'I'm glad I was a teenage mother'
When Camilla Chafer became pregnant while studying for A-levels, it could have spelt the end of all her ambitions. But 11 years on, she believes it was the making of her
Tuesday 08 December 2009
Sliding behind the desk for my first A-level paper, I sat quietly with my classmates waiting for the moment to turn the paper over and begin furiously scribbling answers. I made sure not to let my hand stray to pat my stomach, so as not to give away my pregnancy.
At four months pregnant, I could still conceal the new little life inside me with baggy T-shirts and had no intention of telling my college until I'd finished my exams. While I deconstructed grammar and wrote page after page, I could feel his first butterfly movements cheering me on.
Finding out I was pregnant was not a huge surprise. I knew where babies came from. My story, however, is familiar. Like many teenage girls before me, stuck in Grimsby, a pretty but dull town, I suffered poor self-esteem and lacked the foresight to understand that with hard work, escape could be found. Bored to tears and frustrated, I started skipping my A-level classes, going to the pub and staying out late. So finding out I was pregnant at 17 was not a shock. Instead, I was strangely pleased and felt instinctively that I would be a good mother. Finally I had a solid reason to pull myself together.
I knew that teenage pregnancy was not viewed as a good thing, and neither was going it alone. But despite the biological father never having any input, I felt sure I could make young motherhood work and not fall into the trap so many other teenage mums find themselves in.
My mother, of course, was less than thrilled when I told her, and made me realise how it was so important to gain an education – not just for me, but for my baby, too. It must have been very hard for her to think my future was slipping away. The thought of bringing a child into the world who could be embarrassed about me was an enormous driving factor. As much as I had been irresponsible with myself, I had no intention of being irresponsible for my child.
When I collected my A-level results that August, with seven-month bump on show, I was thrilled. With three A-levels, I was guaranteed a place at Leeds University to read politics. When my friends eagerly discussed heading off to university in just a few weeks time and asked me what I'd do, I don't think they ever expected the answer, "I'll see you there next year". Leeds was good enough to let me defer for a year so that I could have the baby. It was the most fruitful, eye-popping gap year I could have taken.
Max was born in November, a healthy 7lbs 8oz baby boy. Even through my joy at having him, I felt judged. I constantly felt that all people saw was another young girl with a baby, and I was determined that I would change their minds. Just because I was young didn't mean I was a fool.
Once at university, fresh from my gap year, I, like my new classmates, was raring to go. When it came to my turn to introduce myself, I told them that on my gap year I had a baby. Not only that, he had come to university with me. It was probably the strangest thing they'd ever heard and for the most part they were reassuringly curious rather than judgmental. I couldn't have been more proud.
We rented a house in the densely populated student area of Hyde Park, just a few minutes' walk from campus. I'll never forget the day in my first semester when Max was a year old and the pushchair's axle snapped as we marched up the hill to class. Should I drag the pushchair up the hill to the nursery or drag it back down to our house and start the walk again? For a week, I carried Max to and from nursery on my shoulders, rucksack on my back, pushchair-less. I chose to see it as an adventure. It may have been a very different sort of student life, but it was still fun and it was great to have my baby with me.
Money, of course, was tight. On top of my student loan and a small maintenance grant I had to find another £500 a month for nursery fees, which was my single largest expense. The university was great. My personal tutor mentioned the welfare fund at the student union, and that as someone in need, I was eligible to apply. When they offered to pay some money directly to the nursery on my behalf, I was deeply grateful. Their generosity over the three years ensured I could stay at university to complete my degree.
As for the campus nursery, they were more used to looking after the children of lecturers and other staff, but they never made me feel any different from the other parents. I may have been 10 or 20 years younger than some parents but his nursery teachers always made sure that I was the one who made the decisions and that I was kept fully informed of nursery activities. Knowing that Max was in a safe, well run nursery made it easier for me to concentrate on my studies. At the end of my day, I'd pick him up from the nursery and he would be ready with a hug, finger paintings and things he had made, such as colourful hand and feet prints and a snow globe made from a jam jar that I still have. As he got older, we would walk home together through the park hand-in -hand. I didn't experience the pangs of homesickness some students had, because I had my little family with me.
I tried to keep my life as a student and a mum separate. I didn't want people to think I was crying out for special attention. However, when Max caught chickenpox and ran the gamut of other childhood illnesses, my tutors were always willing to be flexible on deadlines. When my exam schedule once included a set exam that finished after nursery hours, a tutor even offered to babysit if we couldn't get an earlier time scheduled in.
Occasionally I would bring Max into sessions with my personal tutor. Whilst we discussed the intricacies of European integration, Max would happily gurgle in his pushchair, and when he was older he would sit looking at books, his little legs not quite reaching the floor. Max frequently came to the campus libraries with me. We must have been an odd sight as we trundled through the politics section with a pushchair stacked with books and playing hide-and-seek in the aisles. Max was always cooed over by the other students who found him quite a novelty.
Babysitting, however, was in short supply. A few offered, taken up by Max's cuteness, but I quickly sensed these offers were not entirely sincere. When it came to the occasional time I asked for help, they weren't actually interested and I heard all manner of ridiculous excuses. I would have rather not have had any offers at all.
My family, more than 100 miles away, helped where they could with occasional visits and weekends here and there, so that I could experience the odd taste of the student nightlife that I missed out on the rest of the time, but I still managed to miss every single important event bar my graduation. Though at times I felt socially isolated, I knew no one else but me could take such pleasure in seeing my son grow. I might have missed out on boozy nights out but I got to see Max take his first steps, learn to talk and turn into a wonderful companion during our university years. For me, that experience was a priceless as getting to university.
For all that studying could be hard after a night up comforting a teething baby, or dashing from classroom to nursery and then ploughing through reading lists around bed and bath routines, I wouldn't have swapped my experience of student life for anything. Would I have been as ambitious if I hadn't had Max to raise and be a good mother to? I don't think so. He was consistently my champion, and my ambition was sourced from my desire to give him the best possible chances in life. Max was three when I received my degree, plus an extra award for academic achievement.
I went on to do a masters, and a year later, when Max was four and had just started primary school, he came to my degree ceremony, where I graduated with a masters specialising in security and defence analysis. I was the only student there with her own child, and having my little boy and that certificate couldn't have made me prouder. Many people grow up on campus; I'm glad we got to do that together.
Max has just turned 11. He's smart and articulate, excelling in reading, talented at art and drumming. We've just applied for his secondary school place, though he tells me he's already been to university. He teases me that we're so close in age that we'll be able to go to a retirement home together. I'm 29 now, a writer with two degrees under my belt, certificates that say between the lines that despite being a teenage mum, I'm not stupid. I did achieve an excellent education and brought up a great child, too. Looking back, if I hadn't been a young mum, I'm not sure I could have said that.
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