Where teenage mums gain strength to face the world

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Barnardo's gives young mothers-to-be the confidence to realise their ambitions

Original headline: Where teenage mums can gain strength to face the world

Pregnancy can be a lonely time when you are ostracised by society and alienated from your schoolfriends. A Barnardo's project is giving young mothers-to-be the confidence to realise their ambitions and gain a sense of belonging

Monica wants to be a teacher. Rebecca has set her sights on university. Both girls are eloquent, perceptive and full of ambition. And both found out they were pregnant in the midst of their Standard grades.

To spend a day at Paisley Threads is to see myths about teenage pregnancy dismantled again and again. Partly that's because those presumptions are built on a shaky edifice of tabloids and reality shows. But it's also because the Barnardo's project gives girls the confidence to face a world where a twentysomething mum-to-be is cooed over, but a teenager with a baby bump signals gossip, glares and wide berths.

Monica McGhee, 17, is mother to 19-month-old Niamh. She fell pregnant at 15, two weeks before her Standard grades. It was more unexpected than most teenage pregnancies - her mother worked for a crisis pregnancy centre and she had "always been a fantastic pupil".

After a few hours of shock, and despite never even having held a baby, she told herself: "I'm going to take responsibility for my actions. I'm holding a human being - I'm going to make it work."

For weeks, she told no one but her mum, with whom she shares pro-life beliefs, and "just put it to the back of (her) mind". Despite severe morning sickness, she got two 1s and five 2s.

It was a turbulent time. Her usually supportive five siblings were angry. She was losing friends because they were "interested in different things". And she saw other girls' mums pointing and warning their daughters not to be like her. For some time, she barely left the house. "Society is awful for judging you," she says. "I was irresponsible, but I hadn't been an idiot, going out every night. I'd only ever been with my boyfriend."

Monica was referred to Threads by a midwife. "I thought they were going to give me a lecture like everyone else," she recalls. She expected an officious place of suits and laptops, but a surprise awaited: "They were just really normal. They treated me like an expectant mum, not a teenager".

She had presumed her education was over. In any case, she was too embarrassed to return to school and had told herself "I don't deserve an education". But Threads worked closely with her school and after a year away - during which time she managed to complete a music Higher - she returned to classes. "Thinking about it now, I can't believe I did it. It took some bottle."

Last year, she sat four Highers and Advanced Higher music. She may take up a place studying music and history at Glasgow University - although working for a pro-life organisation is another option - and has longer- term aspirations to become a teacher.

"Having a child wasn't the end of my life, like so many people told me," she says. "It's the best thing that could have happened to me. I've got a beautiful daughter I love. I've been a great mum. It's all thanks to Threads - they gave me the confidence."

There are two big reasons why girls flourish at Threads, which was established in 1997 and is funded by Barnardo's, the Scottish Government and Renfrewshire Council. One is the welcome: this is a place of peach walls, comfy settees and infinite stores of tea and biscuits, where chat prevails over stern advice. The second is more practical: unusually for a project of this type, the girls can get advice about housing and benefits under the same roof, reducing the pressure on them during pregnancy.

The girls come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some have been high- achievers, some have experienced abuse and neglect, some have close-knit families, some have no contact with their parents, some are working, others are unemployed (one girl was unexpectedly made redundant by a computing giant at 27 weeks pregnant, and escorted off the premises the same day).

But none of the group here today fulfils the more jaundiced assumptions about young mums. These girls don't feel sorry for themselves, they're not expecting someone else to do the child-rearing, and they're certainly not scroungers - they're more likely to be entirely ignorant of the benefits they could claim.

They share pragmatism about their situation and a view that motherhood will be wonderful. Young mums-to-be actually take pregnancy "more in their stride" than older women, some staff say. They're not sure why - perhaps because the girls are used to new challenges in their teenage years.

But the pre-natal groups, which each take a maximum of 10 girls, are not always easygoing. The atmosphere can be fraught at initial meetings, as children's service manager Lynne O'Brien explains. Each girl has a key worker - Threads has 14 staff - with whom she discusses personal issues and ground rules beforehand, so things don't "kick off in the group" if one girl refers to her family, or if a girl has just become homeless. Any problems with another girl should not be aired at the group; everyone learns codes through which to express any discomfort.

In the course of observing a two-hour pre-natal group to which the girls have been coming for some time, the only disagreement I hear is over the relative merits of Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh wallpaper. The second hour is chat over lunch and, this week, a chance to meet girls who have had their babies - Threads also runs post-natal groups - but the first hour, when midwife Kirsty Campbell explains what will happen to their bodies during birth, is almost as relaxed.

The hard facts of labour may seem daunting, but more troubling is the disdain awaiting outside Threads. Camaraderie and support are crucial because, as Ms O'Brien says, "loneliness is a huge risk factor". Staff support the girls whatever choices they make in their pregnancies.

The Threads groups differ from those for older expectant mums, in being driven by what the girls want to know. Leaflets are not left around the room; a didactic tone is studiously avoided.

Nicola Main, 18, who is 30 weeks pregnant, is the most eager for information from the midwife, particularly about pain relief. She carries a constant look of mild alarm, most visibly when faced with pictures of a baby's entry into the world: "It kind of disgusts me actually. It creeps me out." Yet she is excited about what follows: Nicola is the first to seize one of the new mums' babies for a cuddle.

As well as Threads, Nicola has attended a hospital-based pre-natal group where most expectant mums were in their mid-30s. "I just felt out of place there," she says. "I felt everyone was staring, like I was being kind of judged. I didn't ask any questions. I would keep them to myself and not say anything."

She feels very different now: "The best thing about Threads is the whole atmosphere - it's so comfortable and relaxed. It's somewhere I enjoy coming to."

Lisa Higgins is 35 weeks pregnant and 16 years old; the father, with whom she is on good terms, is 15. She wears a wry smile and alleviates unease about the realities of labour with a string of dry one-liners - forceps resemble a salad-flipper, she reckons.

But she admits: "I'm scared to get a jab, never mind give birth." She had to wait 11 weeks between meetings with a midwife, so the pre-natal group and one-to-one contact with her Threads key worker have been crucial.

"You know what's going to happen when you give birth - it's not just a pure big surprise," she says. "I'd be a lot more worried if I didn't have Threads. I'd be scared something was wrong."

Rebecca Wilson, 16, has come to meet the group with her daughter Elliot, who is seven months old. She has dark memories of discovering she was pregnant during her Standard grades: "Everybody was horrible, or disappointed or disgusted."

She "completely shut off" the shock news and concentrated on revision; she got eight Standard grades, all at 1 or 2. But she lost her friends, who were living in a "whole different world" of drinking and flings with boys. It broke her heart when she left school, assuming she had no choice: "I was desperate for help."

Rebecca epitomised the acute loneliness Ms O'Brien refers to, until she arrived at Threads: "Everybody was nice and just being positive - it was as if being pregnant was a good thing. Nobody else had acted like that. I felt comforted knowing that I would never be alone, going to Threads."

She went back to school and sat four Highers this year, with another four and Advanced Higher maths to come next year. Her confidence has grown so much that, together with Monica, she addressed several hundred delegates at a recent early-years conference in Glasgow. University beckons next, with the travails experienced by all parents unlikely to stop her.

"I don't even notice the lack of sleep any more - having a baby's the best thing that could ever have happened," she says. "But without Threads, I would never be the person I am today."

Teenage pregnancy in Scotland

The teenage pregnancy rate has been fairly steady for the past decade, and similar to that in England and Wales. In 2007, there were 8.1 pregnancies per 1,000 under-16s, 42.4 per 1,000 under-18s, and 57.9 per 1,000 under- 20s.

In mainland NHS boards, NHS Highland recorded the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy among under-16s (5.8 per 1,000) and Borders recorded the lowest rate among both under-18s (26.7) and under-20s (45.2). NHS Tayside had the highest teenage pregnancy rates for all three age groups: 12.1 for under- 16s, 55.3 for under-18s, and 74.9 for under-20s.

In the most deprived areas, the pregnancy rate among under-16s was more than four times the rate in the least deprived areas (15 per 1,000 against 3.2). A similar pattern emerged among under-18s, with 80.3 per 1,000 in the most deprived group and 18.7 in the least deprived.

There has been a change in the balance between abortions and births in recent years. In the under-18 and under-20 groups, the rate of abortion has risen slightly but remains considerably lower than the delivery rate. Among under-16s, however, the abortion rate has been higher than the delivery rate since 2001. Among under-20s, the most deprived groups have approximately 10 times the delivery rate of the least deprived, and nearly twice the rate of abortion. Source: The Scottish Government.

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