Perceptions of the Teen Parent Unit
In the preceding chapter, the participants in my study discussed their experiences of
becoming a young mother, and the extent to which those experiences intersected with their developing sense of being a mother. They spoke about important life moments in their
transition to become ‘good mums’ which features in Chapter 7. In this chapter, I explore why the young mothers had enrolled in the Teen Parent Unit and the benefits they saw of that decision. The analysis of the data revealed two key themes: getting an education and finding meaningful relationships, the latter of which highlighted the importance of trust and love and genuine caring for the young mothers. I applied a thematic analytical approach to create a collective experience (Elliot, 2005) of how the culturally appropriate context of the programme influenced these young mothers.
As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Teen Parent Unit programme is guided by three important principles. These include it is everyone’s right to feel safe, everyone’s right to learn and everyone’s right to be treated with respect. These principles align with the model of culturally responsive pedagogy as outlined by Bishop et al. (2009). These principles encouraged an environment in which people who felt marginalised in previous learning environments were now given the opportunity to form caring and learning relationships with teachers, who appeared to be committed to these principles. The young mothers’ accounts of how they described to me their experiences of their time in the Teen Parent Unit are now shared.
What attracted you to the Teen Parent Unit?
Some of the young mothers in the study shared stories of difficulties they had experienced in traditional schools, from as early as primary school. The participants described learning difficulties, being put down and dised [sic] [disrespected] by peers and teachers, as well as being bullied. Some young mothers identified themselves as hopeless at school, so even the thought of returning to school was met with angst. However, it was the desire to be a ‘good mum’ that was the primary motivation for enrolling in the Teen Parent Unit. They saw educational opportunities as a way forward to a better future for themselves and their child. For some young mothers, the decision to enrol in the Teen Parent Unit was made soon after their pregnancies were confirmed, and was often suggested by others who had had contact with the young women.
When I was three months pregnant, my mum’s public health nurse introduced me to it.
Those participants, whose families were already receiving support services, were provided with referrals to the Teen Parent Unit as a ‘place to go’ for the pregnant adolescent. For others, the decision was given more thought, and often included the possibility of an
education and future employment and having some meaningful relationships with people who understood their situation. I now turn to explore the education options available to the young mothers.
Getting an education
I just wanted to get an education to get a job. I’m doing them [NCEA]7 at the moment here. Here, you can do little courses that you can get certificates for. Um, yeah, to catch up. It [the TPU] helps you with that.
The responsive environment of the Teen Parent Unit offered the young mothers the opportunity to set goals and attain qualifications. All of the participants spoke of how the programme was a good match with both their educational aspirations and the unique needs of a young mother.
One young mother, who had enrolled in the Teen Parent Unit during her pregnancy, had spoken about her intention of getting an education and making something of her life. She said:
I was about 12 weeks pregnant. I come here every day, but to me it’s worth it. So I’m getting an education, and to me that’s setting a good example for Mason [son]. ‘Cos he’ll know, even though mummy had to have time off to have a baby, you can still make something out of your life. Even if …, ‘cos you know that obviously Mason wasn’t planned, not at that age. I’ll still make something out of my life and I feel that I’m a good enough role model for him. I wanted that he’ll look up to me.
For others, it was a vehicle for change, and often one of the first steps in the transformation of the young mother’s life. One participant spoke of how she was struggling at the time she had become pregnant and had lost interest in school. She explained:
I was not attending any of my classes. I was not interested in school at the time. Not doing well at all. I was in Year 12 at the time. I did really well in Year 11. I got a Merit endorsement for NCEA Level 1. I did really well, but then I was just over school. I just couldn’t be bothered. Then I got pregnant and came to the TPU straight away. I left school and came straight here.
7 The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main national qualification for secondary
In this account, the young women shared her belief that her pregnancy and subsequent birth of her child, was a catalyst for change. Once a high-achieving student who ‘was over school’, the Teen Parent Unit offered her a second chance for educational attainment. While the young mothers attended the Teen Parent Unit, they developed a number of different relationships. These relationships were seen to be significant to their developing sense of their self as ‘a good mum’.
Finding meaningful relationships
The young mothers formed three main relationships at the Teen Parent Unit: 1) with other students, 2) with the Teen Parent Unit staff and 3) with the staff at the ECE centre that their children attended. The following excerpts demonstrate how the participants interpreted each of these relationships.
Relationships with other young mothers
All of the young mothers spoke of the mutual trust and friendship they had for one another during their time at the Teen Parent Unit. This camaraderie was expressed in many ways. One young mother stated:
They’re brilliant. It’s been really good for me having the girls here who are teen mums as well. It’s somewhere to go for parenting advice. Like I said to one of the girls just the other day, I said, “My boy is having tantrums, how do I deal with it?” And there were five or six girls here who gave me ideas who have older babies and they have me some ideas on how to deal with it. And good … ‘Cos it’s been from their experiences not just out of some textbooks. Yeah, it’s brilliant. They’re really supportive here and the teachers are amazing. They are really supportive with any issues you have.
For this young mother, the importance of learning from, and with the guidance of older and/or more experienced peers, allowed for a higher level of learning, and appeared to offer the young mother the opportunity to make meaning of her experiences. These relationships
had the features of a tuakana/teina relationship, whereby an older or more competent and confident tuakana assists and guides a younger, or less competent and less confident, teina. Such relationships are highly valued in the Māori culture (Pere, 1994). The Teen Parent Unit setting fostered the development of tuakana/teina relationships by providing an environment where learners had opportunities to learn with, and from each other.
It was through the context of relationships formed with others in the Teen Parent Unit that the young mother felt supported, and was able to develop the confidence and ability to express her ideas, and therefore be able to assist others. All of the participants had indicated that the relationships they had formed at the Teen Parent Unit were very important.
I asked the question: “What has the Teen Parent Unit given you?”
It’s given me everything. I have amazing friends. Support. I’ve made really good friends here.
This young mother expressed how the opportunity to attend the Teen Parent Unit had provided her with friendships and support. Earlier in her interview, she had alluded to how these had been missing in her life.
Another had a similar view:
Great. They are really supportive and help us get what we need.
What about the other teen mums? Um, they’re my besties, my friends.
The environment of the Teen Parent Unit provided this young mother with support, and the opportunity to develop friendships with peers who had similar experiences of being young mothers. The notion of sharing their experiences of being a young mother with others who
were similar to themselves provided the participants opportunities to see themselves as capable and confident, adding to their positive identity as mothers. The offers of advice, assistance and knowing that their experiences mattered enabled the young mothers to construct the story of ‘I am a good mum.’
Another aspect the young mothers mentioned was the enveloping support that they received through the relationships formed at the Teen Parent Unit. All of the young women told me about the support the Teen Parent Unit had provided throughout their pregnancies and/or after the birth of their children. One participant who had intermittent support from her family, had relied on the Teen Parent Unit at a crucial time – just after the birth of her child. At one part of the interview, we were discussing postnatal support and I queried, “Were you provided with follow-up care from the hospital?” The young mother shook her head and answered:
No, just from the Teen Parenting Unit up there. They were my main support.
She valued the support provided at the Teen Parent Unit, and appreciated the awareness of the staff and others to connect her and her child with community resources. This view was echoed by most of the young women in the study. The opportunity to engage in conversations with the staff and the other young mothers about relevant external agencies had given this young mother the ability to take responsibility for her mothering and enhance her decision- making. The ability to make one’s own decision is an act of agency, a concept that the young mothers in my study often demonstrated (and will be discussed in Chapter 7). It was through the affirming relationships provided at the Teen Parent Unit that the young mothers were able to share accounts when they resisted the dominant discourses, and ‘stood up’ for themselves and their child demonstrating that they were agentic and capable mothers. Furthermore, through the concerted efforts to establish strong bonds through a network of like-minded
peers and teachers who supported them, the young mothers were able to build up their resilience to call on when they faced adversity.
Relationships with Teen Parent Unit staff
Some of the young women described the relationship between themselves and the teacher of the Teen Parent Unit as an important one. Many young mothers indicated that the teacher of the Teen Parent Unit was the person they could go to, who provided support and who ‘really listened’ to what they had to say. This individual was named as ‘having their back’, and reinforced the young women’s ability to cope and be ‘good mums’. In the following exchange, a young mother talked about how her son was the reason for coming to the Teen Parent Unit, but then elaborated on what attending the Teen Parent Unit had given her.
I came here because of Cassidy.
And when you say ‘here’, is that the TPU? What has that given you?
It’s given me everything. Kathy [TPU teacher] is one of the biggest supports in my life outside of the TPU. She’s a major support in my life. I love her to bits and I’ve made really good friends here. And yeah, my life has definitely changed for the better.
In her role, the teacher of the Teen Parent Unit encouraged agency in the young mothers, such as supporting them to determine their own actions and make their own choices. The relationship that the young mothers had with the teacher at the Teen Parent Unit contributed to their confidence, capability and satisfaction as mothers. Evidence of this emerged during the interview when I had the opportunity to ask, “Whose opinion do you value the most in regard to your mothering ability?” One participant without hesitation identified Kathy. She explained:
168 Here in the TPU?
Yeah, I will listen to her. If she tells me to do something, I will do it. If anyone else tells me to do it, I’ll tell them to get… [expletive].
And why do you think you...?
Because she has been there for me since the day I got here. Anything she said, I’d do it. I’d jump for her. I would not jump for anyone else though.
What do you think Kathy would say about you as a mum? That I’m a good mum.
For this young mother, the strong bond she had with the teacher of the Teen Parent Unit was the glue that held things together when things ‘got rough’. The significance of the teacher being there for this young mother was evidence of strong feelings of attachment, and
contributed to her sense of self. The Teen Parent Unit teacher was viewed as a crucial support person to many of the young mothers, especially those who did not have the benefit of family support. The importance of the relationship between the teacher of the Teen Parent Unit and the young mother was identified by most of the participants.
Relationships with the ECE centre staff
I found that there was a strong bond between the child’s primary caregiver within the ECE centre and the child. The young mothers discussed the intimate relationship between their child and their primary caregiver at the ECE centre, and the importance of that relationship to the child’s mother.
To me it was just seeing how happy [child’s name] was spending time with her. I loved that. ‘Cos you know, she basically treated him as her own.
Just the fact that they love my boy. They have his best interest and they want him to develop and grow, just like I do.
For these young mothers, it was important that their children’s primary caregiver had formed a responsive, caring relationship with their children that demonstrated the respect and value they had for the children.
Another shared her perspective of the unique aspect of the primary caregiver relationship.
Because in a way Penelope [primary caregiver is her second mum when I’m not there. Yeah, it kinda takes a load off my mind that she is in a safe environment and someone actually cares and someone is looking after her well. But, yeah, just that I can sit here and do my work, and not think what is she up to this time. Or she’s got into trouble or she’s hurt herself and she’s down the corridor and I can pop in any time.
The primary caregiver relationship is one in which the child is seen as ‘being special’, and is based on the values of trust and respect.
One young mother described it from her child’s perspective.
My boy goes in and he knows Marina is there to look after him and he’s not looking or thinking, “Oh, who do I go to?” He turns to Marina when he needs help, which is really cool. He has that cool relationship.
In this excerpt, the young mother made reference to the sense of belonging that her son’s primary caregiver provided for him, which she interpreted as ‘really cool’. The primary caregivers’ or teachers’ willingness to consider the wellbeing of their children was mentioned by many of the young mothers in my study.
Another articulated her ideas of what is valued in the relationship between her child’s teacher and herself.
That we are both honest with one another and we understand that Kendall is my number one priority. Obviously she can’t watch her 24/7 ‘cos she has other kids too. She lets me know what she has done at school, at kindy.
For this young mother, the quality of honesty between herself and her child’s teacher was paramount. The ability to work cooperatively with those who share the responsibility of the learning and wellbeing of a child was important to the young mothers in my study. One shared her views on this:
It was good. Good communication and everything.
What were some of the things that made it work?
Just talking to each other. Like telling each other how he was getting on. And stuff like that. Yeah.
What do you value most about that relationship?
Just that she … I don’t know. That they keep the communication going. They asked me about him and talked to me about what he did and stuff at kindy.
This young mother valued the relationship between her son’s primary caregiver and herself and described the significance of communication. The fact that the teacher sought out the young mother to engage in discussions about her child’s learning and development mattered to the young mother.
Quality care for their child, honesty and good communication, were all aspects of a
responsive and reciprocal relationship between mother and professional. Some young women described the relationship that they had with their child’s teacher as something more,
something intense – a partnership. For example, one young mother described the relationship she had with her son’s primary caregiver as:
For her, the meaning of partnership included the concept of working together.
Another young mother commented that her relationship with her son’s primary caregiver was brilliant, and when asked if she believed she had a partnership with her child’s teacher she