Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner says becoming a mum at 16 “saved her” and her tough upbringing meant she often went hungry at school.
The Ashton-under-Lyne MP opened up about her struggles in early life at a Labour conference fringe event, hosted by Times Red Box editor Matt Chorley.
She admitted when she told her parents she was pregnant with son Ryan at just 16, “they never expected me to amount to anything”.
“I grew up on a council estate, my mum and dad were on benefits. My mum couldn’t read or write, she was one of 12 siblings and she had a really difficult upbringing,” she said.
“We didn’t have books but that was normal for me. I just understood that’s how things were. The idea of thinking you could become a doctor or something like that - those things were for other people.”
Rayner, who has risen quickly through the political ranks after being elected in 2015, said she would watch the clock at school and wait for lunchtime because she and her siblings would have left the house without any breakfast.
“The only picture my dad had of me from school was my school dinner token,” she added.
“I remember feeling hungry and feeling that life was tough. I used to go round to friends’ houses and ask them if they would ask their mum and dad if I could stay for tea. I love Sunday dinner now because we never got Sunday dinner in our house. That’s just how it was.”
She recalled feeling angry during a debate in Parliament about the rise in teenage pregnancies in some areas of the UK.
“I was really cross because even though getting pregnant at 16 and having no qualifications is not the best start for anyone, you have to understand that the way my life was, it actually saved me from where I could have potentially been,” she said.
“I had a little person that I had to look after and I wanted to prove to everyone that I was not the scumbag they thought I was going to be, and that I could be a good mum, and that somebody was finally going to love me as much as I deserved to be loved.
“I’m not suggesting we should be advocating it [teenage pregnancy], but to suggest that these young women are just failures and have nothing left in their lives - I was really quite cross about that.”
Rayner said Labour’s flagship Sure Start centres helped her to become a better parent and provide the best possible life for herself and her children.
She added: “My children are in a much better position that I ever had and my mum could only have dreamed of having a daughter who got to where I am today. That’s social mobility.
“My mum said that she could only love one person at a time, and that was my dad. My mum never understood about affection and the importance of giving your children a hug.
“When I was younger I struggled - and to a certain extent I still do - with kisses and cuddles and when people are really over-affectionate, because as a child I never got that.”
Rayner admitted she had to teach herself how to show affection to her own children and that parenting courses helped her to understand and overcome problems.
“I had to teach myself how to cuddle my children,” she said.
“That sounds really awful. I’m a good mum, I love my children and I’d die for them, but I had to teach myself that telling your children that they are really good at something, and encouraging them and reading to them, I had to teach myself that that was the right thing to do, because that wasn’t how things were in my house.
“And how do you find that knowledge? People don’t talk about that - people aren’t going to say ‘I don’t know how to love my children’.
“Sure Start parenting centres were a safe space where I could teach myself how to be a better parent and it’s changed my life and changed my children’s lives.
“It’s made me understand some of the struggles that my mum had and the complex reasons why she wasn’t able to be a better mum to me. And through that, you break that chain of social deprivation.”
Labour has pledged to reinstate Sure Start centres in every community if the party wins power. A third of those opened during Labour’s last period in government have now closed due to funding cuts.