When I was a teenage mother I didn’t know any other teenage mothers. None of my friends had babies when I did, I am not the daughter or sibling of a teenage mother. I had heard that in cities there were often groups and support services for teenage mothers, but my town isn’t all that big and so I didn’t have anything like that on my doorstep. There was no way for me to meet other girls like me, and so all I knew of teenage mothers was what the media had told me about them…and I didn’t like them.
In fact, had there been a local young mothers’ group, I’m not sure I’d have gone to it. Documentaries and soap operas had both taught me that teen mothers tough, out of control and weren’t interested in anything beyond how to claim the next government handout. They were nasty, violent, criminal, lazy, or just flat out stupid. I was quiet, the sort of girl who was terrified of getting into trouble and who was ashamed of the fact that I was claiming assistance to support myself in continuing my education. These scary teen mums would chew me up and spit me out, so I knew no matter how much I struggled that a group would never be somewhere I could go for help.
That was a potentially damaging point of view to have. I was lucky enough to have other forms of support around me, but I can only imagine the sense of isolation and repercussions that would come from being too scared to seek out help specifically for teenage parents. Had I been without any support, feeling lost and out of my depth, my misconceptions about what other teen mothers were like would have been a major barrier preventing me from seeking out the sort of help designed for someone like me. That is why we need to push back against the negative portrayal of teenage parents - not only is it completely inaccurate but it is also creating unnecessary barriers for those young parents who don’t recognise themselves in that portrayal.
I was very fortunate to have access to the internet and the ability to navigate the world of message boards at a time when both things were still very new. That is where I found my support network, and much to my surprise I actually did find it with other young mothers. It turned out that we weren’t all that I had been lead to believe we were. The sheer diversity covered by the blanket term “teen mom” was more than I could ever have imagined. We had come together from different countries and situations and backgrounds, but we all had something in common - the aim of sharing advice and experiences with other young parents. No matter what our backstories were, we were all just trying to do the best for ourselves and our kids, proud of what we had achieved and welcoming to others who understood who a teenage parent really was. Eleven years later I am still in contact with many of those women. I have seen them and their children grow up, and have learned so much from them. It is a shame that I didn’t get the opportunity to forge friendships like that in real life, both from a lack of programmes in my area and the wall I’d have no doubt put up even if there had been a group for me to join.