When teen parents grow up: 'We're mistaken for a couple'
Five people who had a child as a teenager reflect on how the experience shaped their lives
For those who grew up in the nineties and noughties, sex education may have felt like it was entirely geared towards not becoming a teen parent. School-aged parents were often painted as a symptom of ‘Broken Britain’, and we were told having a child meant throwing away your dreams.
The average age of parents is now at an all-time high (30.6 for women and 33.6 for men in 2018). While there are now fewer teen parents than ever before (16,740 girls under 18 conceived in England and Wales in 2017, down more than 60% from 2007), thousands of teenagers still become pregnant every year.
Having a baby before you’re ready is seen by some as a waste of potential. But is anyone ever really ready to be a parent? Here, five people who had a child in their teens look back on their experiences and reflect on how it's shaped their lives.
‘A teen pregnancy is a trauma’
Christianne, 27, mum to Louis, 12, and Elliot, 3
Christianne was 14 when she became pregnant with her first son. ”I remember the school were very funny about letting me be there,” she says. “When I wanted to sit some exams, they said I had to be in a separate room to everyone else and when I was on ‘maternity leave’” - she sketches air quotes around the phrase and laughs - “then they didn’t send me work home, I had to teach myself.”
Christianne and her then-boyfriend Zach – Louis’ father – were so terrified of telling their parents about her pregnancy that they tried to run away. Zach, who was also 14 at the time, wrote his parents a letter breaking the news and, once they tracked him and Christianne down, they drove the couple to her family’s house to tell them.
“I remember trying to get out of the car when Zach’s mum was driving,” she tells me. “When I got back down to the house, my mum was crying, my dad was like, ‘It’s fine, we can cope, it’s fine’.”
After having Louis, Christianne went on to complete her GCSEs, A-levels, an undergraduate degree and a master’s. She now works full-time in PR, as well as running a restaurant alongside her fiancé, Charlie, a chef. Louis regularly spends time with his dad and Zach’s younger daughter, and Charlie and Zach are also good friends. “I really believe in blended families,” says Christianne. “I just think the more love you can give a child, the better.”
The 27-year-old was determined to break stereotypes around teen parents after some of her peers, and their parents, said that she’d wasted her potential and “was going to amount to nothing”. But, determined to show that being a parent wouldn’t hold her back, she even made it the theme of a presentation in a job interview.
“I just presented one slide and it said ‘Not the end of the story’,” she says. “It was about how everyone looks at teenage mums in a certain way and I wanted to break that, and change it. And, by having Louis so young, I think it motivated me to really achieve my potential.”
When Louis was little, Christianne was so preoccupied with the practical aspects of juggling parenting and school, that the impact on her mental health was overlooked, she says.
“You’re always thinking about them and it’s that emotional weight that’s on you that people don’t necessarily talk about,” she says. “When you’ve gone through a trauma, your mind does block things out and that’s probably what I’d say: teenage pregnancy, it is a trauma.”
When Christianne had her second child, Elliott, with her fiance three years ago, she felt like she was a “first-time mum again”.
“It was funny, relearning everything,” she recalls. “I always joked that I’d do that nine-year age gap again because, when I came out of hospital, Louis made me a cup of tea!”
She and Louis, who is now 12, are in some ways like friends, she says, adding that she still remembers clearly what it was like to be his age, and feels able to relate to things he goes through at school. “We’re kind of growing up together,” she smiles.
‘I had to lie on my CV’
Anastasia, 35, mum to Atlanta, 17
“I grew up on a council estate, I’m one of six, my mum was a single parent, she had her kids starting from 16,” Anastasia explains. “There is this terrible stigma around having a child when you’re younger, and it doesn’t need to be that way… You still can achieve everything you want in life and more.”
When Anastasia became pregnant at 17, she was met with pity and disapproval, and became determined to prove people wrong. She spent two year studying acting but, afterwards, she needed to secure work quickly to support her daughter. “I sort of made this CV up a little bit, using my acting skills!” she recalls with a grin. “It was kind of a ‘fight or flight’ situation and I wanted to get a really good job, and I knew I was intelligent enough.”
By the time Anastasia owned up to fabricating her CV at her telesales job, she was told by her boss that her performance meant it no longer mattered. Since then, she’s gone on to have a successful career in business development, and is also a trained mortician.
Anastasia says Atlanta is a very different 17-year-old than she was. The teenager secured a scholarship to a private school for girls and is focused on going to university. “She’s always been a bit like, ‘There’s no point me finding a boyfriend and falling in love because it’s not actually real, it’s just stupid young love’”.
Atlanta is now the age Anastasia was when she herself became a mum. “It makes me really sad for the girl that I was, because I don’t think I really ever comprehended how young I was at the time,” she says. “It’s bizarre looking at Atlanta because in my eyes she’s a baby.”
Anastasia’s own mother, who died in 2009, married at 16. The 35-year-old describes her as a “maverick” who was “stigmatised for her whole life” for being a single parent but who was an incredible support to Anastasia when she became pregnant.
Anastasia has done volunteer work in suicide prevention and would now like to do outreach work with young mums. “There are so many opportunities that are still out there for you,” she says. “Don’t give up because you can look at your child in 17 years’ time and think to yourself, ‘I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of what I’ve done and I’m proud of my little girl’.”
‘I don’t think I’d have made it to this age without the pregnancy’
Amy, 23, mum to Ollie, 5, and Oscar, 3
When Amy conceived her elder son Ollie, her parents were shocked but supportive. “I remember crying,” she says of the moment she found out she was pregnant. “I was talking to this nurse and I said ‘I just feel guilty for crying ‘cause I know some people want this desperately.’”
Amy is now a youth project worker for a local authority and is completing a degree in youth and community work. She credits being a young parent with giving her the drive to juggle both of these with childcare. “If I hadn’t had Ollie when I did, I don’t even think I’d have made it to this age because I was in such a bad place,” she says. “Being pregnant made me have to start looking after myself.”
While Amy had to go to university later than many people, she says she appreciates the opportunity more than she might have done otherwise: “It makes you take things more seriously because it’s not just for you.”
At times, the 23-year-old says she struggles with other parents’ perceptions of younger mums. “I work evenings, I can’t volunteer at some event to raise money for the school,” she says. “That can isolate you because it looks like you’re not contributing.”
“There’s this very negative connotation [with teen parents] and no real reason why," Amy continues. “People say we’re not ready and it’s like, well, people have kids at 30 and have them taken off them so I’m not sure it’s actually related to age.”
‘We get mistaken for a couple’
Ciaran, 42, dad to Eleanor, 24, Finn, 6, and Bonnie, 3
Ciaran and his then-girlfriend, Morwenna, conceived Eleanor when they were 17. They decided to take a year out after their A-levels, and applied to the same university so that they could share childcare. When they began their studies, however, they found their uni campus wasn’t well-adapted for student parents, and often had to turn up late to lectures because of the restrictive hours of the uni creche.
Ciaran feels fortunate to have had his living expenses covered by a grant, meaning he had “a massive amount of time with my young daughter to get to know her,'' compared with a father working a full-time job.
“There were times when she’d come along with us to student parties,” he recalls. “You’d take a travel cot and put her in one of the spare rooms, so there were aspects of that that were quite nice and quite fun.”
Ciaran is now a children’s author and screenwriter for kids’ TV, a path he believes was partially influenced by early exposure to a variety of children’s telly. “I was reading kids’ books to my kids from the age of 18,” he says. “I think it gave me an appreciation for that that I might not otherwise have.”
Eleanor says she and her dad enjoy socialising together in a way her friends can’t with their older parents. “We go to a lot of gigs together, we go out and have a drink together, we can have a laugh,” she says. “I think we’ve grown a lot closer as we’ve kind of drawn closer in age as I’m getting older.”
There is one downside to the pair’s closeness in age though, admits Ciaran. “When you’re out in public, there is a slight look of ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a bit weird, what’s he doing with that younger girl?’” he laughs. “You’re buying your daughter a beer and she calls you dad and you get that double take like ‘Is this some kind of weird sex thing?’”
‘Abortion was never an option for me’
Jerminah, 29, mum to Lisemelo, 10
Jerminah was “devastated” when she found out she was pregnant during her first year of university. She lives in Lesotho, an African country where abortion isn't legal. “For the first three months, the only thing I thought about was getting rid of it, but since I didn’t have that option, I had to move to accepting it was something I needed to prepare for.”
The 29-year-old says her mum was incredibly supportive and looked after Lisemelo during the day while she was studying. “From the minute I told her, she understood,” she says.
Jerminah became pregnant again at 21 but her younger daughter, Mapitso, died of pneumonia at 18 months old. “I didn’t know how to handle that,” she says. “It was a very difficult time, and it was during my final exams that she passed on.”
Despite all that she’d been through, Jerminah was determined to give her elder daughter the best life possible, and she won a scholarship to study a master’s in environmental management at Greenwich University in London in 2017.
While Jerminah was studying in the UK, Lisemelo lived back home with Jerminah’s mum. It was tough being separated from her daughter, she says. Jerminah worked jobs at the university and at a hair salon to pay her daughter’s living costs and school fees.
Graduating from her MSc programme was “the biggest day of my life,” she says. “I stopped dreaming big when I became pregnant so young. But you can achieve whatever you want, your dreams are still valid, even after this.”