‘I just had to be better’: Changing the story on what it means to be a teen mum

‘I just had to be better’: Changing the story on what it means to be a teen mum

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Teeya Harvey is clear about her motivation for returning to high school, having dropped out when she had two children in her teenage years.

“I just had to be better,” she says, sitting in the sunny surrounds of a classroom with a crèche in one corner, a kitchen, toys, highchairs and two baby cots.

Teeya, far right, with other students who have had babies during their teenage years, gathered at Cranbourne Secondary College’s young parents’ classroom.Credit: Joe Armao

“I had got into a lot of bad stuff that teenagers do, but after I had my children, I decided I needed to give them a better life. So, I went back to school.”

Bullying of girls who got pregnant during their senior school years was common from other students in the conservative eastern suburb where Harvey grew up, she said, and “none of my friends who are mums there go to school”.

She had her first child at 17 and says her peers were judgmental. This is despite the fact, “I guarantee you they were doing what I was doing, and thinking what I was thinking”, when she conceived her first child unexpectedly.

Thanks to being supported to complete her secondary education through the Young Parents in Education Program (YPEP), now she hopes to go on to study midwifery.

Azaliah with her eight month-old son, Tekaia, is doing year 11 with the support of the Young Parents Education Program.Credit: Joe Armao

Negative assumptions about young mothers appear to be absent at Cranbourne Secondary College, which runs the YPEP program. It is transforming the future opportunities of young women who may otherwise never get their year 12 certificate.

The school is helping to rewrite what program creator, Mary Tresize-Brown, calls “the story” often attached to young parents. Contrary to tropes about welfare dependency, she has found “they’re motivated: they want to do it”.

Today, five mothers who gave birth in their teens, and one in year 11 who is 34 weeks’ pregnant, are sharing stories of life taking an unexpected turn, and of persisting with or returning to education, bringing their babies with them to be cared for by qualified mothercraft staff.

Tresize-Brown, a learning and development specialist who worked with principal David Caughey to get the YPEP program going in Cranbourne this year, says that until this kind of service became available, young mothers wanting to finish school in the area “had nowhere to go”.

Isabella Ennis-Spence (pictured in Cranbourne Secondary College’s young parents classroom) says that once she got pregnant she decided to turn her life around for the better, for the baby to come.Credit: Joe Armao

“Young parents are no different from any other young person who needs some kind of allowances made in the school to accommodate them; people with learning needs, or disability, physical or intellectual,” said Tresize-Brown, a longtime advocate.

Rates of teenage pregnancy in Australia are decreasing, but 2016 census data revealed there were 1110 young mothers in Melbourne’s south-east region alone who do not have a year 12 qualification.

Many schools make it too hard for girls who get pregnant to keep attending, says former senator, Lyn Allison, who is president of the national Young Pregnant and Parenting Network.

“Schools are said to be required to accommodate all students, but they clearly don’t if they’re pregnant because it requires effort,” said Allison, who is overseeing a national symposium on issues facing young parents, in Melbourne in October.

We need the system to show the kind of courage we’re talking about here today.

“A lot of principals are really wary of having pregnant or parenting kids in their school because they think it’s a bad look.”

She said it was difficult to gauge the need for young parent support around Australia, and that funding and services are inconsistent.

Caughey said keeping young parents connected to education and peers supports their quality of life.

The school uses some of its equity funding to run its small, YPEP arm, which caters for one part of “a growing need for complementary education settings, to be truly inclusive”.

“I don’t think there are a lot of incentives for government secondary schools to stick their neck out and do something that is a little bit left of centre,” he said.

“At this school we’ve got great staff and a great team of people interested in doing those things, and very motivated to do them … We need the system to show the kind of courage we’re talking about here today.”

A similar program is run at the Foundation Learning Centre in Narre Warren.

Mother-of-one Isabella Ennis-Spence said she decided to turn her life around after becoming pregnant, and being able to finish year 12 meant she could hope to pursue further study.

Year 11 student, Azaliah, who had her baby Tekaia eight months ago, said she hoped to study nursing after she finished year 12.

Her friend, mother of two Taniesha, said young mothers are aware of stigmas, and this can also make it hard to feel finishing school is possible.

”If you get an abortion, you’re looked down upon. If you have the baby, you’re looked down upon. Being a teen, everyone makes mistakes: but with a baby, there’s nothing you can do other than just learn and grow from it,” she said.

“You’re also judged for putting your kids in childcare to study, I’m like, ‘I’m doing it for them’.“

Taniesha said she “went down a bad path” in her mid-teens, but after she got pregnant, “I just stopped, and so did their dad (with whom she is still partnered and raising their children″⁣.

With support from YPEP, which includes incidental parenting education and the creation of an education-to-employment plan for each mother, she has finished her year 12 VCAL and is doing certificates in retail and business.

When this is done, Taniesha hopes to start her own beauty outlet.

Going back to school is “a good thing”, she says. “Because you get to provide more for your child — and who wouldn’t want that?”

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