By Kellie Scott.
If teenagers believed advice from cult movies like Mean Girls, the birth rate among Australian adolescent mothers would likely drop from 1.19 per cent to zero.
“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die,” advised character Coach Carr.
But sex education in Australia is a little less morbid than that of the 2004 US comedy, and despite improvements in the availability of contraception and access to abortion, teens are still becoming parents.
According to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), teenage mothers are more likely to experience economic disadvantage, compromised educational outcomes and higher levels of psychological distress.
So why aren’t we celebrating and supporting the birth of babies to young mums, who are already finding it tough, in the same way we do for older women?
‘I felt too ashamed to celebrate’
At her sweet 16th, Sophia Mus-Talbot was not exactly planning on having a baby.
But soon after, a moment of self-confessed “stupidity and forgetfulness” led to her falling pregnant. Her partner was the father, but he ended the relationship weeks later.
Fast-forward 19 months, and Sophia is a proud mum to 10-month-old Spencer.
Like any parent, she juggles the role while trying to make a life for herself and her child.
She is completing high school in Hobart and advocating for better support for young mums through the Brave Foundation — a not-for-profit that equips expecting and parenting teens with resources and education opportunities.
“It’s really hard, it almost feels like you’re only doing everything half-heartedly,” are words not unique to this 17-year-old mum.
What has been dramatically different for Sophia however, is how her journey into motherhood has been received.
“I think people are more worried about celebrating a teenage pregnancy then, say, a woman in her 30s who had to try for months and seek help to fall pregnant,” she says.
Sophia is quick to praise the support of loved ones, but there have been countless times she has felt judged — whether it’s the nurse who condemned her for struggling to breastfeed, or the social circle that didn’t throw her a baby shower but did for an older member.
“When I was pregnant I felt too ashamed to celebrate it … but of course it’s something that should be.”
‘Support doesn’t breed glamorisation’
Brave Foundation founder Bernadette Black, who in 1993 gave birth to her son at the age of 16, believes you can strike a balance between embracing an expectant teen without encouraging pregnancy in young women.
“People will often say, ‘If you are seen to help young mums are you glamorising teenage pregnancy?'” Ms Black says.
“The gift of a teenage life is our first and foremost message, but if [pregnancy] does happen, we’ll be there to give you the support you need and celebrate your baby.
“I can remember for me [when I became pregnant] I worked part-time at Wendy’s ice cream in Year 10, and my boss said congratulations to me. I will never forget that, because it was the first thing he chose to say.”
Ms Black says the stigma in society stems from how statistics are perceived, like 80 per cent of teen parents being on long-term welfare.
“It is a real issue, but that 80 per cent isn’t reflective of what teenage parents want.
“They have high hopes for careers and dreams but they can’t reach them due to a lack of a pathway plan for education, and a great amount of stigma.”
Connecting teen mums with like-minded peers
Hannah Ryan became pregnant with her son Jacob, now three, at the age of 18.
The pregnancy wasn’t planned and she didn’t have a partner, but her family were supportive of her decision to keep and raise the baby.
However, not having people around her who understood what she was going through was tough.
“I lost a lot of my friends when I became pregnant because I wasn’t going out drinking, I was staying home getting ready for my baby,” the single mum says.
Ms Ryan turned to Zoe Support, a not-for-profit organisation providing pre-birth assistance for young pregnant women and opportunities for young mothers in Mildura.
There, Ms Ryan connected with other teen mums through activities including playgroup and life skills courses.
“It’s helped so much being able to talk to people who are in a similar situation to me,” she says.
Ms Ryan continues to engage Zoe Support’s services while studying a Diploma of Community Service full-time.
‘Lack of funding hampering support’
Zoe Support executive director Anne Webster says it is too easy for people to focus on the teen’s pregnancy as being the problem, rather than the lack of assistance available to them.
“The hurdles they face are multifaceted and complex, and they need to be addressed on an individual basis, which is what we do here,” she says.
“It’s extremely difficult for a young mum to get back onto the horse or to even achieve plain stability.”
Ms Webster says becoming a teen parent isn’t the damning life choice society made it out to be.
“We have mothers here who will tell you that having their child literally saved their lives.”
Ms Webster is lobbying for better distribution of government funding to organisations like hers that provide holistic support.
“Ground-roots organisations like ours which have been developed from nothing outside the government framework of what is worth to be funded.”
That, she says, makes it very difficult to remain sustainable for the 70 mums and 75 children they assist each year.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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