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Julie Lynn: Angela Rayner is not a heroine for getting pregnant at sixteen


Angela Rayner said in an interview this week that having a baby at 16 ‘saved’ her life. It certainly seems that the life she was living was not an easy one: her mother was not only lacking in physically demonstrated love and affection for her daughter, but failed to feed her adequately so she was always hungry at school. Neither of her parents worked, living instead on benefits. Whether they were unwilling or unable to provide any model of a work ethic to their daughter was not elaborated upon in the Times interview she gave.

On her own website, however, the shadow education secretary says that her mother had mental health problems and that life was difficult for her. Indeed. Rayner hits the nail on the head when she says her mother ‘couldn’t read or write’. It is this, learning to read as early as possible, that is the route out of poverty. It is not getting pregnant at 16 that will save the life of a girl in sad and challenging circumstances. Not much though from Angela Rayner about reading, or books.

Nobody ever regrets having a child. Having your children is never, ever, a mistake. That much is a given. Angela Rayner, however, wants and expects to be the next Education Secretary and for her even to imply that becoming a parent at 16, when one is barely done with puberty, could ‘save’ anybody’s life is profoundly irresponsible. She said the experience ‘actually saved me from where I potentially could have been because I had a little person to look after and I wanted to prove to everybody that I wasn’t the scumbag that they thought I was going to be.’

It would be interesting to hear how Angela Rayner feels it all turned out for that ‘little person’, who will now be grown up. Did he have a good start in life and go on to achieve his potential? And if not, if he struggled, was it because his mother was barely more than a child herself, and needed to go out to work as a single teenage mother to feed and clothe him? Who was looking after him? The grandparents mentioned above? A great-grandparent? Was the father around to help?

These might sound like personal questions that border on the intrusive and irrelevant. But they are not. Any parent knows that having a baby turns things upside down on levels that are emotional, biological, psychological, logistical and, yes, practical. For most people, the very idea of a girl getting pregnant at 16 does not bear thinking about. How in the world is she to manage? Of course, the answer is that she’ll manage courtesy of the State (see ‘benefits’ in the first paragraph) and this may continue for some time. The Left, of course, always blame underachievement on the State and its failure to provide opportunities that lift people out of poverty.

It wasn’t made clear how soon after she gave birth as a teenager that Angela Rayner started work as a carer and threw herself into union politics. She took responsibility and didn’t remain at home living on benefits. Maybe she was lucky enough to have extended family to turn to for childcare. Maybe there were crèche/nursery provisions she was able to use. Either way, single teen parenthood is still so far from the ideal, so far from what anyone would want to happen to a 16-year-old, that it needs to be very strongly cautioned against, not put out there as an aspect of her experience, her hinterland, as something that ‘saved’ her life.

Angela Rayner, we can be sure, loves the son she had at 16 and we can assume he loves her. It would have made all the difference, however, if a woman aspiring to such high public office had been able to say that she would not advise anyone to get pregnant at 16.

Why? Because (leaving aside the father/relationship/marriage/stability question) it is too young. You will struggle to look after that child without help. You will experience financial hardship, fatigue, exhaustion, frustration, resentment, despair and loneliness, not to mention the likely curtailment of your education, plans for careers, dreams about travel. Then, what about that child? Is there going to be much bonding between a baby and a struggling 16-year-old mother? Rayner admits she has had to teach herself ‘how to cuddle my children’.

And what about the risks you are exposing your child to? Lone parenthood is the chief driver of child poverty, a poverty that no amount of Sure Start or ‘Troubled Families’ schemes make up for. It’s not just fatherlessness and insecurity that the 3million children of Britain’s 1.9million lone parent-led (mainly mothers) households are condemned to, but to impoverished life chances overall – to a greater of risk of mortality, ill health, behaviour problems, school failure, drink and drugs and crime.

Of course, there will always be anecdotal exceptions to what some feel is all this doom and gloom, ones like Angela. Thankfully teen pregnancies have halved in the last ten years and girls can go as young mums to college, get childcare, and go on to university and so on. But they are not the majority and not all teen mums have Angela Rayner’s determination and ambition.

She had what it took to get out and get a job. Good for her. She was also lucky enough, presumably, to have what she felt were the right people at the right time to hand a baby over to. But none of that makes getting pregnant at 16 a good idea. It’s a very bad idea.

Being lucky, getting away with it, fingers crossed – or thinking it will change your character – is not what teenagers need to bank on when having sex. If even one girl gets pregnant at 16 after hearing Rayner’s promotion of her teenage motherhood, it will be one too many.

That is why anyone (including the Times) should be aghast at Rayner’s irresponsibility in hailing pregnancy at 16 as the event that ‘saved’ her life. Her life. Good. What about the other lives?

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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