Film-maker Juliette Veber spent four years tracking teen mums. Kim Knight talks to her about the Kiwi mothers who have grown up with their children.

"Do you see the world?" He is 4 years old, all cheeks and merry eyes. Strapped in behind his mum, Devante answers his own question. He lists trees and shops and cars. In the front seat, Oshyn smiles. She was 16 when she discovered she was pregnant. Her world? It orbits this small boy.

"Before I found out I was pregnant, I had jumped on the independent youth benefit," says Oshyn. "When my pay would come in, I'd go and get drunk, I'd go have fun, go and hang out with my friends that were all on the same path. When my baby came along it felt like, like just the way that I saw things was different, the way that I looked at life was different. I was no longer doing things that would just affect myself. Everything I did was for my baby."

Oshyn, now aged 23, is speaking to the camera. She's one of 30 young women interviewed by Auckland-based film-maker Juliette Veber over a period of four years for the web-based project "Conversations With Teen Mums". It combines photographic portraits, personal quotes, written interviews and three half-hour films, including Oshyn's story. The site went live yesterday - "a unique window into the minds of New Zealand young mums who are coming-of age as their children grow" says the publicity blurb.

"The stereotype of a young mum is that they're going to stay on the benefit, they're not going to complete high school, and their child is not going to complete high school," says Veber.


"There are lots of examples of successful children who are offspring of teen mums - Barack Obama is obviously the most famous one.

"I don't like the judgment young mums receive. I don't think it's fair. That's where I was coming from at the beginning of the project. I wanted to get to know the young mums and share the human beings that I knew."

New Zealand's teen pregnancy rate peaked in 1972. Back then, 69 out of every 1000 teenagers gave birth. By 1984, that figure had fallen to 30 out of every 1000. In 2016, the rate dropped to 16 out of every 1000. In concrete terms: last year, 2481 babies were born to teenagers - 15 of them under the age of 15.

What does teenage motherhood look like? And why would anyone devote thousands of hours to a project examining that question?

I'm wondering this, as I sit in a cafe in Auckland's Karangahape Rd, waiting for Veber.

In 1970, my mother was 17. She wanted to be a marine biologist. Instead, she took the ferry to Wellington to wait out a pregnancy away from a small town's twitching curtains. In a doctor's surgery, she was asked to sign the papers that would have led to my adoption. She refused. Then my dad had a change of heart. They got married, they had another child, they continue to live happily ever after - and I've never understood why my mother gave up her hopes and dreams for mine. She tells me she feels like she grew up with me. Sometimes, this makes me feel guilty.

Veber grew up in Remuera. She went to Diocesan School for Girls, and got a degree in media studies from the University of Auckland. She was the associate producer on Harry Sinclair's The Price of Milk and producer on Toy Love. A high achiever, with a father who worked in computers, and a law librarian mother.

"They prioritised my future and my education always came first."

It came as a shock, says Veber, to discover not everybody shared that starting point.

In 2008, Veber premiered her debut feature-length documentary, Trouble is My Business. It followed Mr Peach, the loud hailer-wielding assistant principal in charge of truancy and discipline at South Auckland's Aorere College.

In her search for a story, Veber had volunteered with an emergency housing agency and a women's refuge. She encountered women who had never worked or engaged with the school system.

"I guess I just wanted to see a different view of the world ... I just had quite a closed, sheltered view of the world, and I didn't realise - I just didn't know, I just never thought about it.

"I was 30, I didn't have children at that point, so I didn't understand motherhood, but what I was really interested in and thought a lot about was not having confidence. How do you get into the workforce when you've never worked, and you're not sure what your skills are? I really felt for the women. Like how do you just magically get confidence?"

She considered a film about women trying to get off the Domestic Purposes Benefit, but kept coming back to their teenage years.

"It is the moment when you make a decision that could alter your life forever ... where they make the decision to leave school, or find themselves in a situation where they drop out of school. I wanted to know how that came to be?"

Veber is a quiet and considered woman. Minimal makeup, slim jeans, a pink hair tie around one wrist. A working mum of two who says: "I find motherhood a challenge. It's not an easy job. And I think about that. It's hard for me, what would it be like for someone who is a young person?"

Veber had a daughter, Coco and was pregnant with her son, Rocky, when she started what she thought would be a linear documentary film project. She met the majority of her new subjects in Teen Parent Units (there are 23 throughout the country, usually attached to state secondary schools, offering education to young women while they are pregnant and after they become young mums) but would, ultimately, follow them far beyond the school gate.

Veber filmed and photographed interactions with whanau and officialdom. She was at birthday parties and trips to the zoo. She discovered many young mums were themselves children of young mums; that while the teenagers she spoke to were often no longer in relationships, they maintained contact with the fathers of their children.

Common concerns: practical issues like housing and transport and the stress of juggling small children and the desire to move into tertiary education and the workforce.

"It's okay when they've got a little baby and they can move into a room with the baby in their parents' house, but once their child starts to grow and need their own space, that's when it gets really hard. It's really expensive to get a rental ... the norm was to live with family, quite possibly in an overcrowded situation."

This was not Veber's world.

"Sometimes I felt unsettled, or a little bit powerless to help ... One of the things I've really noticed about the young mums is that one small obstacle can become a much bigger obstacle quite quickly."

Oshyn, for example, had planned to be in the police force by the time her son turned 5, so she could live in a different suburb, with improved school options - her plans were derailed by historic demerit points racked up on a learner driver's licence.

"And there was nothing really that she could have done about it. For a lot of the young mums, I've seen that happen. There has been a plan in place, absolutely, but it just doesn't go how they think it's going to go."

When you're young and the world's your oyster, that's just a blip.

"But there's more at stake when you've also got a child," says Veber. "When you've got your hopes and dreams, but then you've got the hopes and dreams of your child and you're trying to do the best for both. Oshyn was living in a sleep-out, and she just couldn't get out."

In 1970, my dad was in the Air Force. The first house I remember was a rental that came with the job. Pale weatherboard, on a street of pale weatherboards, in Woodbourne, Blenheim. When I was 5, my parents moved us into an A-frame that used to be a fibreglass factory. In the beginning, it had no kitchen, no internal walls and the floor was concrete. It cost $6000 - or $153,000 in today's money. My child-bride mother and very hard-working father must have given up so much to save a deposit.

I haven't really talked to them about this before. My mum has just turned 65. I pick up the phone: "In the beginning, I was probably scared," she says. "Once we'd made the decision to get married, I was very focused on what I needed to get together, the things we needed for a baby. I guess I would say I was quite practical about the whole thing. You couldn't change what had happened, and so you just moved on ... sure, there were times it got really tough and I thought 'God, what are we doing? Are we doing the right thing?' I don't know that I ever wanted to walk away from it."

In the background, I can hear my father.

He's reminding her of this time she was sitting on the front porch, obviously pregnant, obviously young. The boy's college harrier team runs past. My mum runs inside, crying because of the names they've shouted at her.

Today, she's vague on the details. "But they were only 14-year-olds ... just a couple of years younger than me."

Motherhood is the oldest story in the human book. You'd think we would have figured out how to stop demonising and deifying, according to age and stage.

Did Veber notice parallels between the women she interviewed and her own life?

"I didn't really know what motherhood entailed," says the film-maker, 43.

"I knew I really wanted a child, and I had my first child at 37, but it was a shock. A huge shock. I got - I think - it's hard to explain - it was just such a different experience and my daughter was quite hard to settle and I found that hard. When you're used to controlling your life, and then there's something you can't really control ... I'm someone who has been quite a driven person and I've learned to succeed. There are sometimes you just have to go with the flow. I learned that I needed to accept some things as they are, and let go."

She is inspired by the women and children she has documented. "What I love about Oshyn, for example, is that she really values education. She really wants a career for herself and choices for her son. I could really identify with her because of those dreams, and I know that she will succeed."

My mum tells me she wonders how modern teen mums cope. "I wonder, in this day and age, why they've gone ahead and had a baby?"

Why did she? "I couldn't imagine not holding you in my arms."

On screen, Oshyn holds out her arms. It's Devante's first day of school. "Come on, my baby ... "

Florence, 17

Florence became pregnant with her son Siosifa when she was 14.

My granddad found out through my mum. He asked me why I didn't tell him. 'Cause they didn't find out until I was four months. My granddad wasn't really happy with it. He gave us this quote. It's in Tongan. It's like, 'You have a cup of wine and once you spill it, you can't gather it back up.' And he says that's what happened with me. I've spilled my cup of wine and I can't gather it back up.

Dayna, 18

Dayna became pregnant with her daughter, Avanna, when she was 15. Her mum, Ange, was also a young mum.

I was involved with a really bad crowd. I dropped out of school. Ran away. And then found out I was pregnant. We were struggling a lot.

We never had any money. We were sharing rooms. There was never any food in the house. It was a really horrible situation and it scared me a lot because I couldn't see myself getting out of it any time soon. It made me think twice about the people I hang out with and who I'd want around my baby. Because the people I had around myself weren't nice at all. That was definitely not the right environment to bring a baby into.

Oshyn, 23

Oshyn became pregnant with her son Devante when she was 16.

Education is very important to me. I want Devante to enjoy learning. A lot of people have noticed that he's quite an intelligent child. I want to provide him with as much as I can to help nurture it. I want him to think, "Learning's cool and learning's fun." When I grew up education wasn't a big thing in my family. It was more, you know, "Work, work, work." And then, if you didn't make it into work then you kind of had the benefit as a back-up. And I don't want that as an option for him.