16 years old, three children, no regrets

Don't tell Dawn Hendy that she's missing out on the best years of her life. She's perfectly happy looking after her family. Roger Dobson reports

Opposite the pub in Abercwmboi, outside one of the two-up, two-down, grey stone, terraced houses, a young couple with a pram are talking to neighbours.

"One of the newspapers has bought me up. I'm not allowed to say much," says the young girl, gently rocking the pram, which has two babies inside, both asleep wrapped in white outfits, one behind the other, tandem style.

One of a gaggle of local people standing in a semi-circle on the corner digs an elbow into her friend's midriff and giggles softly. "Mum's the word, see."

Dawn Hendy, sweet 16 and Britain's youngest mother of three, gives the pram a push over the kerbstone and walks off, hereldest daughter, Aleisha, following close behind. A passing van toots, someone shouts a greeting, people leaning or sitting in doorways that open straight on to the pavement watch as the family troops past. In Abercwmboi, where unemployment and long-term illness have taken over from mining as the main way of life, Dawn is something of a celebrity,

She wants it to be known, she tells the local radio reporter, that while she may be too young to drink in a pub and too young to drive, she is perfectly happy to have three children and has no regrets. Furthermore, she has identified distinct advantages in being a teenage mother. "It's easy in one way, as I see it, to have children when you're young. These people of 50 and 60 having children that you hear about, they are not going to be able to run around after their children, looking after them in the park. It would be quite hard work for them, wouldn't it," she says.

Nevertheless, she adds firmly, she has definitely completed her family. "No way, no more children for me. We've discussed that," she says of her partner of four years and father of all three daughters, Michael Carey.

The couple met when she was 12 and he was 16. It was, everyone now admits, love at first sight. Dawn had lost her parents at the age of nine and was brought up by a sister and elder brothers who were barely adults themselves. With this kind of background, it seemed almost inevitable that Dawn's own life was destined not to follow the norm. True to form, Aleisha was born when Dawn was 14, still at school and two years off GCSEs.

"One day the police came to the house," says Dawn, "and asked if I wanted to prosecute Michael because I was under age and he broke the rules, and I said I didn't because we are together, and are staying together. So it would be difficult to prosecute him, wouldn't it?"

She adds: "It was worrying to think that Michael could go to prison."

Neither the police nor the Pill prevented a further pregnancy, and Charmaine was born a year later. Twelve months on, and a few weeks before her 17th birthday, Dawn was back in hospital, having Yasmin, born 10 days ago.

None of the three pregnancies was planned and yet the relationship between Dawn and Michael appears to have blossomed.

Dawn has the confidence and maturity of a young mother of 20 or more as she pushes the pram down John Street. Michael, following behind, is a man of few words. He has been up most of the night looking after their eldest, who is teething.

Unemployed, he is supportive and was present at each of the births. "I think it's important to share a beautiful experience," was his verdict.

Some in Abercwmboi applaud Dawn and Mark. "At least she didn't do away with the babies, and she is not one of these single mums," says a woman sitting in her doorway to catch a last bit of the sun before it disappears over the rooftops. "A lot of them that say they're scroungers are living off the state themselves - most people are around here these days. I hope everything works out for her."

"Some people are calling me a scrounger behind my back, but they haven't actually said anything to me at all," says Dawn. "It is very hurtful because my mother-in-law is paying taxes, my brother-in-law is working, and so, too, is my brother.

"I was worried about what people would say more than anything, because I knew I was more than capable of looking after the children. People could be nasty to me, but I don't care; they're not perfect themselves and I'm happy."

But hasn't responsibility come too early? Doesn't she regret missing out on teenage life?

"No, I don't have any regrets, because I know I've got my life ahead of me now. Once the babes are grown up, I can have my life then. I have got it all to come, really - I'll only be 28."

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