Tomorrow my son turns 18.I’ve been reflecting on my journey from young mum to mum of an adult….
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my experience as a young mother. Maybe it’s because I had the privilege to take part in Jendella’s great Young Motherhood project earlier this year (if you haven’t heard of it, you should check it out – youngmotherhood.co.uk). Maybe it’s because the child I had in my teens is coming up to the age at which I had him. Maybe it’s because I’m reflecting a lot at the moment about my own journey- what’s led me to where I am and where I am going. Whatever the reason, I’ve decided to write some thoughts down.
Jendella’s Young Motherhood project is fantastic in the fact that it sheds light on what it’s really like to be a young mum, and challenges some of the stereotypes that exist. In a way, it’s really sad that these stereotypes, which rarely, if ever, depict young mothers in a positive light, continue to persist in the way they did when I had my son, 18 years ago, but they do. Indeed, a very close family member only recently made a comment about young girls getting pregnant for housing and benefits, during a conversation we were having about my involvement in the project. Given that I, myself had been a teen mum (albeit an ‘older’ teen mum), this was really surprising to me. But then, you see, in her eyes, I was the exception.
The thing is, in my experience, there’s an awful lot of ‘exceptions’. In fact, it’s almost as if these ‘exceptions’ are actually more like the ‘rule’ and the tired, often baseless, stereotypes are more like the ‘exception’.
In my case, I found out I was pregnant on the day of my 18th birthday party. A previous straight a student, growing up in a leafy part of Cheshire, I fell head over heels for a boy a few years older than me at the age of 16, left my A levels, got a job and moved in with him. I didn’t set out to get pregnant, and it was a shock when I did. I can honestly say that up to the age of 16, I had led a very sheltered life, and had absolutely no idea whatsoever how to raise and take care of a child.
Reactions to the news were mixed. My mum was very supportive and my dad took it as well as could be expected when mum told him (I chickened out). For this, I was very grateful, as elsewhere, reactions were almost universally negative. I always remember the face of the parents of one of the girls I had been good friends with at school, when I bumped into her in the village with my baby bump. It very visibly said ‘that’s it, you’ve ruined your life, now’, and that was pretty much the reaction of many such people. To be fair, it was a shock to many of them who primarily knew me as a straight-A student, but the overwhelming response was not one of support but rather of disappointment and disapproval. For someone trying to grapple with what all of this meant for my life, these reactions did little to improve my self confidence or help with my ever growing anxiety about whether I could be a good enough mother.
My pregnancy in itself was uneventful. I really had no idea what to expect, and, being a natural bookworm, devoured the pregnancy book that my mum bought me. My mum was a great source of support – she’d always wanted a big family and would talk about how she would proudly push her grandchild around in his or her pram when he or she arrived. I still have a letter from her, sent just after my 20 week scan, talking about potential baby names.
However, my mum never did get to push her grandchild’s pram. The letter I have from her, was written while she was in hospital being investigated for abdominal pain, and a few days after that letter was written, we were dealt the devastating blow that she had terminal cancer. I was five months pregnant when that happened. I was seven months pregnant when she died.
My son Daniel arrived on 25th September 1996. I can clearly remember lying in the hospital bed, with him in the cot beside me, totally terrified and overwhelmed by the responsibility of being a mother. I really didn’t have a clue and, with my mum now gone, felt like there were very few people who could help or guide me. The first nappy I put on Daniel, I put on the wrong way round. The midwife saw him in his back to front nappy and asked whether his dad had done it. When I said I had, she just looked at me and walked off. I felt very alone.
The blurriness of early motherhood soon took over. I was overwhelmed by this desire to do everything right for my son. I poured over the book I had, studying the advice given about how to feed, how he would develop, how to interact with him etc etc. I became slightly obsessive about ensuring I interacted with him at every opportunity to ensure that he would develop well. It was exhausting – for both him and me!!!! I was just so desperate to get it right.
My health visitor was a great source of support in those early days – frequently making comments about how he was thriving under my care, which really helped my confidence. However, when Daniel was six weeks old, I was completely exhausted and just felt that I couldn’t breastfeed him any more. You have to remember, I was also grieving the very recent loss of my mum as well as coping with a newborn. So, I went to the clinic to talk it through with my health visitor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there, so I spoke to another one, who, when I asked for advice about how to stop breastfeeding, gave me a sharp look and proceeded lecture me on how beneficial breastfeeding was to my son. The thing was, I knew this. I had read the books and knew all too well that breast was best. I already felt very guilty about thinking about stopping, but I was exhausted, underweight and in need of some moral support. When I reiterated how tired I was and how I just felt I needed to stop, she advised me to just stop straight away and take some paracetamol if it hurt.
Now, I don’t know whether she thought I would continue feeding once t began to hurt. I do remember feeling strongly that I was being judged and patronised. But, I didn’t know any better, so I did what she said and went from 2 hourly feeds to no feeds at all. And when it began to hurt, I just assumed that was what was bound to happen. I didn’t question it even when the pain became so bad that I couldn’t bear to hold my son close to me without a pillow in between. I didn’t question it when I began to feel feverish.
Thankfully, my six week check was due, so I dutifully walked the two miles down to my GP, feeling horrendous, and, when the nurse asked me whether I was ok, I replied quite meekly that I was actually not feeling too good! A quick exam by the GP was swiftly followed by a prescription for strong antibiotics and an appointment the following morning, by which if I hadn’t improved, I was to be admitted to hospital. Thankfully, I began to improve.
Time went on, and, when Daniel was 11 months old, I started training to be a nurse. My relationship with his father had deteriorated by this point, for many reasons, and we parted . To say I was skint over the next few years is a massive understatement. Due to the way the benefits system worked, I wasn’t entitled to anything as a nursing student, despite the fact I had to pay for full time childcare, rent and all the other usual essentials such as food, nappies etc. If I had not trained as a nurse, but stayed at home with my son, I would not have had to worry about the rent etc because I would have received housing benefit. The result? Well, I often hid from the rent man. I took out payday loans, overdrafts and credit cards, and then began to fall into the cycle of taking out loans to pay for the previous loan. And I didn’t really eat. Any money I had went on Daniel’s food and needs and I quite often lived off the leftovers that from patients hospital dinners, surreptitiously obtained before the trolley went back to the kitchen.
I sadly, also continued to have comments made about my situation as a young, single mum. One comment always sticks in my mind, mainly I think because it was so ridiculous! When I was a student on a ward, On the other side of my name badge, which was clipped to a pocket on my uniform, was a picture of Daniel. One of the patients noticed it and began asking me questions about him, commenting that I didn’t look old enough to have a child and asking me my age. When I told her, she looked at the picture again, shook her head and said ‘well, at least, I suppose you must love your son, to have his picture with you’. As if, somehow, my age meant that there was a possibility that I wouldn’t love him!
It wasn’t all that bad, though. My experiences at that age made me a stronger person. A lot of the time, it felt like Dan and I against the world, but that made me even more determined to succeed and to be the best mum that I possibly could. Daniel himself was an absolute angel. Considering all that he had to put up with – the early starts, the lack of anything other than the absolute basics and so on – he was an absolute star. I never felt, even during the grimmest of times as a student when I literally had not a penny to my name, that I should give up. This was invariably helped by the fact that lots of people were very supportive and affirming. I had an amazing childminder, who looked after Daniel like he was part of the family and who would often knock a bit off the monthly bill because she knew how poor I was. I met some great friends at uni, whose lives were considerably different from mine, but who nevertheless always looked out for me. My younger sister would help out babysitting when she could – especially when I had weekend shifts to cover. And, occasionally, I would go out on a Friday night – my younger sister or a neighbour babysitting. Frequently, I would go out with literally £1 or £2 and buy a half of lager that would last me the whole night. I know some people judged me for going out when I had so little money to spare, but sometimes I just wanted to have some fun. When my daily routine started at 5am, with the bus to the childminder leaving at ten to six, so that I could get to work for half seven, work a full shift, come home, take care of Dan, study till midnight and then start all over again the following day, those nights out were like a bit of escapism.
Those days seem like a different lifetime to me now. Indeed, my life now is very different. I met my now husband in the last few months of my training and am now a very happy, settled, mother of three, with a job I love and a lot more security than I ever felt was possible back then. I work for the church and am married to a vicar, and many people make assumptions about the kind of person I am, based on those two facts. So, I am very open about the fact I was a young mum, mainly to hopefully try and break some of those stereotypes that still exist. Sadly, I have heard judgment directed at ‘teen mums’ from people within the church – very occasionally that judgement has been directed at me. I find this particularly sad because, when I was a young mum, I actually really wanted to go to church. For many reasons, I was starting to think more deeply about my faith and wanted to share that with others. However, I held back because I was afraid of being judged. I already frequently felt that I was being judged negatively by those in the wider world and didn’t really have any desire to subject myself to more. When I did finally start going to church, with my now husband, I realised that the vast majority of people in churches were kind, welcoming and anything but judgemental. It seems like such a shame to me that people outside the church still often feel like the church is judgemental, but that perception is most definitely still there. Because for all the good that the church, and the people within the church, do, you don’t have to look far in the media before you find someone being judgemental and unwelcoming – be it in relation to a person’s sexuality, gender or life circumstance. And the thing is, no matter how loud the positive voices are- no matter how numerous they are – we always seem to hear the negative voices first.
And that is something we all need to be aware of. A young girl, trying her hardest to raise a child in difficult circumstances, will most likely remember the one negative comment or judgement she has heard that day, even if she has heard fifty positive, affirming comments. And, thus, such comments are likely to lower her self esteem and worth and make her life, and the life of her child, that little bit harder. One of the great things I noticed when I went to see some of the Young Motherhood exhibition in Birmingham a few weeks ago is the diversity of young mothers. No two stories are the same. No one fits neatly into the stereotypes that certain corners of the media seem determined to continue to peddle. And they all, without question or exception, like most other mothers the world over, wanted the best for their child.
My son becomes an adult tomorrow. I could spend another thousand words telling you all about his amazing achievements, about the wonderful young man he has become. I’ll spare you that. I’ll just finish by saying how incredibly proud I am that he is my son and how I wouldn’t take back any moment of the journey that the last 18years has taken me on for anything in the world. Having Daniel changed my life invariably for the better and I am forever grateful that I have been so richly blessed.