Caregiving and risky behavior: parallel investigations into young women

Moodley, Jacqueline (1); De Wet, Nicole (2) (2018). 'Caregiving and risky behavior: Parallel investigations into young women' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Children with disabilities have complex care needs that often places a burden on caregivers. The gendered nature of care in South Africa allows us to extrapolate that in many instances, care responsibilities falls to mothers. The literature around caregiving in relation to children with disabilities highlights that mothers of these children often have to stay home to care for their children and as a result, they succumb to lower levels of employment and higher levels of poverty (Oh & Lee, 2009). These aspects in addition to child-related characteristics such as children’s personalities and behaviors have been linked to negative caregiver health and a decreased quality of life (Javalkar, et al. 2017).

We acknowledge that children with disabilities are born to mothers of all ages and therefore certain difficulties experienced are common to all mothers. However, for young, unmarried mothers, there is the additional burden and stress related to single-motherhood. These young mothers face stressors specific to their life phase and this includes key education and employment transitions while also experimenting with risky behaviors for the first time. The expanded definition of youth (ages 18-35 years) is used in the statistics mentioned next. Youth in South Africa face alarmingly high levels of unemployment (64.7% using an expanded definition of unemployment). In addition, only 8% of the South African population are afforded the opportunity to access higher education. In most countries, youth are also identified as the group that displays the highest prevalence of risky behaviors. South Africa is no different in this regard with research showing 14% of youth have more than one concurrent sexual partner (Ranganathan et al. 2016) and 9% have used at least one illicit drug substance in their lifetime (Liebenberg, du Toit-Prinsloo, Steenkamp, & Saayman, 2016). Risky behaviors, according to the literature, become less frequent as people age. Therefore, it stands to reason that young mothers (18-35 years old) who care for children with disabilities are likely to engage in various risky behaviors. We do not suggest that these ‘risky’ behaviors are a result of having a child with disabilities, but rather make this extrapolation based on the fact that young mothers of children with disabilities are in fact also undergoing their own development and that these behaviors play a role in their own identity formation.  

From a human capabilities perspective, both groups of women namely, mothers of children with disabilities and young women, are similar in the sense that they experience various capability deprivations linked with their specific identities. Research rarely investigates the relationship risky behavior and young motherhood, and to the best of our knowledge, is negligent in differentiating between mothers of children with and without disabilities. Some literature on drinking and children with disabilities are specific to fetal alcohol syndrome and suggests that maternal binge-drinking can lead to secondary disabilities of children such as mental health disorders, panic attacks and hallucinations (Rendall-Mkosi et al. 2008). The research usually continues to emphasize the importance of specialized interventions and supportive home environments in mediating the mental health problems, possible trouble with the law and unemployment that children may go on to face. However, the studies do not engage with whether the risky behaviors of mothers persists after a child is born.

Using the South African Demographic and Health Survey (2016), this research aims to draw comparisons on binge-drinking behaviors of mothers of children with and without disabilities. Literature reveals that risky drinking is most common in ages 20-24 years, and is known to be more prevalent in urban areas compared to rural areas (Stats SA, 2016). This research will therefore also seek to explore whether personal characteristics such as education, age, employment status and geographic location have a bearing on risky behaviors and whether these differ based on the disability status of children.

This research is relevant as it seeks to explore links between two parallel identities of young women namely being young and being mother. We infer that these groups of women experience similar capability deprivations but literature remains scarce on the risky behavior patterns pertaining to young mothers. While acknowledging that young mothers are in a transition phase themselves, caring for special needs children can in itself be particularly difficult. Therefore, in order to make be able to identify how to expand the capabilities of these young women, it is crucial to understand their risk behavior patterns. This level of understanding is crucial for the wellbeing of young mothers themselves, but also for the adequate care and development of children with disabilities. 

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