Why teenage mothers need more support and less judgment
Fewer Kiwi teenagers are having babies compared with 10 years ago. But the stigma attached to young parenthood does not appear to be decreasing at the same rate. Brittany Keogh reports.
Waiting in the emergency department for her test results, Jesse* was anxious. She was 16 weeks’ pregnant and had been bleeding.
When the nurse approached, she said she had “good news”. Jesse was likely having a miscarriage.
She and her partner were shocked. Although they were teenagers and the pregnancy a surprise, they already loved and wanted their pēpi.
“[The nurse], I guess, assumed I was going to have an abortion, so at least if I had a miscarriage I wouldn’t have to abort the baby. But for us, it was panic.
“It was upsetting that the doctors looking after me were so passive about me having a miscarriage. I didn't feel like they were actively trying to stop it.”
Jesse was discharged. But over the next two weeks she had more bleeding and went back to the hospital twice.
On her third visit she discovered the nurse had been wrong. She wasn't misscarrying. Instead, she had subchorionic hematomas – pooling of blood between the membrane surrounding the embryo and her uterus wall.
Her pregnancy continued without further complications and shortly after her 18th birthday, Jesse gave birth to a healthy boy, named Tui*.
Seven weeks on, the family is doing well. Tui's a happy baby who hardly cries and settles easily, and Jesse is loving being a mum.
But the mamae (hurt) she felt at the hospital is still fresh in her mind.
Jesse’s experience is just one example of how, despite New Zealand’s teenage birth rate halving in the past 10 years – from 29.0 per 1000 women in 2010 to 9.8 per 1000 women in 2020 – the stigma associated with young parenthood does not appear to be declining quite as quickly.
While the teenage birth rate is falling for all ethnic groups, for Māori it remains higher than for Pākehā, Asian and Pasifika people, and was dropping more slowly.
The Youth 19 study found just 13 per cent of secondary school students were sexually active in 2019, far fewer than in 2001 when it was 21 per cent.
While teenagers were less likely to use contraception than two decades ago, those who did used more effective contraception.
Research conducted by Family Planning, and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in July, showed that between 2009 and 2019 use of long-acting reversible contraception (LARCS), such as the IUS and implant, among its clients aged 15 to 19 increased from 19 per cent to 30 per cent and 0.7 per cent to 22 per cent respectively. Both about 99 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy.
While 29 per cent of the organisation’s Māori clients were prescribed the implant, a figure similar to that of other ethnicities, use of IUS was much lower among Māori than Asians or Europeans at 9 per cent.
However, those figures alone may not tell the full story.
“For Māori it’s part of whakapapa. I know when I did my PhD, Māori women in that study talked about how being a young, fit, healthy woman is the prime time to be having babies.
“A lot of Māori women have their children and then they go back later and do further education. They want to be good role models for their tamariki.”
However, Wilson is concerned about the inequities young Māori parents face in accessing quality health care services and good housing.
“We’re very quick to criticise and blame when things aren’t going right, but a lot of times we're very slow to put those supports in early. It takes village to raise children. It’s one of the hardest jobs that you can do.”
Zoe Hawke, chief executive of E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services – a kaupapa Māori organisation that supports parents aged 13 to 26 – describes te ao Māori and Western perspectives about young parenthood as “a clash of times and cultures”.
She says, traditionally, Māori saw reproduction as something to be celebrated, adding skills and strength to whānau, hapu and iwi.
Despite this, many of the 45 mothers and 11 fathers the organisation worked with face discrimination, whether that be in the education system, employment or in housing.
Stigma is the “biggest barrier” to rangatahi with children thriving, Hawke says.
“I think we really need to look at ourselves and work on our own judgements ... [and] realise the more we do judge we are harming our future generations.”
When Gill Cotter looks at the students she teaches at Hamilton’s He Puaawai Teen Parent Unit she sees joy, resilience, compassion and solidarity. She often tells them: “by pursuing your education you are changing the narrative and you are smashing every single stereotype”.
In her view, the idea that teenage motherhood is shameful or a problem to be fixed is “completely false”.
“It has no basis in reality,” she says.
A study by AUT published in 2017 found young mums enrolled in teen parent units were 20 per cent more likely to gain NCEA than those who weren't.
Overall, teen parent units increased the school enrolment rates of teen mothers by 15 per cent, the research concluded.
Cotter puts the success of teen parents units down to the wrap-around support they provide. Students have access to onsite childcare, are picked up and dropped home by a shuttle each day and have individual learning programmes and one-on-one teaching time.
However, more can be done to better support young parents, she says.
One change she would like to see is for criteria for the young parent payment – a benefit for teenage parents who are in education – to be widened to include under-16s. Currently, only 16 to 19-year-olds qualify.
Cotter hopes amplifying the voices of young parents and sharing their stories in a way that is respectful and empowering can also help breakdown prejudices against them.
For Dru Brown (Ngāpuhi), falling pregnant with her son, Areka Hānara, when she was 17 and head girl in her final year at Fraser High School in Hamilton made her drive to succeed in both education and career stronger.
“I felt like your kids give you this different kind of strength and motivation to work for bigger and better things. You get a sense of courage because looking after another human being is a major step. You become independent. You mature a lot quicker.”
Because her family is Mormon, Brown was nervous about how her mum’s reaction when she told her news. However, she surprised her by being completely supportive, as did her principal and teachers.
She gave birth to Areka in the February after she finished school and went on to enrol in a bachelors of management at Wintec. When she was way through the degree, in early 2020, she was offered a job in Australia in childcare, which she decided to take as "stepping stone”.
Now 21, she is nearly finished an early childhood qualification and considers her little boy, who is now 3, her “biggest blessing”.
However, Brown says being a young single mum had its challenges. Going to coffee groups with other parents who were much older could be daunting and her peers without children sometimes struggled to understand her point of view.
Overall, she hopes people will be more open and accepting to young mothers.
“We still don’t know everything but we’re trying our best.”
The future for Jesse, and her young family also looks bright. While it can be tough financially, they have a supportive whānau and Jesse has been able to connect with other mums her age through E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services.
Next year, she plans to study a bachelor of science degree, majoring in environmental science, at university. She’s glad she’ll get to spend so much her youth with her son and won’t have to take a time out of her career on maternity leave.
She credits her midwife for helping her and her partner deal with some of the prejudices they faced while pregnant.
“She made us both feel really confident. Whenever the doctors were annoyed I’d be like, at least I have my midwife for me who will advocate for me no matter what ... I don't know what I’d do without her.”
Asked what change she wanted to see to better support teenage mothers, she says: “Just the stigma. It’s really not that bad. I don't understand how some people can treat young mums like [that and] kick them when they're already down.”
*Names changed for privacy reasons.