May 2, 2009

Children Turned Our Lives Around

The student mums: children turned our lives around
Not all teenage mums fit the negative stereotype of having no common sense and no aspirations. For the women on these pages, early motherhood provided a new-found sense of purpose, inspiring them to get their lives on a positive track
The Times
May 2, 2009
A bell rings in a long, panelled corridor. Young girls and boys spill out of classrooms, dust particles in the air dancing with playground gossip. A small figure moves awkwardly through them. She’s their height, has the same smooth face, the same quick wits. But something sets her apart. Under her uniform is a six-month-old bump.

Sounds familiar. Except this isn’t a scene from Juno, the Hollywood movie about a gutsy girl from a nice family who “does the right thing”. This is a real girl, in a small private school in Chester. Olivia Malcolm is 15, and she’s going to keep her baby.

The latest study of pregnancy in Britain shows that the rate of conception among under-18s has risen for the first time in five years: from 41,768 in 2006 to 42,918 in 2007. But most of these young women were not like Olivia.

“The fact is that you see many more teenage mothers from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” says Dr Sonji Clark, a London consultant obstetrician specialising in teenage pregnancy. “It walks hand in hand with young offending, single parenthood, being brought up in care homes? a lack of aspiration.” But what happens when you subtract poverty from teenage pregnancy?

“People looked at me in the corridors,” explains Olivia, now 20. “Everybody knew. But it was more out of excitement and curiosity. It was so far outside everyone else’s range of experience.” Her friends would jostle round her, giggling between classes to get a chance to rub her belly, as though it were a shiny new toy.

“The school was great. It was a bit of a first for them so they didn’t really have a system in place for pregnant students. They had to kind of make it up as they went along. But they were so supportive. They said I could stay but it didn’t feel right. Partly because being around the littler girls felt weird – it started to bring home the fact that I was really going to have a baby.”

Nine months previously, Olivia had met a 19-year-old boy through friends. “I had so many different plans for my life, but really I just felt very unsure,” she says, explaining the rebellious phase she was going through at the time. He was only her second boyfriend, but three months into their relationship she fell pregnant. They were using protection, she says, so she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. “In the end, it was my mum who picked up on the signs. She was driving me to school one day and we stopped at Sainsbury’s.”

Her mother watched the small, uniform-clad figure of her daughter disappear towards the supermarket. There she bought a test, went to the loo, and five minutes later walked calmly out. It wasn’t until she had climbed back inside the car that she burst into tears.

“It was delayed shock. And then it all came out. It was as if everything was collapsing around me. But I never for a minute thought about not keeping the baby.”

Her mother, having suspected as much, had resigned herself. It was her father who struggled hardest to adjust. “My dad was so shocked and upset,” remembers Olivia. “And he stayed that way until the day I had her.” He kept it a secret from his friends and colleagues right up until the birth.

Nicola Anderson, now a 23-year-old Cambridge University law student, recalls a similarly heartbroken reaction to her announcement, aged 18. “They were furious. They couldn’t speak to me for the whole pregnancy and after Hannah was born. They were so disappointed. No one we knew had children as teenagers. I was an only child and they’d sent me to boarding school and, well, it wasn’t what they’d imagined for me.”

She trains a watchful eye on her daughter’s bobble hat, disappearing and reappearing as she skips cheekily between students’ legs on the city’s cobbled streets. They’re pushing against the tide: it’s a foggy Saturday night and the student body is flocking out to the city’s pubs. She and five-year-old Hannah are heading home to the maisonette they share in the quad of St Edmund’s College. Her act of rebellion seems a distant memory.

“I was a quiet child and I found boarding school hard. But when I got a little older and made friends, my concentration drifted away from my studies. My GCSE grades weren’t the sort of grades I thought I could get into Cambridge with.” Everyone was disappointed. “My mum said, ‘We’re working hard to put you through this good school,’ and I just snapped, ‘Well I won’t go any more then.’ And I just left.”

The most striking aspect of her story? The results that so upset her: all As and Bs. They weren’t enough. “I was always made aware that I was bright. My mum would tell me, ‘You’re at that school because you’re academic,’ and something just snapped,” she says.

“So I left school. I moved around a bit, stayed with people, worked in some dead-end jobs, met a 21-year-old boy, who was working with me at a building society. I’d just moved into a flat with him when, five months into our relationship, I discovered I was pregnant. I’d lost contact with most of my friends, so pregnancy was quite a lonely time.” Nicola is reluctant to elaborate on the support her boyfriend gave her. But she does venture that it was her parents to whom she eventually turned for help. Two months after the birth, “my boyfriend left and I had to run back to Mum. We were forced to rebuild our bridges. And once she saw Hannah, you know, she was just like, ‘Oooohhhh? how could I ever be angry with you.’ Dad took a little longer. We’re still patching things up really. But it was easier for both of them once I’d got into Cambridge. They could talk to their friends about me, and be proud.”

Across the country in Stockport, 21-year-old Lizi White remembers being “18, sitting alone in a clinic, waiting for the results of a pregnancy test”. She’d earned three A levels the year before and was now studying for a national diploma in performing arts. Getting pregnant wasn’t part of her plan. What’s more, she had been with her 19-year-old boyfriend for only two months, after meeting him at a roller-skating rink where he worked.

“We were using contraception. It was basically an impossibility. But when I found out the result was positive, my first thought was, ‘I have to tell my mum. She will kill me.’ I was more worried about other people’s reactions than my own feelings. But then the nurse at the clinic said something like, ‘Have you thought about your options? You know you don’t have to keep it.’ I suddenly thought, ‘How dare you suggest that now?’ And I just knew right there that I’d keep it. It was automatic, I just knew.”

She arrived at hospital on a cold dawn, nine months after breaking the news of her pregnancy to her mother, a practising Catholic and a sex-education teacher. “I was in excruciating pain and kept trying to tell the nurses, but they just saw a clueless teen mum and were dismissive.”

She found herself alone, her mother having gone to find her boyfriend, and needing to push. “No one came until my mum heard me screaming and ran to get a nurse. But the nurse wouldn’t take me seriously. She was telling me to go home and take a shower. Eventually she caved in and said, ‘Oh all right, I’ll give you a quick check if it will make you feel better.’ ” They were barely able to transfer her to the delivery suite before her son was born, with her young boyfriend and mother standing in awe by her bed.

“It was just insane,” says Lizi. “No one can prepare you for that moment. We were all looking down at him, kind of hypnotised, in a daze.”

She took her baby, Joshua, back to her family home, where she still lives with her parents. “I had no idea how hard it would be,” she recalls of those first few months, “no idea what it was really going to be like. After the birth, your hormones are all over the place, your emotions unstable. I’d freak out if he coughed. I totally relied on my mum being there to say, ‘This is all normal.’ ”

All three girls split with the fathers of their babies soon after they were born. “It was too hard, we were so young,” admits Lizi. “But we’ve both matured such a lot, and now, although we don’t live together, we do collaborate in raising him.”

And all three describe a new, powerful purposefulness, born to them alongside their child. With her hands wrapped around a mug of tea, Nicola leans back against a bookshelf on which law textbooks jostle for attention with children’s stories. “If I hadn’t had Hannah, I’d still be in the same jobs,” she says, “just as directionless. But she changed everything.”

Instead, Nicola enrolled at her local college in Yorkshire, worked furiously for top marks in her A levels and sailed through intimidating Cambridge interviews. She rarely gets to enjoy the typical student lifestyle – “I’ve forgotten how to be young!” she laughs – as she fits lectures and classes around dropping Hannah at school and picking her up in the afternoon. School holidays are tougher. Last time she couldn’t afford to pay for childcare for the length of Hannah’s half-term, so she had to miss classes to look after her herself.

“But it opens your eyes to an emotional world you didn’t know that much about. You see, in some of the girls at Cambridge, so much pressure to be the cleverest, the skinniest, most fashionable? But my successes at Cambridge aren’t just about me, they’re about Hannah’s future.”

Lizi, now studying drama in Manchester, agrees, saying, “There are benefits people don’t think of.” Though she doesn’t use it, there is a nursery at her university and, she says, the student loan company pays about 85 per cent of her childcare, while she manages to squeeze the rest out of her student loan. “It’s a lot easier than it would be if you waited till you had a full-time job and were trying to find £150 a week for a childminder, although because we don’t get our uni timetables until the week before term starts, I couldn’t organise a childminder in time this year. I’m lucky my dad was able to have Joshi, who’s now 2. By the time I’m graduating and looking for a full-time job, he’ll be ready to start full-time school. It works out for everyone.”

But, of course, it’s exhausting. “Studying at university, then coming home and trying to raise a child, making sure he’s a good person and loved, and also doing your reading and assignments... I couldn’t do it without my mum steadying me, saying, ‘Look, this is what you need to do.’ ”

Olivia, too, was lucky in terms of support. “It was a bit of a shock for some of my friends. But now they come over and play with her, babysit for me. They’re great, and my parents and Ayeasha’s dad’s parents? Some of the other girls I was at private school with ended up getting pregnant, but for a lot of reasons felt they couldn’t keep the baby. And I’m not knocking them. Maybe if I hadn’t had the amazing support system I’ve got, then I wouldn’t have felt I could either.”

Ayeasha, now 4, will start school soon, so Olivia has started looking for courses to get the qualifications to study law. “And I’ll still be young by the time she’s ready to be more independent. And I think that’s a better time to enjoy it.”

It’s only a few generations ago that most women followed a similar path, albeit married. Last year, a report from the Office of National Statistics showed that the pregnancy rate among women aged 40 and over had reached a record high, but in 1970 the average first-time mother was in her early twenties.

Waiting for her daughter at the school gates, Nicola is surrounded by older career women. Some lecture in the Cambridge halls in which she studiously takes notes. “There’s a 25-year age gap between one mother and me,” she says, “but we have pretty much the same parenting style.” Parenting has more to do with background and values than age, she says. “Mum took me to concerts, ballet, educational trips? So now I do the same middle-class things with Hannah. So yes, I do resent the teen mum stereotype. People think of young mothers smoking over their prams wearing big, gold hoop earrings, but there are plenty of 40-year-old mums doing that same thing.”

In fact, one 2003 study produced strong evidence that rather than early parenthood itself ruining girls’ chances, the background of poverty into which the majority of teenage parents are themselves born was to blame.

That doesn’t stop people looking at the girls askance. “There was this guy in lectures who kept eyeing me up,” laughs Nicola. “Then one day he saw me climbing on to my bike to go home – it’s one of those with a little kid’s bike attached to the back – and he was horrified!”

“Some guys are put off,” agrees Lizi, tenderly untangling the tiny figure who has collapsed, pancake-like, on the floor in a children’s play-centre. “But hey, Joshi’s my priority. I’d never hide the fact that I’m a mum. Besides, who wants to be with that sort of guy?

“My proudest moment,” she reflects, “came when I got him christened. I was standing there at the front of the church, with my whole family around me, and Joshi’s dad’s family too, and they were all getting on. And I thought – I’m still here. No matter what anyone or the Church says about how it’s right to be married first, to be older, I’m still here, and I can do this.”

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