Friday 24 November 2017

Teen mums: we're coping just fine thank you...

Society tends to frown upon younger mothers, but as Aine Nugent finds, many are doing a great job

Leona Finnerty and her 16-month-old daughter Emily
Leona Finnerty and her 16-month-old daughter Emily

Any focus on the subject of teenage pregnancy is generally met with sighs and tut-tuts.

Why they won't be able to cope, where society went wrong and what we can do to avoid more young girls becoming mums before their time.

So when Channel 4's Cutting Edge team set out to produce a documentary series on the ‘phenomenon' of teen mums, it was surprised to find coping, competent girls managing perfectly well, thank you very much.

Many are parents to planned, wanted babies, who are being looked after with all the care and love of a middle-class thirty- something professional, according to Ruth Pitt, executive producer, who has a slight poke at that particular demographic.

“I have a suspicion that there are a lot of middle-class families whose love for their child is partly conditional.

“It's related to achieving academically.

But a lot of these teenage mums don't expect anything of their children. They love them for what they are,” she said after Pramface Babies was aired.

In Ireland, one of the most surprising statistics isn't the number of teenage pregnancies – in 2005 it was 2,427 which is 3.9pc of overall births.

According to the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, just 42 of these were to girls aged 15 or under – the vast majority were to 18-19 year olds. What is remarkable is that the figure hasn't changed in over three decades.

In 1970, the teenage fertility rate was 16.3 (births per 1,000) and it is now 16.8.

This is still higher than the EU average of 13.6, but Ireland remains one of the few countries without legalised abortion, which has undoubtedly led to lower birth rates in other countries – just 6.9 in pro-choice Sweden.

Deirdre Keegan is a social worker in the Rotunda Hospital's Teen Mum clinic. “We see about 130 mums a year but then again we only deal with the under-17s. Those older teenagers go through the main hospital.”

The clinic provides a dedicated service for medical and social care throughout the girl's pregnancy.

“It's a one-stop shop,” says Keegan. “We operate how they operate. We use text services extensively, the girl has the same midwife throughout her pregnancy and we all share mobile numbers”.

Keegan stresses that mums of all ages share exactly the same problems.

“Very young mums are just as nervous as older ones. But by their very nature teenagers are hopeful, positive people. You really see that,” says Keegan.

“But they haven't a clue what services are available. They've never thought about it.

“It annoys me when people say that they get pregnant just to get benefits and houses and that kind of thing. That's definitely not our experience.

They're not that savvy!”

Many of the girls have very strong ideas about staying in school or work.

“One even sat her first Leaving Cert English paper the day after giving birth. They have lots of energy, they're more motivated because they want to provide for their baby.”

Aileen Davies runs the Teen Parent Support Programme in Galway city.

Funded by the HSE and Department of Education, it provides a support service for young parents during pregnancy and, crucially, for up to two years afterwards.

The aim is to empower these young parents both in information terms, such as making them aware of their rights, and practically, by offering antenatal classes and a youth café where teenage parents can get together and support each other.

Since 2000 it has provided help to 500 young parents, and dads are particularly welcome, according to Aileen.

‘At a national level, Treoir is a voluntary umbrella group and information centre for the disparate social services available to young parents, including among others Barnardos, Aislinn, CURA and the maternity hospitals.

Aided by the CPA, it launched the Young Parent Survival Guide last month – an excellent handbook aimed at reassuring teenagers who discover, often to their shock, that they are about to become parents,” she says.

“Its objective is to continue lobbying for change in the laws and services to promote the rights and welfare of unmarried parents and their children.

“It stresses the importance of shared parenting and gives advice on support agencies available to both mums and dads who may only themselves be children.”

For a copy of the Young Parents Survival Guide see

Leona’s story: ‘I was 18 and I was petrified’

Leona Finnerty says baby Emily is into everything.

At 16-months-old, her favourite distraction is Barney the dinosaur.

“She just loves him,” says mum Leona, proud as punch, just like any mother of a beautiful child.

But finding out she was pregnant wasn’t the joy it is for other parents.

“I was 18 and petrified,” she says. “I was totally in denial. I thought my parents would be so disappointed. I was their little girl and they didn’t expect that. They would have felt I had so much to do with my life.”

At the time, Leona was working full-time to save for an apartment where she and her boyfriend would live.

When she discovered she was pregnant, Leona and her boyfriend waited four days before telling anyone.

“I finally told mum in a restaurant, it was public,” she says. “She told my dad after.” Their reaction wasn’t what Leona had expected. “They were shocked but totally supportive.”

When Emily was born, Leona says her whole perspective on life changed.

“I suddenly realised I wanted to go back to college and become a midwife. I didn’t want to be working full-time just to pay for a crèche, but I needed to get a FAS course done first.”

Once she has her ECDL, Leona plans to go to NUI Galway in September under the ‘Access’ programme which targets students who, for a variety of social or financial reasons, are unable to access third level education in the regular way.

“I do a one-year course with them and can then start midwifery,” says Leona, who reckons the study will bring her up to when Emily starts school.

She says the Teen Parent Support Programe in Galway helped her enormously. “I hadn’t a clue, really, I didn’t know anything,” she said.

They talked her through options, courses and benefits. Even opting to do her ante-natal classes there was a great idea.

“I didn’t want to do them in hospital. All the other women were much older than me. Instead I did them with two other girls and they’re still friends”.

Doting on her little girl, Leona says she wouldn't change a thing. “Not for the world”.

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