Awhi Mama

supporting and advocating for teenage mothers in Aotearoa

Education is the key

A research report has just been released out of Cantebury University which supports my belief that engagement in education and wrap around health, financial and parenting support, is the way to make the most difference in the lives of teenage parents and their children. It is the practical way to teach a person to fish rather than give them fish and chips for dinner. Is there are teen parent unit at your local secondary school? If one of your kids or the child of a friend or family member found themselves pregnant would they be able to access teen parent education? What about accessible and affordable, quality childcare? There are only 4 such units in Auckland, where in one suburb alone there were 69 births to teenage mothers in 2010. (CMDHB)

Leave a comment »

Money for feeding bubba

I just saw this posted about the situation in the U.S, where the problem of stretching infant formula by watering it down, is being recognised as a widespread practice among those living in poverty.

I am teaching a large number of mothers under 16 years old this year. If they qualify for any sort of benefit, the maximum is $50 and goes to their guardian. If they are feeding their baby using formula then the average baby will go through 1 and a half tins approx per week. The cheapest formula available is about $22 per tin. Assuming they are also buying nappies, there is no way they have enough money to feed their child unless they are cutting something else out. And if you qualify for assistance, there is usually no wriggle room in the budget. Most young parents don’t have a great deal of control over their money as they are living with family and so their income or benefit is either used to pay the rent and bills or they pay board each week. The young mums I know who are old enough to qualify for the unemployment benefit or domestic purposes benefit just have less money around them and more expenses they are responsible for. Not more money to spend.

I think watering down formula, the early introduction of solids or inappropriate foods is a huge issue which is often seen as “bad mums” not caring for their kids. Instead it should be seen as an issue of poverty. I think teen mums should be given lots of support to breastfeed but you can imagine how challenging that is anyway, without the complications of being so young, and other more difficult issues which many teenage mums face, that can come between them and a successful breastfeeding experience.

So it is not about the breast vs bottle debate. It is about Mums being able to provide appropriate nutrition to the most vulnerable, their babies.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it is something of a taboo and seems to pushed into the box of “those parents” and all the stereotypes which go with it. That attitude is just ignorant and avoids dealing with the realities of life for many young mums.

There needs to be people who have the courage to broach such topics publically so that we are not just ignoring it because it seems too controversial or too shocking. When Mums are watering down their baby’s formula¬† and adding flour to thicken it babies are in danger and mother’s hearts are breaking. Every Mum wants to feed their child well.

P.S If you are thinking “Hey they got knocked up. They shouldn’t be rewarded with money for it”, you are not alone and I have a post in the pipeline which argues why that kind of thinking has a clear outcome that most of us don’t want to see.

Leave a comment »

They do it for the money…

This is a common stereotype preached about solo parents, usually mothers, and often young, about why they have kids. I actually don’t know many people who have children who think approximately $350/week is worth having children for. And it certainly doesn’t leave you with any money left over. Life on a benefit is stressful, a continual struggle to feed your kids and keep your head above water.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have released a report today on the myths and facts about women on the DPB. It looks at the common misconceptions about this benefit and the Mums who receive it.

Please be aware that only mothers over the age of 18, whose partner does not work or who are not in work and solo parents qualify for the DPB. New rules also mean that if she has another child she will only receive the DPB until the child is one and then will have to work. If you have had a look at the table in the previous post you will note that there are a huge number of young mothers who do not qualify for the DPB.

The government’s recently introduced sanctions on beneficiaries are concerning CPAG as they see the enormous impact a benefit being cut will have on the children in those families. Encouraging people into work is one thing but kids need to eat. Punative measures don’t motivate anyone and children in poor families suffer enough already.

Read the report and please let me know what you think.

Leave a comment »

The numbers

So I have already mentioned our high rate of teen pregnancy and birth. So I thought I would post some links to the most revealing national statistics I have found. I am hoping that the recent census will provide some more up to date data. I am also hoping to access information on birth rates for age groups and locations, as I know that some DHBs have that data.

This page gives the national birth statistics. The most revealing table shows Age Specific Birth Rates of different Ethnic Groups. The birth rate jumps at the age of 17 and the highest rates are among Maori, followed by Pakeha. Then Pacifika women, who make up less than half the number of Maori women. The smallest number are among Asian women. As a side note I think it is interesting to think that these are only births. So the true rate of conception and pregnancy is much greater. Also many young women will experience pregnancy loss before 20 weeks. These will not be included in these statistics but will have a profound impact on the women. It is also common for women not to access health care when they are young and pregnant until very late in the pregnancy. If you then consider the number of young women having terminations, you can see that the number of young people who are sexually active and may not be making fully informed decisions about their fertility. This is not a judgement on those young people. It is a comment on the lack of agency that these young people may have in choosing and being informed about the consequences of their sexual activity. (I am sure there will be more about this in future posts).

You are most likely to be a teenage mother if you are Maori and over the age of 17. There are probably a wide range of reasons for this. I can speculate that their are cultural imperatives and values which support the importance of whanau and the blessing of children. Maori communities have had higher birth rates at younger ages consistently over time which means a young Maori woman is more likely to live with more than two generations of her family and have siblings and cousins who have already had children at a young age. Families are generally on the larger side of the median so limiting family size may not be a priority or consideration. Generalisations can also be made about the openness of communication about the body and sexual health and reproduction. Many young women who I have talked to or read about do not have a very clear idea about how you get pregnant. Peers are never a great source of information and often they are the only source.

Teenage pregnancy has the potential to be seen as a “Maori problem”. That is a really unhelpful way of viewing this. Yes, young Maori need their whanau and community to support them and need culturally appropriate support. But the problem is that Maori are disproportionately represented in the statistics not because they are Maori, but because Maori are disproportionately represented in all the indicators which contribute to young people becoming pregnant at an early age. And this is an issue of social justice, not of some problem of culture. There has been so much research done into indigenous people’s who are disempowered

There is also a very strong correlation between socio-eonomic level and rates of teen pregnancy. There are also higher rates in rural areas. Check out this report by the Families Commission for more information on distribution across the country. Another generalisation is that if you are poor, in a small rural community where there are few jobs or opportunities, your way out is education and work. And if that isn’t looking positive it may be easy to follow the other example you see, which may be having children young.

The statistics give a very clear picture of who is being affected and why it is worth paying attention to. Basically the summary is the highest rates are within communities who have the highest rates of poverty, poorest health outcomes, lowest rates of engagement with education and highest representation in the justice system. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if nothing is done then those patterns will be repeated in the next generation as their kids grow up. I am of the opinion that if you are poor then all the other statistics are pretty much symptomatic of your poverty. I definitely don’t support the idea that those in these groups should be blamed for their situation. Instead government and private assistance should be aimed at alleviating these problems.

Teenage pregnancy is an issue at the cusp of poverty and inequality in New Zealand. But it is also an opportunity, for young Mums and also for their communities.

Leave a comment »

What about the papas?

The idea of Awhi Mama seems to be a bit exclusive and to neglect the real needs of . But that isn’t the intention. It always takes two to make a child. When the Ministry of Education decided to implement Teen Parent Units, the plan was that they were to serve the needs of all teen parents who chose to enrol, not just mothers. Unfortunately there are few dads who take up the opportunity. And for pretty understandable reasons. Mostly because being a teenage Dad is totally different from being a teenage Mum, at least while she is pregnant. And while teen mums love the support and friendship of shared experience that TPUs provide, for the Dads, they are still the minority surrounded by girls and at a time when they desperately need role models to talk to, they are pretty rare.

The reality of life for teen mums and dads is pretty different. Some parents are in committed relationships and living together and live through the pregnancy together. They share the changes in the mother’s body, the decision making and change in life priorities and then experience the birth and early parenthood as a team. There are hard times but they both make the transition from teenagers to parents together. From my experience, the Dads in this situation tend to adapt to their change of roles. Sometimes the relationship ends and life is not necessarily rosey, but the father is part of the process without too much distance.

For those Dads who father a child without being in a committed relationship or who live separately from their girlfriend, the process is quite different. They may have no real relationship with the mother and her family and friends. Their relationship may even be secret. There are at least two households involved in the mother and father’s lives and they all have their own views on what should happen and how the situation should be dealt with. Add to that the parent’s peers and you have a rather complicated mix. For some mothers, they never acknowledge who the father is, either due to not knowing who the father is, or just not wanting him involved. The reactions of the guy in finding out he is going to be a Dad is as unpredictable as the mother’s.

Some of the Dad’s I have met have been totally blindsided and unable to process and come to terms with being a father so young. One day they were just a young guy with hormones and the next they are having a child. The may have fathered a child but as with men at any age, nothing has physically changed and won’t for many months. Trying to get your head around the idea of a child and the responsibilities and realities of fatherhood is pretty hard with no practical changes to help. For some young men, that is where the processing stays. Being a Dad is all pretty much theoretical. Some of the Mums I teach have “baby daddies” who have done nothing more than maybe turn up at the hospital or drop off a present. However, if their whanau want to be involved then the likelihood of them being involved is much greater.

So back to why just the Mamas and not the Papas? Maybe because those are who I deal with and who generally care for the child fulltime. But the role and importance of the Dad should never be underestimated. There is so much research about the negative outcomes of children whose fathers are absent or fail to fullfill their obligations in raising and caring for their kids. So there does need to be targeted support for teen dads. If you are interested, this is a great programme running in West Auckland. We need more of these but it is hard to find Dads with the experience and qualities required to be facilitators. Probably because there is very little support for teen dads and getting through it in a positive way is pretty tough going.

Also here is an interview with a teen dad I know who managed to adjust to the change in his life and is doing an awesome job raising his son. This is the programme he participated in.

Leave a comment »

Why Awhi Mama?

Awhi – to provide care and support

Mama – mother

Some facts: New Zealand has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the developed world. The highest rates are among young Maori women. Rates of teenage pregnancy are linked to socio-economic status.

I teach young mums and I have a passion for supporting teenage mother’s and their children and this blog is a way I can support them by informing others about the challenges young mothers in New Zealand face and advocate for their needs. Every day in my job I feel so frustrated by being able to do so little to help with the many challenges the women I teach face. From continuing with their education, health issues, lack of money and resources, family dramas and the list goes on.

Many people believe that young mothers should suffer the consequences of becoming pregnant. This way of approaching the issue is a dead end. It means punishing a child for something they had no control over and it assumes that teenage pregnancy is a simple issue, caused by irresponsible teenagers having sex. This ignores the reality that there are multiple contributing factors which can lead to a young woman becoming pregnant and many come from the poor actions of the adults who should have been caring for them. There are many ideas about how to prevent teenage pregnancy, but I think more should be done to support young mothers so that their future is not determined by the age when they have a child. Without the support and concern of the community and government many mothers will not be able to achieve the life that they and their children need in order to be healthy and positive members of our society. Another generation of children will grow up with parents struggling and we all know how huge the impact of a tumultuous childhood can be. In a couple of decades we will have another generation who future is determined by one mistake or set of circumstances.

Instead of putting our collective heads in the sand, we should have the courage to support young mamas to continue with education, provide the wrap around health, housing and financial support so that they can be the best mother’s they can be. One young woman I taught objects to idea that having a baby young is even a problem. According to her it is neutral. What really determines whether it is a problem is the reaction of the mother and father and the people around them. Many children speak of their strong mothers who have overcome enormous challenges in order to provide for them and be inspiring role models. These children know how important it is to keep aiming for your dreams and reaching for the stars, despite your circumstances. I think those are values we want in our society. Not the idea that if you make one unwise decision you are abandoned to your own devices and are written off as a hopeless case.

The aim of this blog is to link to important information and news, especially heading into election year, so that you can be informed about the issues impacting on teenage mothers. I also want to share some of my observations about what life is really like for young mums and their children, the support already available and ideas for what would make a difference. I also hope to share the points of view of young mothers and what they believe should be done to support them. Please share this blog and comment so that we can all work towards better lives for young mums and their kids.

Leave a comment »