Teen mums are a constant source of moral outrage, but rarely do we hear about the intricacies of their lives or how they cope. Kirsty Johnston reports.

Kym was 15 when she found out she was pregnant.

The Manurewa schoolgirl was a rising netball star, with dreams of playing for the Silver Ferns. She was at a team practice when she noticed she wasn't feeling herself.

"I was running, but I was slow. I wasn't as fast as I thought I was," she said.

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"Then I went to the toilet, had a pregnancy test and it came back positive. The next day I went to the nurse, and she did another one, it came back positive again. That's when decisions had to be made."

Kym was scared, both for herself and about what her parents would think. She planned to terminate the pregnancy, thinking it was best for her at the time.

"I wasn't ready. [My partner] wasn't ready. It was like a truck just hit us. It was quite hard to cope," she said.

"But when they started going over the plans, what abortions do and everything, it just stopped. I couldn't."

Kym's dreams of becoming a netball star took a back seat after she had Temanawanui, now 3. Photo / Juliette Veber
Kym's dreams of becoming a netball star took a back seat after she had Temanawanui, now 3. Photo / Juliette Veber

Each year in New Zealand, around 2500 young women like Kym become teen mums - girls barely past childhood themselves, forced to grow up, fast.

Most of them - just over half - live in our poorest neighbourhoods, and face not just impending motherhood but a myriad of other battles to gain access to housing, education and healthcare support.

They're also frequently shamed, with their condition described by Treasury as a "poor life choice", and - whenever New Zealand's high rate of teenage pregnancy makes headlines - a source of moral outrage.

READ MORE: She's having a baby - teen mums talk

"Being a teenage parent is incredibly tough. Right from the beginning there's the stigma that comes with being young and pregnant," says Cinnamon Whitlock, chief executive of the Thrive Teen Parent Support Trust.

"It takes a long while for some teen parents to overcome that, even after they have the baby. I don't think the general public know just how tough that is."

Some of the challenges faced by teen mums are explored in this article, but are also the subject of Conversations With Teen Mums, a new interactive documentary by film-maker Juliette Veber. Stories included from teen mums here are from her project.

A LACK OF CHOICE AND OPPORTUNITY

The cause of New Zealand's high teen pregnancy rates are not explicit.

While birth rates have halved since a peak in 2008, we still have more teenage pregnancies than similar countries, such as Canada or Australia, second only to the United States and around the same as the UK.

Last year, 16 in every 1000 teenagers gave birth. With just over half of those in the most deprived areas, many experts argue at least some of the pregnancies are due to a lack of access to good healthcare.

In 2016, a report from the Women's Health Research Centre at the University of Otago said the two leading barriers to healthcare for Maori teen mums (who were more likely to live in deprived areas) were a lack of knowledge about how to access services, and a lack of transport.

It said the model "disempowered" young women, then blamed them for not accessing care.

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said it was clear from overseas studies that where there was higher deprivation there was less accessible healthcare services and information.

"Teen pregnancy is no different to other health issues," Edmond said. "For young women in those areas, the choices and opportunities are different."

While some long-term contraception was now subsidised, Edmond said cost wasn't the only barrier - knowledge about safe sex and contraception was also an issue, linked to fragmented sex education in schools.

"Sexuality is now part of the curriculum but it's still patchy," she says. "And we still can't talk about sex without it being controversial. New Zealand sees itself as liberal but in this area we aren't as progressive in general."

The Green Party's spokesperson for women, Jan Logie, said in her experience of working with youth, teenage pregnancy could also be linked to poverty because of the way it affected mental health.

"Some people felt their lives were of less value and couldn't see a pathway for themselves in our society. Therefore they had less in investment in delaying or being able to assert their right to safer sex," she said.

"Poverty, depression, hopelessness - they're not in a place where they're going to be focussing on contraception."

However, Logie said, equally, some young women wanted a meaningful role in society and hoped being a mum would enable them to contribute.

"Often, that gets turned around by people who say they're just having babies to get benefits. That's a myth and it's a hateful way of trying to regulate young women's sexual behaviour," she said. "Young parenting can be turned into a positive if people are supported."

Annika with her daughter Saskia, aged 9. Annika was pregnant at 15 but says she was determined to be the best mum she could. Photo / Juliette Veber
Annika with her daughter Saskia, aged 9. Annika was pregnant at 15 but says she was determined to be the best mum she could. Photo / Juliette Veber

When Annika got pregnant at 15, she was at a low point in her life. "[I was] just so depressed and hating myself more than ever, and out of control at school and at home," she said.

However, with the support of her parents, the baby helped her rebuild her relationship with her mum, and gave her focus.

"I felt like I failed at everything else and I'm naturally just a really driven, determined person. I wanted to prove everybody wrong," she said.

"My wider family was horrified and thought that I'd failed and I'd be just another statistic. I was determined to be the success story. To be the teen mum that survived and actually thrived and did really well being the best mum I could be, being the best parent I could be and raising a really healthy, beautiful child."

'WITHOUT FAMILY SUPPORT I JUST WOULDN'T SURVIVE'

Even with the best of intentions and support, however, teen parenting places huge stress on young people. Support systems are bureaucratic, money is always tight and mental healthcare can be hard to find.

While most areas now have the highly-successful Teen Parent Units (which include early childhood centres for babies) at their local high schools, getting childcare outside school hours is extremely difficult, meaning any extra-curricular activities are quickly curtailed.

Most difficult of all is housing, particularly in Auckland. Annika, who has two daughters now, said it's a frustrating situation.

"Without family support I just wouldn't survive, we'd probably be homeless by now. Or we'd be in a room at a family's house.

"It really is just like week-to-week right now and that's really hard. Like financial stress is a huge factor in so many people's lives and it weighs on my mind daily."

Comparatively, Annika is one of the lucky ones - even though she knows she will never own a home, she and her girls have their own house.

Annika now has two daughters, Saskia, 9 (left), and Vera, 6. Photo / Juliette Veber
Annika now has two daughters, Saskia, 9 (left), and Vera, 6. Photo / Juliette Veber

Biff Waddell, the national chairperson of Teen Parent Schools in New Zealand, said many teen mums live in overcrowded homes with other family, or in housing that is simply inappropriate.

"A big issue is getting safe housing, or healthy homes. At the moment we've got one girl who is living in a house between gang houses, and she's by herself, a solo mum," she said.

"There needs to be more thought about where they get placed to - is it healthy, is it fenced, is it safe?"

Waddell said the introduction of specialist youth services has improved the situation - for example teen mums don't have to go to Work and Income offices and queue anymore, and there is more awareness about what they need.

However, some of the processes, such as childcare funding, were highly bureaucratic, confusing and inconsistently applied. For example, some of the teen mums at the Teen Parent Units were denied extra childcare support because they had a partner, because it was expected the partner would look after the baby.

In other cases, because young parents were in a relationship they did not receive financial support for transport to school, and therefore were discouraged by their partners to attend.

In a letter to the Government by the national association of Teen Parent Units, it was argued those sorts of decisions placed huge pressure on relationships.

"It appears that this policy is detrimental to the long-term stability of relationships between young people and influences the choices they make," the group wrote.

"Young women can find themselves disempowered by total financial dependence on the young man who may not be entirely supportive, especially if he is not the father of the child."

Sometimes, even gaining access to the welfare system was near impossible due to impractical expectations. At Thrive, Cinnamon Whitlock said one of their main tasks was helping young people get formal identification.

"To access funds from Work and Incomeyou've got to have ID. They don't have a driver's licence, so you go for an 18+ card. That's $33. No one has $33," she said.

"Even once they've had the baby, before you get the parent payment you have to show a birth certificate, which costs upwards of $50. They don't have that money. It's ridiculous."

Some parents ended up going to extreme lengths to get extra cash, with limited understanding of consequences.

Young mums frequently incurred debt from fines (often because they have no licence) or hire payments that get out of hand. Mobile "truck shops" that prey on the poor and then charge huge interest rates are also problematic.

Billy with Cayleigh, 6. Billy is still paying off debt accrued after the birth of her daughter. Photo / Juliette Veber
Billy with Cayleigh, 6. Billy is still paying off debt accrued after the birth of her daughter. Photo / Juliette Veber

For Billy, who also got pregnant at 15, it was pawn shops that got her into trouble.

She would take in a phone or another item that was bought on hire purchase, and never be able to get it back. She's now in $30k debt aged just 21.

"All I thought was I could get this right now if I sign this paper. Three years later, interest has just grown and it's just taken over my life, pretty much," she said.

"Now I've got to fix it ... because I've worked myself up into a massive mess that I have to try and clean."

A MORE POSITIVE LIGHT

Psychologist Melissa Viviers says poor decision-making and a lack of impulse control was typical of the still-developing teenage brain - and that teenagers were also more likely to become overwhelmed, sad or angry for no reason.

She said, for that reason, while all new parents find having babies tough, it could be particularly difficult for teens on a mental and emotional level.

Additionally, those who fell pregnant young were more likely to have also experienced other "risk factors" such as growing up in poverty or domestic violence.

"Typically, not in every case, but typically teenage parents prior to becoming parents have experienced considerably negative upbringings," she said. "Having a child of their own can bring up lots of thoughts and emotions.

"These thoughts and emotions are difficult to cope with at the best of times, but while sleep-deprived, feeling incompetent, lacking money, struggling in an intimate partner relationship, and having inadequate housing ... things can get all too much."

Fortunately, many young women were now able to access help at a Teen Parent Unit, she said, which not only taught parenting and budgeting as well as regular school subjects, but allowed employed professionals to look after the babies while they studied.

Recent research found young mothers who attended the units were more likely to succeed and gain NCEA than those who weren't enrolled. They were also less likely to drop out than students in more rural areas.

For some young women, having a baby was even the incentive that finally pushed them to focus on education.

In a 2011 overview of Maori teen pregnancy, Dr Leonie Pihama wrote that while teen pregnancy was usually considered a negative, it could also have positive life changes such as getting off drugs, improved self-esteem and a joy in motherhood.

"Pursuing education was often identified as important to young mothers, yet, this was not always apparent to them until they had children of their own," the study said.

"In essence, what this study contributes to the existing literature is evidence of the opportunity to view teenage pregnancy in a more positive light."

Pihama said it was not about encouraging teenage pregnancy, however.

"Rather [it's] about considering the potential such pregnancies provide for individuals and communities to broaden our contributions to supporting positive family development."

"My son was worth every minute." Kym was just 15 when she had Temanawanui. Photo / Juliette Veber

For Kym, the netball player who got pregnant at 15, everything changed when she had her baby - including her own expectations.

At first she thought she would be able to keep up with her training, but when her baby came she found time was her enemy - between school and her son, there wasn't much room for anything else.

However, she doesn't regret her choice.

"He's worth every minute."