• Falling pregnant in your teen years may not be what a person plans to do but it doesn’t make them a bad person or an irresponsible mother. (iStockphoto)
Are teenage girls really having kids just to claim the dole? SBS looks at the circumstances behind Australia’s controversial teen pregnancies.
By
Yasmin Noone

26 Sep 2019 - 9:02 AM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2019 - 9:41 AM

When 19-year-old, Kahlia, found out she was pregnant, she cried tears of fear.

“This baby is coming whether I like it or not,” says Kahlia in the new series of Struggle Street on SBS. “And that’s very scary.”

When viewers first meet Kahlia in Struggle Street series three, the teen is five months pregnant. She’s living with friend and mother figure, Katherine, in a public housing property in Tolland, a suburb located in the city of Wagga Wagga.

We learn that Kahlia grew up in an unstable environment. From an early age, she was bounced between family members and without a stable home she fell in with the wrong crowd.

Up until she fell pregnant, Kahlia was also an ice user. “There’s just some choices you have to make in life,” says Kahlia.

“[For me], it was either drugs or a baby. And I chose my baby.”

The link between teen mums and social disadvantage

Teen pregnancies and social disadvantage are not uncommon characteristics for young women living on struggle street throughout Australia. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, less than three per cent of all mothers in Australia were under 20-years-old in 2015. These teen mums were also nine times as likely to live in the lowest socioeconomic (SES) areas compared to the highest SES areas of Australia.

Jo Ridgeway, Bump program manager at Raise, a support organisation for young mothers, explains that before most teens fall pregnant, they already lack support and are disengaged from their schools, families and communities.

“They might live in a location where there’s more crime, higher poverty rates and increased rates of abuse and neglect,” says Ridgeway. “These teens may be living in a single parent household and sometimes parenting early in life is inter-generational. Other reasons include family violence or intimate partner violence.”

Ridgeway adds that some teens with low-self esteem may plan to have a baby. “They are looking for love and think they can get that from a baby.”

Having a baby when you’re a teenager is not an easy option

However, Ridgeway stresses, most young women do not make a conscious decision to have a baby as a way to get money from the government. “Having a baby when you’re a teenager is not an easy option,” says Ridgeway. “The reality is that the dole won’t cover your expenses when you have a baby. We also know teen mums may struggle and be at a further disadvantage than mothers who are older, on average.”

The impact of a ‘teen mum’ social stigma

Just like Kahlia, Michelle Polidano was a teenager living in a small country town when she fell pregnant over 14 years ago. Polindano explains that although she wasn’t socially disadvantaged when she first fell pregnant, she suffered a lot of judgement that in turn impacted her mental health.

“At the time I had my daughter, the baby bonus was also around,” the 30-year-old from Victoria reflects. “That was a very hard time to become a younger parent, as there was a real stigma attached to being a teen who’s having a baby.

“People believed that teenagers were only getting pregnant to get money from the government. But that wasn’t the case for me. When I found out I was pregnant, I was in shock. Getting pregnant at 16-years-old wasn’t part of the plan.”

"When I found out I was pregnant, I was in shock. Getting pregnant at 16-years-old wasn’t part of the plan”

Polidano tells SBS she’s grateful that she had a supportive partner who stayed by her side, left school and worked full-time to support her and the baby. But becoming a mum at age 16, living out of home and existing on minimum wage wasn’t easy. Polidano says she had to go on government benefits and struggled financially, living week-to-week.

“I remember standing in the queue at Centrelink and hearing sniggers about me having a baby [to get] money from the government. It made me feel highly embarrassed.”

As Polindano’s pregnancy progressed, she became more socially isolated, cut off from her teen friends and distanced herself from her family. As a result, her mental health declined.

“If you’re in your 20s when you have a baby, you have a lot more mental capacity and knowledge about where you can go and who you can talk to for help.

“But having a baby at age 16 is hard. You haven’t found yourself yet. You don’t know what you are doing. You can’t drive and you’re often removed from your friends and family.”

"You haven’t found yourself yet. You don’t know what you are doing. You can’t drive and you’re often removed from your friends and family”

Polidano now works with teen mums as a program counsellor at Raise. She says no matter the circumstances, most teen pregnancies are hard. That’s why Polidano acknowledges the need for parents of all ages to stop judging and start supporting each other.

“Falling pregnant in your teen years may not be what a person plans to do but it doesn’t make them a bad person or an irresponsible mother,” explains Polidano. “It’s just the way things have happened. And I don’t think government assistance has anything to do with it.

“Nine times out of 10, the teen mum may be doing it tough but she is doing the best she can. What ever happened to empowering and supporting people who are struggling?”

Season 3 of Struggle Street premieres Wednesday 9 October at 8.30pm on SBS. The four-part documentary series continues weekly on Wednesdays. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

These videos were produced in partnership with SBS and the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, Social Policy Research Centre, and Charles Sturt University.

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