“There is no ‘right’ age to have a baby. But there’s a wrong one.”

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Babies are a blessing. Babies are a miracle. Babies are a life sentence.

All of those things are true. There is no greater joy than a new life beginning, nothing more awe-inspiring than a human body building another. And there’s no greater commitment people could make: I will love you, I will keep you safe, I will put you first.

Those are some very big promises. And many, many of us fail to keep them, whatever our age.

If you have been following the coverage of Sydney’s “runaway teen parents” over the past five days, you could be forgiven for believing only the first two statements are true: Babies are miracles and they are blessings and if you say that you’d like to keep one, that should override everything else – like risk.

runaway teenage parents
15-year-old Jenifer Morrison and 14-year-old Jayden Lavender. Image via Facebook.

The stories have been overwhelmingly supportive of 15-year-old Jenifer Morrison and 14-year-old Jayden Lavender, who left Nepean hospital last Thursday without being discharged.

They went "on the run" with their three-day old baby Aria and were discovered the next day, camping in a bushy area south-west of Sydney. The couple said they were terrified Aria was going to be taken from them after a social worker allegedly said they were "too young" to make any informed decisions about their daughter's life.

Commentators are saying we should be congratulating these young people for wanting to take responsibility for their daughter. Clare Harvey wrote on the weekend that rather than "Snapchatting, inking and piercing", these teenagers want to choose a family life.

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The front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph website today features friends of Morison and Lavender's, teen parents themselves, who say they know lots of young people with kids, and they're doing a great job.

There is no question that watching Morrison and Lavender being interviewed is emotional and difficult.

In particular, it's gut-wrenching to see a teenage girl who gave birth only a week ago trying to articulate how she's feeling, her body flooded with hormones, her arms empty. Whatever happens from here, Jenifer's life is changed for ever. She is a mother now.

"Watching Morrison and Lavender being interviewed is emotional and difficult." Image: Facebook

But this sudden enthusiasm for teenage pregnancy seems misplaced. Reportedly, the reason the social workers were unwilling to let Morison and Lavender to take Aria back to live at her grandmother's house was because it was known that drug abuse and domestic violence was occurring in the home. The family disputes this is still the case, saying these complaints related to someone who no longer lives there.

While a decision is being made about the safest place for baby Aria, officials are doing their due diligence. That is the responsible thing to do.

Whenever something unthinkable happens to a child in a home that is "known to the authorities", we collectively wring our hands about why that baby or toddler or teen was left in harm's way.

We despair about a toothless system that seems to leave our most vulnerable children where they are most at risk.

For those who work in child protection watching the coverage of this case, it must seem impossible: you're damned if you act, you're damned if you don't.

Teenagers are children. Yes, they are people with needs and wants and rights and desires and abilities. And there is no question that there are plenty of teenage parents who are flourishing, some helped by stellar programs that mentor and support young mothers, like BUMP and STEMM.

 

The teens were located by police last Thursday afternoon. (Channel 7 news)

But teenagers are still children.

And when it comes to the safest place for their baby to be, they are not necessarily the right people to make that decision. Nor is Jenifer's mother. Nor is any columnist (myself included, of course) or shock jock.

The people who are best-placed to make a decision about the safety of baby Aria are the experts in child protection who see things every day that the rest of us can only imagine.

Their judgement isn't clouded by sentiment. They are not charmed by seeing teenagers off their phones and changing nappies. They are the people who know what can happen when you send a baby home to an unsafe space.

Even in the most perfect of situations, parenting is difficult. It stresses and stretches you in ways you couldn't possibly imagine before you took that baby home.

From afar - not just for idealistic teenagers, for almost all of us - having a baby looks like an extended, sweet-smelling love-in. A tiny person to dress-up and cuddle. Someone who relies on you for everything. Someone who will love you unconditionally. Feed them, burp them, feel the love.

Anyone who has ever actually cared for a newborn will tell you, 23 hours of your day are not like that.

 

Jenifer and Jayden. (Channel 7)

It's confusing, it's challenging, it's relentless. You're sleep-deprived, you feel clueless about what the baby needs. To get through all that without someone losing their mind, you need patience, you need perspective and you need a lot of great support.

You also need to be living somewhere stable, with people around you to trust.

The reason that Australia has fewer teen parents than ever before is because an enormous amount of work has been done to educate young people - particularly vulnerable ones - that becoming a parent is not the only way to give their life meaning.

Only 8,574 women aged 19 and under gave birth in Australia in 2015, our lowest ever number. Our rate of teen pregnancy is lower than Great Britain's, New Zealand's and about on par with Canada's.

These statistics are not to be used as a weapon for beating up young parents. But they are encouraging.

Because age is not the determining factor in whether or not you will be a great parent, it's not the sole indicator of whether your child will go on to have a fulfilling, productive life. But being able to look after yourself before you can look after another is a step in the right direction, and it seems wilfully ignorant to suggest otherwise.

There is no 'right age' to have a baby. But there's a wrong one - and it's any age when you can't offer that child a safe and loving home.

Whether you are 15 or 50, that should be the minimum requirement.

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