Young mums are always on the end of bad publicity but Cara Houchen visited Sunderland’s Young Mum’s Unit to meet some of the teenage parents who are on the right track for a brighter future.
YOU can’t help but like the young girls at Sunderland’s Young Mum’s Unit, in Hendon. Despite going through a new and tough experience all of them had a smile for me and all wanted to get their views on teenage pregnancy across.
No different to many others, I had my own preconceptions about what sort of girls I expected to meet but, as manager of the centre Alison Collins explained, they come from all walks of life.
“Yes, a lot of them come from difficult backgrounds but some of them come from privileged, high-achieving families,” she said. “But for whatever reason they’ve ended up pregnant and they still need support.”
The Sunderland Young Mum’s Unit has gone under a number of names over the years but its principle aim to support teenage mothers and encourage them to continue with education remains the same.
Alison has been a part of the project for 25 years and she runs the unit with High Level Teaching Assistant Kelly Mackenzie, a teenage mum herself who has been part of the unit for six years.
Kelly said: “It was really difficult, I was 15 and I don’t think it happens any more than it did then, it’s just a bit more acceptable now. There’s still a stigma attached but I don’t think it is as bad as it was 20 years ago.
“I didn’t come to the unit as it was then – I just stayed at school as mine was a concealed pregnancy. Basically I didn’t tell anyone and I was in denial myself, I didn’t want to accept it.
“The first everyone knew about it was when I was in labour but luckily I have a very supportive family.”
Kelly, now 35, went on to get her GCSEs and she achieved a degree in Youth Community Development.
Although she admits it is tough being a young mum she wants the girls at the unit to still have aspirations.
“I think people think they can get pregnant and they will be handed a house and benefits – but it doesn’t work like that,” explained Kelly. “I had nothing and I had to live with my parents until I was 19. I had really high expectations and I felt like I could not fulfil them.
“But I got there in the end. I started working, I met my husband and now I have a job that I love. So I want the girls to know that you can do it – yes, you might have to do it later but you can achieve your goals.”
The unit is designed primarily to support students during their pregnancies, both educationally and emotionally. The close liaison with schools and the Health Service provides additional invaluable support.
Parents are also welcome to visit to see the facilities or discuss any problems with Alison once the young mums have been referred.
Alison said: “We encourage the girls to stay in school as long as possible and some do stay through the entire pregnancy, but a lot of girls weren’t attending anyway so they come to us either part-time or full-time.
“The part-time girls still go to school a few days a week and get work from their teachers which they bring with them when they come to us.
“The majority of the girls we take in are non or poor attenders and it’s difficult to get them back into school if they weren’t going anyway, and this can limit their education choices.
“We do find that their attendance improves dramatically once they come to us. I think they just prefer the environment and consistency that we offer.
“It is about education but it’s also very much about support. They can be immature or vulnerable and the unit is about making girls independent and empowering them to make good choices.
“We give them the information and strength to cope with being a young mum. They get the tools and the knowledge to look after themselves and their baby.”
The majority of the girls that come through the doors are 14 to 16 but Alison said they can be as young as 12. So why does she think Sunderland’s teenagers are falling pregnant so young?
“A lot of it is down to alcohol and “it won’t happen to them” syndrome but also they think everyone their age is having sex which is a myth. Just 35 per cent of youngsters lose their virginity before they are 16.
“I think most of them are aware that they can get pregnant and I think it’s more acceptable. It may be a shock at first but it’s generally accepted that they will keep the baby.
“Even at a time where contraceptive services are so readily available they still choose to take the risk, not just with pregnancy but STIs.”
Kelly added: “I don’t want to glamorise it as we don’t want to encourage young girls to fall pregnant but in some cases having a baby has actually been the making of them.
“They have been on a very dangerous path and could have ended up involved in things a lot worse than being a young mum.
“Having a baby gives them a purpose and helps them to turn their life around. Although it’s not an ideal situation some good can come from it.”
Once they are of school-leaving age the girls may attend Bumps 2 Babies, which is in the same building and is geared towards older girls and helps them into college and again offers support.
Alison said: “We encourage them to go to college and hopefully they leave us with at least five GCSEs. They can do subjects such as wider key skills and life skills which is the equivalent of a B at GCSE.
“They may not have thought about further education before they had a baby but we want them to realise that it’s important for their future if they want to support their children.
“We take up to about eight girls at a time but we stagger it between the full- and part-timers. If they have babies they have access to the nursery at B2B and there are three places available for our young mums.
“What some young mums don’t realise that if they are in full-time education they are eligible for Care to Learn, a Government scheme which pays for childcare for girls who are in full-time education – that doesn’t have to be a nursery, it includes OFSTED-registered child-minders too.”
Alison and Kelly don’t just deliver education and support, they also address social and moral topics too. They do a lot of work around community awareness and citizenship and they try to do charity work to encourage the girls to contribute to their community.
“We want them to realise it’s not just me, me, me. As teenagers they are selfish, full of hormones and they do still display the same behaviour as a normal teenager but they are having a baby and that’s a lot to cope with at their age.
“But they do have to take responsibility and by encouraging them to raise money for other people and causes we hope we can install this in them.
“I don’t think anyone can prepare you for having a baby no matter what age you are. The sleepless nights, the tiredness and the exhaustion can catch first time mums out.
“However, as the unit has pregnant girls and other young mums there are always people here to give expectant mothers advice as they have already been through it. They are their peers so I think the girls listen when they talk about labour, pain relief and what to expect.”
Alison believes it the city’s high teenage pregnancy rate can be tackled with better sex education, not just in school but from parents too.
“It should be openly discussed in the home,” she explained. “Parents should be able to talk to children about sex so that when they grow up it’s not a taboo subject.
“Families often think it’s the job of the schools to discuss contraception and education but it’s not. Plus it isn’t just about protecting girls from getting pregnant, it’s about STI’s too.
“There is still a lot of ignorance about infections, how they can be caught and that some are not curable. Chlamydia is rife in Sunderland – one-night stands may be more common and the norm but people are not thinking about how they are spreading infection by not using protection.
“Most importantly we want young girls to have more respect for their bodies. Sex is precious and there is nothing wrong with waiting until they meet the right person who they want to have a relationship with.”
The atmosphere within the unit is very relaxed and although they may have their bad days the girls I spoke to seem keen to attend and very happy with the help they receive.
Alison said: “We have a lot if girls who have been a success and they have gone on to college and university and they now have good jobs. We want girls to know that it’s hard when you have a baby young but it’s not impossible. We try to instil that just because they have a baby, their education doesn’t have to stop.”
For more information on the Young Mum’s Unit visit the Your Health website www.yourhealthsunderland.com
WHEN I first met Chelsea Forth the 16-year-old was doting on her 19-week-old son Levi.
This week, when I returned to the unit, Levi was ill and I could tell she was really missing having him around.
But despite having to leave him with her mum she had still come to the unit, which shows what an effect it has on their dedication and motivation.
Chelsea told me she was scared when she found out she was pregnant at 15. She said: “I was crying and laughing at the same time because it was such a shock.
“It always seems to be people like us who don’t sleep around who fall pregnant and the ones who do don’t – I just didn’t think it would happen to me.
“I kept it quiet for a while but then when I started being sick my mam guessed. We did a pregnancy test and she started crying. I think she thought I was going to ruin my life.”
Chelsea chose not to attend the unit while she was pregnant but when the team approached her once she had Levi she decided to give it a go.
She said: “I wasn’t going to school anyway because I didn’t like it. This is much better, it’s more one on one than a class of 30 and everyone is in the same situation.
“It helps having the nursery for Levi to go to so I can get on with my work. Alison and Kelly are really good, they don’t judge you or pressure you but they do keep you on the right track.”
Although Chelsea loves her little boy she would definitely advice girls her age to be careful if they don’t want to get pregnant. She said: “In a way I thought it had ruined my life but I have to look at the positives and it’s also the start of a new one.”
JORDYN BOYES admits she was daft for having sex without protection.
Now the 15-year-old is five months pregnant and after the shock of finding out she was going to be a mum she has settled down and become part of the Young Mum’s Unit.
“I always used to go out drinking and I didn’t go to school because I didn’t like it,” explained Jordyn. “Now I can’t drink so there is no point being out – it’s boring.”
Is alcohol among young teenagers to blame for teen pregnancies? Jordyn doesn’t think so but she knows a few girls her age who already have children and she thinks that people have sex too young.
She said: “Once you are older than 14 and you’re a virgin people start to say things, plus when everyone else is doing it you feel like you have to.
“Not many people use anything either – the ones in relationships might but people having one night stands never bother.”
Jordyn has been attending the unit since September and she says it has really helped her get back into education.
She said: “Coming here has really changed my behaviour and I think I will definitely get GCSEs now I have their support. I also get antenatal classes too which are helping me prepare for how I will look after my baby – I think that is the best thing.”
She added: “Having a baby is going to be hard. Even just being pregnant has stopped me doing as much as I could before and I’ve lost a lot of friends as well. But Kelly and Alison are brilliant, they help us raise money to go on trips and they are always there to support you if you have any problems.”
Jordyn says she finds it much easier to be at the unit than at school because people are going through the same experience as her. She said: “People understand here what it’s like, so if you have morning sickness or you’re tired they understand that.”
NATALIE COXON, from Hendon, was referred to the unit by her school. Now 17, she has four-month-old Jayden and has since moved into the B2B facilities. Her little boy came as a surprise but coming to the unit has really helped her.
“They have given me a lot of support,” she said. “But I’m lucky as I have support from my friends and family too.
“I was 15 when I fell pregnant and it was my final year at school but thanks to Alison and Kelly I managed to get eight B’s and five C’s.
“They are always there for you and they give you advice on everything. I would definitely recommend it to other young expectant mums because they are an extra support network.
“Finding out I was pregnant was really scary. I was given a midwife and I had my first scan, then I was asked if I wanted to keep it or get rid of it.
“It was a really difficult decision to make but once I saw the scan I knew I wanted to keep him and I have always been against abortions anyway.”
Natalie told her mum that she was going to do a test to prepare her for the fact she may be pregnant but she says she was still in shock.
She said: “She was shocked but has always been supportive. I was really scared of what people would think about me. I didn’t want them to think bad of me or look down on me but my family all stood by me.
“I had a horrible pregnancy, I was in and out of hospital and I was bleeding too which was really frightening.”
Natalie was two weeks over her due date and she was in slow labour for six days before little Jayden was born. She said: “Looking after Jayden was really hard at first but it’s much more straight forward now.
“I’m glad I have him and I wouldn’t change him for the world. You can still achieve what you want, having a baby shouldn’t stop you and it won’t stop me.”