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Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager

Narratives from the Field(s)

Edited By Annelies Kamp and Majella McSharry

In 2003, Wendy Luttrell posed an important question: what might result if we were able to turn questions of judgement about pregnant and parenting teenagers into questions of interest about their sense of self and identity-making? This book takes up the challenge, offering a re/assemblage of what is, can be and perhaps should be known about teenage pregnancy and parenting in the context of the twenty-first century. The collection presents original contributions from leading commentators in four key contexts: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, all sites of elevated incidence of and/or concern around what is commonly articulated as the «problem» of teenage pregnancy and parenting. In offering a multi-disciplinary reading of the narratives of young men and women, this volume engages with the ambiguity shared by all of us in confronting the life transition that is pregnancy and parenting.

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11: What If Becoming a Teenage Parent Saved Your Life? (Jenny Hindin Miller)

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11 What If Becoming a Teenage Parent Saved Your Life?


In this chapter, I gather a number of narratives – my own, and those of young parents – to speak to the formation, operation and impact of a Teen Parent Unit in Aotearoa New Zealand. Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College evolved from small beginnings, a ‘gathering’ of young parenting women seeking support in re-engaging with and completing their school qualifications, and educators seeking to offer that support. The chapter traces the unique narratives of Faith, Andy, Kate and Tatiana and the voices of other students: their beginnings, aspirations and achievements and the re/assemblage of their lives and priorities. Woven within these narratives is the progressive assemblage of the College itself in buildings, people, belonging, Memoranda of Agreement, drivers, funding, media, policy and so on. The chapter portrays the centrality in Aotearoa New Zealand of a nurturing, holistic whānau-based culture and practice in creating a context where teenage pregnancy can, indeed, save a life.


A former secondary school teacher and probation officer, and a mother of two children, I worked from 1994 to 2008 with teenage parents and their children in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the 1990s I helped to set up Karanga Mai1 Young Parents’ College, the second of New Zealand’s schools for teenage parents; I directed the College until the end of 2008. Subsequently, my doctoral research explored the longer-term influence of the College on the lives of ten former students (Hindin-Miller 2012). That study drew ← 243 | 244 → on participants’ narrative accounts and became a wider story of the (re)construction or re-assemblage of the young women’s identities as learners, as mothers and as young women. The dominant negative construction of teenage parenthood in New Zealand provided a context for my research, as it did for my work at the College. Political, historical, economic, cultural and racial factors, which privilege white, middle-class, neoliberal norms, inform this negative construction (Daguerre & Nativel 2006). Because teenage parenthood is ‘out of time’ with normative life trajectories, it is constructed as an unacceptable path to adulthood, a form of social deviance with negative implications of state dependence, ‘unfit’ parenthood and social exclusion (Bullen, Kenway & Hey 2000). Quantitative health-based research (Dickson, Sporle, Rimene & Paul 2000; Fergusson & Woodward 2000; Woodward, Fergusson & Horwood 2001; Woodward, Friesen, Horwood & Fergusson 2009) has also contributed to this deficit discourse by ‘pathologizing’ teenage parenthood. Poor outcomes for teenage parents and their children are seen as the consequence of parental youth rather than of socio-economic deprivation. This is contested by more recent research (SmithBattle 2006; Wilson & Huntington 2006). Within this wider context, all but one of the young women whose narratives are shared in this chapter had experienced school exclusion. Most had already left, or been asked to leave school, and had few if any qualifications. Several left school on becoming pregnant or were redirected to the College by school principals or teachers. Teenage parenthood and engagement in education were life-changing turning points for the young women, which supported the re/assembling of more positive identities than those prescribed by the many constraining contexts of their lives. These re/assemblages contest dominant constructions of the negative impacts of teenage pregnancy on young women and their children.

This chapter tells a series of stories: stories of several young women who became mothers in their teens; stories of their decisions to return to school to gain qualifications so that they could provide ‘a better life for their children’; the story of Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College which they attended; stories of their achievements at and after leaving the College; and the story of the College’s role in helping them to re/assemble their lives and achieve their aspirations. ← 244 | 245 →

Faith’s story2

Faith was the second oldest of thirteen children. In her own words:

My parents had unusual religious beliefs and chose to shield us from any outside influences that might lead us astray from their religious teachings. Therefore, growing up, we never watched television or read newspapers, and we had very minimal contact with the outside world.

My siblings and I never attended kindergarten or school and never went to the doctor. Excursions outside our home were heavily supervised. We did not even attend church. We had no friends or contact with extended family. The full extent of our education was limited to reading, writing, addition and subtraction.

All aspects of my childhood were controlled [...] We were subjected to abuse – so much so, that it led to a significant jail sentence for my father. I escaped home at fifteen, barely knowing how to cross a road properly. Not long after this, my younger siblings were removed by Child, Youth and Family3 and put into the care of a family member whom they had not previously met. At fifteen, I was enrolled in a course to assist young women in gaining life skills. It was about that time that I began renting my own one-bedroom unit and began my first relationship.

A few months later, at just sixteen, I discovered I was pregnant. I remember standing in the bathroom, staring at the pregnancy test. It felt like I was holding two bus tickets and had to decide which way to go. I could adopt out my child or work hard and give the best I possibly could to my baby. I chose the second path even though the fear of continuing my childhood cycle was very real. I knew I had to raise my son in the opposite way to how I was raised […]

Not surprisingly, my young relationship did not last, and I found myself giving birth to my baby at sixteen, alone, gratefully holding a nurse’s hand. After three days in hospital, my new baby Andre and I bussed home to our own little flat. Unable to attend my life skills course, and now with even more of a sense of urgency to improve ← 245 | 246 → my education, I enrolled at Te Kura, the Correspondence School.4 I sat on the floor of my one-bedroom flat and studied every time little Andre was asleep. This continued until I learned about another school, Karanga Mai, a school for teen parents. (Jeremiah 2016)

Karanga Mai is where I first met Faith. Unused to classroom environments and to spending time with her peers, Faith found it difficult adjusting to life at the College. For several months she could only sit for short periods at a school desk and I would look up to see her wandering outside, alone and lost. Faith recalled, ‘At Karanga Mai I learned social skills. I learned how to learn. I even learned how to catch a ball […] it has taken a lot of hard work, dedication and support for me to catch up socially and academically’.

After more than three years of determined effort and the committed support of her teachers, Faith left the College ‘with a heavy heart, but great anticipation for the future’. She had been awarded a scholarship to attend Canterbury University. Faith has since had a second child; she has also completed her Bachelor of Commerce and her Honours degree, studying part-time. A top student in her Honours year, Faith began the final stage of her long-term academic goal – a PhD in business management – which she achieved in 2016. As a busy parent of two children, she had developed the discipline to study for forty hours per week, and had come far from the young mother and learner who had difficulty sitting at a desk all day.

Rather than ‘ruining her life’, Faith’s teenage pregnancy and parenthood can be understood as turning points in her life, leading to her engagement with education and a personal commitment to learning. In her quest to be a good mother, Faith enrolled at Karanga Mai. The support she experienced encouraged her aspirations for a positive future and helped to set her on a pathway of exceptional academic achievement, which may not otherwise have been realized.

Teenage parenthood is a reality for many young women such as Faith; between 3,500 and 4,000 teenage women give birth in New Zealand each year (Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit 2015). This reality ← 246 | 247 → challenges our communities to respond in constructive rather than negative ways. In this neoliberal, post-feminist age which values full-time employment, education qualifications and the autonomy of the individual, young parents are vilified as irresponsible and unfit parents who are a burden on the state. A more constructive response is the life-affirming approach of supporting young parents and their children. Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College was an endeavour to provide such support.

A short history of Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College

In the mid-1990s I was employed by a Community Trust5 as a teen parent support worker for twenty-five young mothers and their children. As a result of extensive community-based research, the Trust had identified teenage parents in their community as a significant and marginalized group which needed support. Funding was provided by the Lotteries Commission, Community Organisations Grants Scheme (COGS), Canterbury Community Trust and multiple other sources. This was reviewed annually and was not reliable in the longer term.

The College itself had modest beginnings. Two of my young clients, who had previously dropped out of school, wanted to study for secondary school qualifications to improve their chances of finding employment. They had received their first School Certificate English booklets6 from the Correspondence School, and asked for my help with their assignments. Excited to be teaching again after fifteen years away from the classroom, I organized a weekly study group in my office, and we set to work.

My students’ enthusiasm encouraged me to extend the group to include other young parents who were interested in resuming their schooling; the Community Trust which employed me rented a local church hall for our ← 247 | 248 → weekly study group. We studied at wooden trestles, the young women’s babies and toddlers playing around our feet. The following year, our study group moved into a Community Centre. Plunket7 was conveniently located just down the hall. I started collecting the young mothers and their children in a community-owned van; two volunteers helped with the children while we studied.

Early in 1997, the Trust secured funding for three years from the Crime Prevention Unit (CPU).8 CPU’s brief was to ‘address the needs of youth at risk’ (Rivers, O’Regan & Lynch 1997); teenage parents and their children were regarded as youth at risk. Viewing education as a way of successfully addressing the needs of teenage parents, CPU selected our study group as one of four ‘demonstration projects’ across New Zealand to receive funding. With the support of this funding, the year ended with a successful prize-giving ceremony, attended by local dignitaries, the media, family and friends, to celebrate the young women’s academic achievements in their Correspondence School courses.

The chairman of the Community Trust was also the local high school counsellor and, as a result of her lobbying, Kaiapoi High School decided to support our educational initiative and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Trust to this effect in 1998. Our formal relationship with the Ministry of Education had commenced, and this secured some meagre funding for our young parents as adult students, enrolled at a secondary school. The Trust was now able to employ a driver, a second support worker and two childcare assistants to help with the study group. Each new development was enthusiastically covered by the supportive editor of the small local newspaper,9 and we began to receive offers of help, including volunteer literacy tutoring, and funding assistance from ZONTA and Soroptomist10 (North Canterbury News 1998). ← 248 | 249 →

The next significant development occurred when, as a result of the Trust’s active lobbying, the Waimakariri District Council decided to donate an unused building for our use as a childcare facility. Our study group, which now comprised eighteen young parents and their children, had greatly outgrown the ‘shoe-box’ facilities of the Community Centre. Kaiapoi High School agreed to locate the Council building on unoccupied land, away from other classrooms at the school’s rear entrance (Stewart 1999). I had been reluctant to relocate to the high school because of the young women’s negative school experiences, but they were overwhelmingly supportive about the move. There were, however, mixed responses from the wider community. Many were supportive, but some saw the location of an early-childhood centre on high school grounds as an ‘incentive’ to teenagers to become parents by normalizing teenage parenthood.

CPU funding enabled us to set up our early-childhood centre, which was officially opened with a dawn blessing by our high school’s kaumātua11 in 1999. The children moved into their new premises and our study group used the audio-visual theatre at Kaiapoi High School as a classroom on three mornings a week. My teaching work with the young parents was now supported by the voluntary assistance of my mother and the school counsellor/chair of the Community Trust.12 In 1999 the Council contributed further funds towards the purchase of a much-needed portable classroom, which was attached to the early-childhood centre by a covered veranda. We now had our own study space. During this year a fully qualified early-childhood teacher was employed to oversee the licensing of the centre. This milestone (the first licensed early-childhood centre attached to a teen parent school in New Zealand) was achieved in 2000; other qualified early-childhood teachers were employed and my teaching ranks were swelled by two more part-time teachers. With careful management of funds, we purchased a second-hand van to assist with our ever-increasing transport requirements.

During these years supportive working relationships were built with other small teen parent schools which were springing up around New ← 249 | 250 → Zealand. Strenuous negotiations with the Ministry of Education followed and a series of annual school meetings was established. This provided an excellent networking forum for the schools, and a professional association, the Association of Teen Parent Educators of New Zealand (ATPENZ), was formed in 2002. A member of its first executive body, I hosted our inaugural national conference. ATPENZ provided a unified and successful voice for funding negotiations with the Ministry, which finally produced a Circular (2004) with policy and funding guidelines to regularize our diverse teen parent initiatives, now referred to as Teen Parent Units.

Karanga Mai’s next success came with the intervention of our local Member of Parliament, who succeeded in securing Ministry funding for a new, well-resourced classroom block. This would not only accommodate our growing student numbers but also our staff, which now included two part-time support workers, six part-time teachers – selected for their diverse subject strengths – two drivers and an administrative assistant (in addition to our seven early-childhood teachers). At the start of 2005 we moved into our purpose-built premises, attached to our existing portable classroom, which had been remodelled as a kitchen and second classroom.

Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College had become a five-day-a-week school and support service for teenage parents, with an attached and licensed early-childhood centre for their children (Kaiapoi Leader 2001). In accordance with Ministry policy, the young parents were enrolled as students of Kaiapoi High School, and the College became an attached unit of the high school. An example of a grass-roots initiative, we had evolved in response to the needs of our young parents and their children. We had been supported by diverse community and government agencies and organizations and by a number of interested individuals because we were seen to be working in a successful and constructive way with this marginalized group of young people. This perception reflected the prevailing view of education as the panacea of social and economic disadvantage (Save the Children 2004; SmithBattle 2006). Over the years, we were visited by Members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister13 and Ministers ← 250 | 251 → of Education and Finance, the Children’s Commission, various media (North Canterbury News 2003; Northern Outlook 2002, 2007, 2008; The Press 1998, 2001, 2003; The Star 2006), other Teen Parent Unit teachers, Ministry of Education and local government officials, international guests and numerous other visitors keen to see what we were doing. We felt like a ‘show-piece’ and were proud and enthusiastic to share manaakitanga14 with our guests.

Recognizing and responding to students’ needs15

Our school roll had been set at thirty students in 2004, and our early-childhood centre was licensed for twenty-five children. The cultural identities of our students comprised a predominance of Pākehā16 and between one quarter and one third Māori. Small numbers of young women of Pacific ethnicity also attended. The College and early-childhood centre were physically connected in a ‘U’ shaped arrangement of three buildings. This enabled the young women to see and hear their children playing in the playground. It also supported them to interact during the school day, for breastfeeding, the settling of babies, consultation with the early-childhood teachers and daily shared lunches. In my time as Director, we had also had seven young fathers as enrolled students, but many more fathers visited the College and early-childhood centre, and some participated in aspects of the daily programme, such as feeding their children at lunchtime or going on outings.

Two drivers transported the young parents and their children to and from school each day. Two social support workers (one female and one male) were available to support the young parents with issues related to ← 251 | 252 → the abuse of drugs and alcohol, parenting, relationships, budgeting, accommodation, legal advice and advocacy with a range of agencies. A number of services provided outreach at the College – including Plunket, Work and Income17 – and specialized counselling. Healthy food was provided, with morning teas catered by the high school canteen and weekly shared lunches prepared by the young women themselves. Dental services and free health checks were provided on occasion, and while the young parents initially had weekly access to the health clinic at Kaiapoi High School, today the College employs its own nurse for two days a week.

In line with other alternative education centres, the College operated a teacher to student ratio of 1:10. Each student had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) which articulated goals and career aspirations. Courses of study covered the full range of secondary as well as some tertiary-level programmes and drew upon distance learning options and group programmes taught at the College and, occasionally, at Kaiapoi High School. The young parents were encouraged to achieve the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at Levels 1 and 2 (the government target for secondary school student achievement) and many also achieved NCEA Level 3. The students were enrolled for at least two or three years in order to achieve these certificates. Seven part-time teachers, with a range of subject strengths in maths, English, science, computing, commerce and the humanities, were employed.

In addition to the academic programme which was studied individually and in small groups, the College offered creative and performing arts, health, sports and fitness, tikanga Māori,18 parenting, cooking and crafts. There were regular activities and outings with the children, at which family members were welcome. Guest speakers addressed a range of subjects including sexual health, budgeting, relationships, careers advice and parenting. Individual students were supported to sit their Driver’s Licence, to complete First Aid Certificates and to undertake structured work experience. There was an annual Reading Challenge to encourage parents to read to their children, and a Smoke-Free Challenge for those young mothers ← 252 | 253 → who wanted to quit smoking. Student representatives were involved in the selection and employment of new members of staff and the hosting of visitors to the College. The young women also participated with enthusiasm in College planning processes.

In understanding and responding to the ‘thick’ (Lesko 1995) or holistic needs of its students as parents, as learners and as young women, the College assisted students to successfully re-engage with education. Its comprehensive response was supported by international research which has found that educational initiatives for teenage parents are most effective when multiple services such as transport and childcare are provided (Amin, Browne, Ahmed & Sato 2006; Hosie 2002; Lesko 1995). Within the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, the holistic and all-encompassing approach to education and support at the College was exemplified in the Whare Tapa Wha model (Durie 1998). This uniquely Māori model uses the four walls of the tupuna whare or ancestral house as a metaphor for holistic human development. Each wall – spirit/wairua, body/tinana, mind and emotion/hinengaro and family/whānau – is interdependent. Durie (1998) argues that the balanced development of each component or ‘wall’ is required for health and well-being: the Māori concept of waiora/personal well-being and whānau ora/well-being of the whānau.

Holistic whānau-based culture and practices were an integral part of Karanga Mai’s distinctive identity. Built on the acknowledgement of the young women’s multiple needs, the College provided practical, emotional, familial and spiritual support and nurturing. A unique example of this was the integration of spirituality – an essential component of taha Māori – into the cultural practices of the College and early-childhood centre. Karakia/prayers were used as a natural part of daily routines, affirming the cultural identities of the Māori young women and their children and acknowledging the bi-cultural roots of the College (Macfarlane, Glynn, Waiariki, Penetito & Bateman 2008). This practice is in marked contrast to the secular culture of New Zealand state secondary schools. The sense of well-being and belonging that this holistic approach created in the young women and their children is revealed in their narratives concerning the College community; it is to these narratives that the chapter now turns. ← 253 | 254 →

Assembling lives

I would now like to introduce the reader to three young women – Andy, Kate and Tatiana19 – whom I met and worked with at Karanga Mai. These young women were participants in my doctoral research concerning the lives of ten former students of the College. Their stories reveal markedly varied but consistent accounts of childhood challenges, alienating school experiences and early school leaving, substance abuse and mental health problems, lack of hope for the future and ‘early’ pregnancies and motherhood.

Andy’s story

Andy recounted a lonely childhood, marked by severe economic privation and social isolation. Her father was in prison for much of her childhood, and her mother was deeply stressed and emotionally unavailable. Her much older siblings, both of whom also became mothers in their teens, were difficult and demanding of their mother’s attention. Social agencies were involved with the family over long periods. As a child, Andy felt self-conscious about being different from other children because of her family’s poverty and her father’s incarceration. Although sensing that she was bright and capable, Andy’s confidence was eroded at intermediate school20 and she became an angry and resistant student. By secondary school, she had stopped trying for fear of failure. A frequent truant, she was finally stood down from school for a serious incident of classroom violence. At fifteen, Andy was unemployed, drinking heavily and suffering bouts of depression. At sixteen, she was pregnant. When she told her boyfriend of her pregnancy, he rejected her, threatening to kill her if he came across her in the street.

When Andy’s first-born child was a year old, she was encouraged by a Plunket worker to enrol at the College. In her first months of attendance ← 254 | 255 → Andy was volatile and resistant. Her teachers worked extremely hard to engage her academically and socially. For months she angrily refused to participate in the school curriculum. Other students found Andy unapproachable; she was slow to make friends. At last, when her teachers had almost given up hope of winning her confidence, her maths teacher coaxed her into tackling a few simple ‘unit standards’21 which she achieved easily. This was Andy’s first taste of academic success since early primary school; it started her on a journey of personal and academic growth that was to have surprising results for her and her teachers.

Kate’s story

Kate came from a supportive professional family. However, she recalled school as a negative experience because of her learning difficulties, which were neither recognized nor well supported by her state primary school. Kate became identified as a failing student who, despite her best efforts, felt that ‘nothing I do is ever good enough’. By the time she started secondary school, Kate had ‘given up’ on her education. She started drinking heavily, developing a ‘successful’ counter identity within her peer group. She also started using drugs, and in order to fund her increasing dependence, Kate began selling drugs while still at school. Despite these challenges, she received ongoing support and encouragement from her parents and managed to achieve NCEA Level 1 before leaving school. With few hopes and aspirations, Kate felt like a failure within the culture of her successful and high-achieving family. Involved in a violent relationship, Kate experienced increasingly severe mental health challenges. At sixteen, she became pregnant.

It was Kate’s mother who persuaded her to attend Karanga Mai. When she started at the College, she was a quietly spoken, nervous and very young-looking pregnant teenager. She came with a file of diagnostic testing which ← 255 | 256 → identified her learning difficulties, and the teachers were apprehensive that their lack of specialized training would make it hard to meet Kate’s learning needs. Soon after starting, Kate had her baby prematurely, and within a few weeks she returned to the College with her tiny daughter. For a year, Kate found it difficult to engage in schoolwork because of her ongoing marijuana dependence. However, with support from the College counsellor, Kate finally became drug-free. She was now emotionally and intellectually ready to engage in academic work, under the close tutelage of her teachers.

Tatiana’s story

Tatiana described her family circumstances as marked by parental conflict and alcohol abuse. Her parents separated when she was twelve, and she and her older sister remained with their mother – an alcoholic and multiple drug user – who encouraged her young daughters to drink with her, to keep her company. Tatiana described herself as a child alcoholic. When reflecting on her mother’s behaviour, she said: ‘I believe it was cos she was pregnant so young (at fourteen) and never had her teenage-hood. She was like a kid, like a fifteen-year-old herself when we were teenagers. She was just like one of us’.

Tatiana’s mother committed suicide when Tatiana was thirteen. Although Tatiana was the second daughter, she felt responsible for maintaining some semblance of order in her chaotic family while her sister and her father ‘lost it, pretty much’. She took charge of the household, effectively parenting her five-year-old brother. Within this context, Tatiana ‘just couldn’t be bothered with high school’. Leaving school in her third year with several NCEA unit standards, she found a job at a café. The following year she met her long-term partner and became a mother as an older teen. Pregnancy and parenthood prompted Tatiana to re-evaluate her life and she decided to return to school when her baby was six weeks old, to complete an initial qualification and prepare herself for a career.

Tatiana was already nineteen when she enrolled at the College. Spending most of her first weeks in the early-childhood centre with her little son, the classroom teachers seldom saw her until she was ready to ← 256 | 257 → leave her child in the centre’s care. Socially outgoing and straight-forward, Tatiana easily made friends. Like Kate and Andy, Tatiana was guarded with her classroom teachers in those early days at the College, bringing with her some challenging behaviours and attitudes acquired from her previous negative experiences of schooling. Describing herself as ‘crap’ at school, she had ‘hated all [her] teachers apart from one’. Stubbornly independent and non-compliant, Tatiana required much ‘wooing’ and persuasion before she would agree to the simple requirements of College enrolment such as participating in sports and other non-academic activities; she initially deemed these activities a waste of her time. Although Tatiana was motivated to succeed and manifested a strong will and determination, she continued to struggle with academic work throughout her two years at the College.

‘It was the one place where I felt I was OK’

Each of these young women had decided to return to education by way of the holistic provision offered at Karanga Mai Young Parents’ College: Andy because she was bored and lonely; Kate to keep her parents ‘off her back’; and Tatiana to provide the ‘best future’ for her son. Initially, each struggled to adjust to ‘school’ because of her previous negative experiences and her own coping mechanisms: Andy’s fear of failure; Tatiana’s issues with control; and Kate’s learning difficulties and addiction to marijuana. Each was reluctant to engage in schoolwork, having to be coaxed and gradually won over by teachers who appreciated the level of patience and support that would be required to allow a re/assembling with educational endeavours.

Kate said:

When I first started I thought it would be, ‘Poor little thing!’ but everyone there, it was the one place where I felt I was OK, I was just like everyone else, it was like a wee bubble […] The childcare staff just loved our children, they were great! It’s hard as a young parent doing activities on your own and getting negative looks and comments from other people. At the College you didn’t feel like you were abnormal. You didn’t feel self-conscious. The group made you feel awesome. The teachers really cared ← 257 | 258 → about what I was doing and they wanted me to really do well, we were partners […] When I came to the College, my plans changed. The supermarket wasn’t an option any more, there were bigger and better things to do! People liked me, they liked me for me! And they loved my daughter!


I don’t know what I had pictured it to be like. I didn’t expect that level of support to come from teachers. I didn’t think they’d care so much. You could see and feel that genuine love. That was overwhelming, like ‘Wow!’ It felt so special, it felt nice to have adults who cared about me in that way. If we didn’t have those relationships with the teachers and if we didn’t feel accepted, it was our feelings of self-worth, none of us were going to achieve anything unless we sorted that out first […] We were all safe, we were all secure in our place there. There was such a strong sense of well-being, it was just like a second home.

And Tatiana:

I spent most of my early days in the childcare, cos Matias was so young – he was six weeks when I started and I didn’t really go into the classroom until he was twelve weeks old. So, yeah, I got to know all the childcare teachers first before I got to know everybody else. In the childcare, that was my grounding place. That’s what I was studying (early-childhood care and education) and that’s where Matias was and that’s where I felt most comfortable like, from Day One […] We were all teenage parents, so at school it was like a safe haven. There was no-one looking down on you because that’s what we were. Cos no-one was any different from any other ones. I felt real comfortable there.

Over time, each of these young women was supported to experience for the first time the empowering rewards of academic success and, in the case of Andy and Kate, to re/assemble their identities as academically able and competent learners. The College also supported the young women to be responsive and caring mothers as well as confident and well-rounded young women with aspirations for ‘successful’ futures for themselves and their children.

Andy attended the College for three-and-a-half years, achieved NCEA Levels 1 and 2 and her Driver’s Licence and started a tertiary-level diploma. She was awarded a prestigious scholarship to complete her tertiary studies. Despite her initial reluctance, Andy joined in other cultural activities ← 258 | 259 → at the College, singing in the choir and playing sports. She had learned through her experience of success to better manage her periods of angry self-doubt. Andy had become more outgoing, and was a committed and responsible parent.

Kate, the ‘failed’ learner, also attended the College for more than three years, achieving NCEA Levels 2 and 3, her Driver’s Licence and the Award for Academic Excellence. Despite her shyness, she talked on behalf of the College to local groups, played netball and sang in the choir. During her time at the College, she had overcome her drug addictions. Whilst still quiet, Kate had blossomed into a socially assured young woman who was a committed and loving mother.

Tatiana spent two years at the College, achieving her NCEA Levels 1 and 2 and completing her Certificate in Early Childhood Education. She gained her Driver’s Licence and First Aid Certificate. She danced Hip Hop and sang in the choir. Awarded the early-childhood centre’s Awhina Award22 for her active participation in the centre, Tatiana was a devoted and capable mother, often assisting other young women with their children. Tatiana retained her independent spirit, but as we got to know her better, we came to understand her within the context of a life story of courage and extraordinary optimism in the face of personal struggle and tragedy.

Each of these young women made enduring friendships at the College. Each felt like she was ‘leaving home for the first time’ when she left the College to assemble a life, ‘out in the world’. Not all of the young women who attend Teen Parent Units in New Zealand achieve the academic success of Faith, Kate, Andy and – to a lesser extent – Tatiana. Not all students at any school achieve to their potential. However, we were continually surprised at the talents and abilities of the young parents with whom we worked. These abilities were able to find expression and flourish in the nurturing environment of the College with its many opportunities for personal, social and cultural growth and affirmation. ← 259 | 260 →

Assembling positive identities

The narratives of these young women demonstrate the ways in which their self and identity were assembled within the cultural contexts of their lives. These contexts included their families, schooling, ethnic and socio-economic groupings, as well as the discourses and structures of the wider dominant social context. Each of these contexts offered the young women narrative possibilities upon which they drew to story or assemble their own identities. These narrative possibilities had mostly constrained their opportunities and identities as learners, as young women and as mothers. However, identity-making is a fluid process (Bruner 2002; Burr 1995), strongly impacted by turning point experiences and changing contexts (Kehily 2007). For these young women, attendance at Karanga Mai was recounted as one such turning point.

As demonstrated in the narratives above, the College was effective in supporting the re/assembling of identities by immersing its students in a context offering positive narratives about who they could become as young women, as learners and as parents. It did this by challenging and transforming conventional school practices, which had mostly alienated and failed them as learners and as young people (te Riele 2007). In marked contrast to these conventional school practices, as described by the young women, the College offered them loving and affirming relationships with teachers and staff members, and with the other young women and their children (Macfarlane, Glynn, Cavanagh & Bateman 2007). This relationship-centred culture of whānaungatanga shares its ‘beating heart’23 with Māori culturally responsive pedagogies developed to enhance the achievements of Māori students alienated within the mono-cultural classrooms of conventional schools (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh & Teddy 2009; Macfarlane et al. 2007). These pedagogical practices have also been found to succeed with other alienated students, regardless of ethnicity, such as the teenage parents at the College (Bishop et al. 2009; Macfarlane et al. 2007). ← 260 | 261 →

Through the nurturing whānau environment of the College, alternative and empowering possibilities of school, family and community were presented which supported the students’ identities as valued young women. This loving and supportive culture was made more effective because the young women and children were members of the College community for an extended period (often for three or more years). Intensive long-term exposure served to normalize this culture for the young women and their children even though it was, in many cases, very different from the troubled contexts of their homes, relationships and communities, where negative discourses remained dominant. This is evident in their many descriptions of the College as a ‘second home’, ‘a home away from home’, and a ‘safe haven’.

It felt safe, it was so easy, you could go there every day and you’d know that it was always going to be the same. It was so normal, coming from a life where you never knew, you could get bashed up or something like that [...] it was very supportive. (Emma, research participant)

The College’s supportive whānau environment was of particular importance for the young women because they were parents and, in common with all new parents, they needed the enveloping support of a nurturing whānau to enable them to blossom and grow in this new identity and to experience the whānau ora or well-being that is provided by all effective models of whānau (Lawson-Te Aho 2010; Wilson & Huntington 2006).

The College also reconstructed negative social discourses about teenage parents as educational failures by offering hopeful discourses about teenage parents as educational successes. It achieved this by normalizing, affirming and celebrating the young women’s status as parents, and by supporting them to succeed academically within a context where all the students were parents and where academic success was a normal and much-celebrated part of the College culture. This enhanced the young women’s confidence and self-belief and their sense of future possibilities. In a New Zealand study of the imagined futures of young women attending Teen Parent Units, Patterson, Forbes, Peace and Campbell (2010: 17) concluded that these units provide ‘young mothers with the social context in which they can both assert a positive maternal identity and imagine futures in which their lives, and those of their children, can turn out well’. The ‘success’ narratives ← 261 | 262 → of the young women included in this chapter are examples of these positive imagined and realized futures.

‘Yoohoo – look at me!’

Andy is now in her late twenties, has completed her tertiary qualification and works full-time in IT. She is the first person in her family to have gained education qualifications at any level. She and the father of her second child are now married and have purchased their own home. When asked about the influence of the College on her life, she said it had made her aware of opportunities, shown her she could set and achieve goals and instilled in her a work ethic and an unexpected love of learning. It had increased her confidence and her self-belief.

I still go, ‘Wow! I did finish NCEA Level 1 and 2’ and it feels a bit surreal looking back on it, and getting the Scholarship. It feels so nice cos it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was achieving anything. At the time I would have been a bit humble but now I’m like, ‘Yoohoo! Look at me!’

Kate has now completed her degree and is working full-time as a health professional. She lives in a committed and loving relationship after a number of years as a single parent. After the Canterbury earthquakes,24 this quiet young woman visited all her elderly neighbours to see if they needed any help.

I feel good about who I am today – I’ve changed a lot but in a good way. I’m quite happy with my achievements. It’s good to have hard work rewarded and to be on the right track.

Tatiana has successfully established her own home-based business; she and her long-term partner, a qualified tradesman, have had a second child, ← 262 | 263 → who was planned. When asked about the influence of the College on her life, Tatiana said:

I wouldn’t have my own business, that’s for sure, and I wouldn’t be on a career path. I doubt I’d be doing anything really […] it was so much easier to do it through the College, there was so much support rather than trying to do it on my own.

Even Te Huia – selected as a research participant because in my view the College had failed in its attempts to support her to succeed to her potential – described the impact of the College as ‘life-saving’ because we had helped her to leave her violent partner.

When reflecting on their experience of the College, the young women talked about their growth in confidence, their less judgemental attitudes to others, the positive transformation of their learning identities and their understanding of the importance of education for their children. They talked about their increased opportunities and self-belief, and the impact of these on their life aspirations, their enhanced capacity to manage life challenges, the importance of the support and affirmation they had received as parents, the social benefits of friendships formed at the College and the social and educational benefits for their children.

Teenage motherhood: ‘It just changed my life completely’

The young women who participated in my doctoral research ranged in age from fourteen to nineteen years when they became pregnant. The three youngest women – Jade and Zena, who were fourteen, and Sam, who was fifteen – were still at school; Anahera, who was seventeen, was completing her final year of secondary school. All the other young women had already left, been asked to leave, or had ‘dropped out’ of school.

Andy and Kate were both sixteen when they became pregnant; Tatiana was nineteen. Kate and Tatiana were working in what they called ‘dead-end’ jobs; Andy was unemployed. Kate was an addicted drug user; Tatiana and Andy were drinking heavily. Tatiana was living in a positive and committed ← 263 | 264 → relationship with the father of her child; the other two were in abusive relationships, which terminated shortly after they became pregnant.

Despite the ‘shock’ of discovering they were pregnant, the experience of pregnancy for all of these young women marked a turning point in their lives and aspirations, prompting them to think about their own and their child’s future well-being and, in some cases, to consider a different style of life, a different assemblage. For several, these changes were literally ‘life-saving’: leaving the gang, stopping drug-use, even extricating themselves from violent relationships. For example, Kate said, ‘I knew I should use it to turn my life around. I knew I needed a change and I should just take it. I knew that if I went on, I’d end up a junkie with a junkie baby’. Emma said:

When I found out I was having Eli, I was more relieved than anything because I was in a really bad situation [...] I was excited. Before, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing the next year but I knew this was going to be something completely different. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t go back to that life now, I’ll have someone else to look after.’

These are examples of the ways in which many teenage women ‘reorganize their lives and priorities around the identities […] of mothering’ (SmithBattle 2006: 131).

One outcome of this reorganization of lives and priorities was the recognition by my young women participants that school qualifications would help them to provide a better life for their children. Renewed interest in schooling and education was a significant change for these young women who had all, to some extent, been school-averse and regular truants. Six of the ten had left school with few if any school qualifications, and most regarded themselves as ‘failed’ or failing learners. It had seemed that school was ‘not for them’. Pregnancy and parenthood was the first step in assembling a new identity as a ‘good’ and responsible parent who could counter dominant deficit discourses by making positive choices and returning to school (Zachry 2005; SmithBattle 2006). Jade observed:

I think that when you have children it changes you, who you are, because you’re thinking about what you’re going to do in the future so you kind of put your feelings aside about school and then you want to do something with your life so then you come back to school! ← 264 | 265 →

And Rachel said:

Yeah, I grew up real fast. I knew that I had to do something with my life. Before I had Ella I didn’t really have any goals in life but then, as soon as I had her, I knew it was time to change and then, given this opportunity [to return to school], it just changed who I am and my life completely.

When I asked Andy what she thought she would have been doing if she hadn’t become pregnant at sixteen she said, ‘I think I would have been a complete write off, I really would’ve been, because of the people that I knew and the things I did.’ And for Kate, her sense was that, ‘I’ve changed a lot but in a good way. I think what I’ve done is a lot better than what I would have done if I didn’t have my daughter! I think that would have been a tragedy!’

In closing the chapter, the final afterword draws on a conversation that took place between another of my participants – Zena – and her partner – Simon – about how their lives were transformed when they became parents in their early teens. This couple had begun their parenting journey at the age of fourteen and fifteen, and were still together after ten years. Zena had attended Karanga Mai for three years before leaving to work in the hospitality industry. Simon had run his own business since he was twenty and the couple was hard-working and focused on achieving their life goals.

SIMON: It focused me a lot. Before, I was just drifting around and not doing much, whatever I felt like doing at the time, but it focused me a lot. I wouldn’t change anything. By now, I could still be not doing anything.

ZENA: Yeah, well that’s what I feel too, cos I was really naughty and never home and drinking and doing stupid stuff, and I could still be doing that now.

SIMON: Yeah, people we know, who don’t have kids, are still doing that now and getting into mischief and stuff like that.

ZENA: You want to tell them to wake up. Yeah, you think more responsibly.

SIMON: You still have plenty of fun. I don’t think you miss out on too much.

ZENA: I just think being a young mum doesn’t stop you from doing what you want to do. Sometimes, being a young mum you can do more than if you weren’t a young mum! ← 265 | 266 →

All of these young parents see themselves as responsible and successful adults. They recount lives transformed by parenting in their teens, and by the connection they made with the College and its commitment to their education and well-being. The positive re/assemblage of lives and identities, revealed in their narratives, strongly refutes the findings of academic research that teenage parenting always, and of necessity, results in negative outcomes for teenage parents and their children. It constructs this experience as a potential opportunity rather than a problem, provided there is access to holistic whānau and educational support for both parent and child (Carville 2013). As the Māori whakatauki25 (Turia 2012) affirms:

Ka whangaia, ka tupu, ka puawai

That which is nurtured, blossoms and grows


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1 Karanga Mai is a Maori greeting in response to being called on to the meeting house.

2 Faith is this young woman’s real name. Her story has been taken from her doctoral thesis and is included here with her permission.

3 The New Zealand government agency responsible for the care and protection of children and youth.

4 The New Zealand school responsible for providing distance education from early-childhood level to Year 13.

5 Waimakariri Community Development Trust, now known as Wellbeing North Canterbury Community Trust.

6 The equivalent of the current Level 1 National Qualification, or GCSE in England.

7 A long-standing component of the New Zealand landscape, Plunket is a free health-based support service for new parents and their children.

8 Part of the Department of the Prime Minister who, at that time, was the national government’s Honourable Jenny Shipley.

9 The Kaiapoi Mail.

10 Professional and business women’s service organizations.

11 Māori elder.

12 Ministry of Education funding did not yet extend to the provision of paid teaching assistance.

13 This visit was reported in the Belfast Kaiapoi Times, 25 October 1999.

14 Māori term for the extending of hospitality to guests, a practice central to Māori culture.

15 ‘Thick [or multiple] needs’ as opposed to ‘thin needs’ such as those provided in short courses for teenage mothers (Lesko 1995).

16 New Zealanders of European descent.

17 New Zealand’s government agency responsible for provision of state-funded welfare.

18 Cultural practices.

19 Research pseudonyms chosen by the young women.

20 The New Zealand equivalent of Junior High School, for students in Years 7 and 8.

21 Unit standards are registered at one of the approved levels of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework. They are sometimes regarded as more easily achieved than the more widely used Achievement Standards.

22 Help and support.

23 Pumanawatanga.

24 A major earthquake hit Christchurch in February 2011, destroying the central city and devastating a number of suburbs. One hundred and eighty-five lives were lost in this quake.

25 Māori proverb.