feasey 2016, Le Vay 2019), literature (Seidel, 2013) and popular media culture (Podnieks 2012, Hosey 2019), little work exists to account for the ways in which young women read or respond to such images. With this in mind, I compiled a short questionnaire that helps us to make sense of the ways in which maternal depictions encourage 18-25 year olds to think about motherhood and the ways in which such figures can be said to impact on their future family building choices.

What was of interest here was not the diversity of responses from a group of women with a myriad of educational, employment, and television preferences, but rather, the commonality and consensus that emerged from their responses. Irrespective of age, background, or genre favourites, the majority of late teen and twenty-something women who completed the questionnaire spoke of their desire for what they termed a ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ family. They spoke of wanting to be in a secure and loving long-term relationship with a professional job, their own home, and disposable income before embarking on motherhood. If one considers that marriage, home ownership, and secure employment have long been understood as markers of adult maturity, their responses thus far are not unexpected. The assumption for all was that they would become pregnant naturally and give birth relatively easily. There was no consideration of infertility, pregnancy loss, or stillbirth, irrespective of recent figures that foreground the commonality of such experiences (Feasey 2019). Again, based on maternal discourses in the current pronatal period, the fast-growing wedding industry, and current health education in schools, their responses thus far might appear predictable. 

However, what was surprising was the fact that many of these young women countered their maternal ideal with a ‘back up’ plan based on what they had seen in the contemporary television landscape. The respondents spoke of maternal depictions routinely played out on the small screen that left them feeling at best uneasy and at worst vulnerable about their marital and maternal futures.

Late teens and twenty-something women spoke of being worried, anxious, and indeed scared about a maternal future that would leave then struggling socially, professionally, and financially. The representations of mothers in the reality and soap opera genres in particular were seen to put young women off of early motherhood. These women spoke of wanting an education and stable career before making any decisions about a maternal future. After all, televisual representations of teen motherhood in general, and single teen motherhood in particular, were said to be linked to hardship for all parties. The respondents struggled to find representations of teen or early 20-something mothers who managed to combine school, work, social life, and friendships with their maternal role. Although work exists to both confirm and challenge the link between falling teen pregnancy rates and the depiction of teen pregnancy on the small screen (Kearney and Levine 2015, Jaeger, Theodore and Kaestner 2018) the late teens and twenty-something women who responded to my survey made it clear that young motherhood (by contemporary standards) was deemed unpalatable, undesirable, and to be avoided.

Cautionary tales
For career women in the police and crime procedurals, we are introduced to strong, assertive, professionally respected single mothers who are able to fulfil a traditionally masculine role in the police force, FBI, and CIA. While these women were routinely spoken about as role models for young women seeking a meaningful career and contribution to society, there was the sense that figures such as Carrie Mathison/Claire Danes (Homeland 2011- ) and Sarah Linden/ Mireille Enos (The Killing 2011-14) made the notion of ‘having it all’ seem implausible. As these women hand over custody of their children, late teens and twenty-something audiences spoke with incredulity as their former role models became cautionary tales for those seeking to balance professional work with motherhood.

Young women are being put off of early motherhood because of the struggling and/or sensationalised depictions that we see on the small screen. What is enlightening to note here is that these women do not see the nuclear family as a stable, long-term, or committed family unit. Quality American dramas have a habit of asking stay-at-home mothers to return to the world of work on the back of changing family circumstances; be it divorce, death, incarceration or spousal incompetence. As a myriad of scenes and scenarios play out in a number of carefully scripted narratives, be it Desperate Housewives (2004-12), Weeds (2005-12) or The Good Wife (2009-16), we watch women face financial hardship, social pity, ostracization, and/or anxieties relating to work-life balance. This shift from comfortable housewife to strained caregiver and provider is said to be played out as a cautionary tale for those women who leave the private realm in favour of the public arena.  

In short, the representations of mothers on television are encouraging late teens and twenty-something women to start a family later in life. While many desire a traditional family unit, they are said to be anxious about the possibility of unplanned single motherhood. If one considers the reality of age-related infertility, this desire to have children later in life marks a genuine concern for future family planning. After all, women within and beyond my questionnaire appear ill informed about the lived reality of infertility in general and age-related infertility in particular (Shapiro 2012, CDC cited in Sterling 2013).

If one considers that the media is understood as an important  information channel about fertility, infertility, and family building (Lampi 2008: 14), the ways in which my respondents spoke about later motherhood is a cause for concern. And while the reality is that 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce in the UK, my respondents made it clear that it is  televisual representations rather than the social reality that is said to instil a desire for later motherhood, with career longevity and financial independence acting as a safety net for those young women looking towards future maternal roles and responsibilities.



Feasey, Rebecca. 2016. Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television.Oxford: Peter Lang.

Feasey, Rebecca. 2012. From Happy Homemaker to Desperate Housewives: Motherhood and Popular Television. London: Anthem.

Hosey, Sara. 2019. Home is Where the Hurt Is: Media Depictions of Wives and Mothers.London: McFarland.

Jaeger, David; Joyce, Theodore and Kaestner, David; Joyce, Theodore and Kaestner, Robert. 2018. “A Cautionary Tale of Evaluating Identifying Assumptions: Did Reality TV Really Cause a Decline in Teenage Childbearing?” Journal of Business & Economic Statistics.

Kearney, Melissa and Levine, Phillip. 2015. “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV's 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing.” American Economic Review, 105: 12, 3597-3632.

Lampi, Elina. 2008. “What Do Friends and the Media Tell Us? How Different Information Channels Affect Women’s Risk Perceptions of Age-related Infertility.”Working Papers in Economics: School of Business, Economic and Law, University of Gothenburg:246,1-24.

Le Vay, Lulu. 2019. Surrogacy and the Reproduction of Normative Family on TV. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Podnieks, Elizabeth (ed). 2012. Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Seidel, Linda. 2013. Mediated Motherhood: Contemporary American Portrayals of Bad Mothers in Literature and Popular Culture. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Shapiro, Connie. 2012. Eventual Mons-To-Be: Heads Up! Psychology Today Accessed June 26, 2019.

Sterling, Evelina. 2013. From No Hope to Fertile Dreams: Procreative Technologies, Popular Media, and the Culture of Infertility.PhD Dissertation, Georgia State University. Accessed June 26, 2019.


Thanks Rebecca for this post. Reading it, I was struck by a number of things. One is that although your informants were so diverse in terms of background, televisual representations shape the ways they think about family and motherhood within a very narrow range. Another is that they don’t see a nuclear family as a likely outcome. A third is how perceptions have changed as regards what is seen as a young mother. Once becoming a mother at 25 was seen as late, now for many that is irresponsibly early. And this, of course has consequences in terms of infertility. As you note, many of the informants simply didn’t realise that delaying pregnancy might make it difficult to conceive. Age-related infertility, combined with a distrust in stable partnerships leads me to think about single mothers by choice, using IVF. I know that there are some romantic comedies on that topic, such as The Back Up Plan and The Switch. Have you looked into such narratives and what effects they might have?

Very interesting findings; thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

I'm intrigued by how negative responses are around the idea of the nuclear family, especially the assumptions that single/divorced motherhood is such a likely outcome it needs advance preparation. Is this coming from media representations, or is it reflecting other social concerns around notions of family, marriage, etc.? I wonder if young men feel the same?

I'm also curious about how this links to the damaging narrative of "having it all." You mention briefly that it serves as cautionary tale. Did your participants talk about it?

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