If you'd asked the teenage version of me growing up, "What's the quickest way to ruin your life?" without a shadow of a doubt, I would have said, "Get pregnant." In my eyes, your life was over if you got pregnant as a teenager. I was that over-ambitious girl who planned to have kids aged 43, if my successful job and three dogs weren't demanding all of my attention. I always wondered, don't these girls know they'll have to give up everything? What about their education, their dreams, their reputation, their innocent-daughter status with their parents, and any small amount of good looks they may have... because no one ever looked good after having a baby.
My teenage judgements sound very extreme but if we are completely honest with ourselves, we all know the teen mum stereotype - chav tracksuit, no qualifications, hanging around the 'dole office'. Not to mention, it is automatically assumed that they are bad mothers. So when I sat in that doctor's surgery at 3am, aged 18, and was told that I was pregnant, six months pregnant at that... I stepped into my own living nightmare. The doctor gave me a look that said 'say goodbye to your gap year travels, your university place, your future'. If I believed in karma, I would reckon it got me good. Let's just say nothing humbles you like a teen pregnancy.
The very thought of being considered a 'teen mum' made me more nauseous than the pregnancy itself. I had let myself down. I had let my family down. I knew what people would label me - 'wreckless', 'worthless', 'damaged goods', 'failure'. I was the kind of hormonal teenage girl who held it together until she broke a glass and all the tears came out at once. Heck, I'm still that girl who keeps going for months and then one day I can't find my toothbrush and BAM - emotional breakdown. All emotions are heightened as a teenage girl, and pregnancy was no different. Sure, I was excited. And I was brave, or at least I put on a brave face. But the truth is I went to bed most nights and cried myself to sleep. I was constantly carrying another human but I'd never felt so humanly alone.
I don't think I truly accepted that I was going to be a mum until I went into labour. Reuben's gigantic head was making its jolly way through my cervix and that's when I informed the midwives, 'I don't think motherhood is for me'.
But oh my. One look at that deliciously beautiful yet hairy new-born of mine and I knew it was so for me. He was so for me. The beauty of having a baby so young is that quite often that baby is your first real experience of true love. When I looked at Reuben, I wasn't a teen mum anymore. I wasn't a stereotype. I wasn't a statistic. I was just Reuben's mum. And I was going to give this motherhood thing everything I had.
Of course, in reality, that hasn't been easy. I've been winging my way through motherhood. On top of googling what colour my new-born's diarrhoea should be, I was working part time, repeating A-levels, and completing a part-time counselling course...most of which was done whilst Reuben slept at night. Even after Reuben was born, I spent a long time mourning the life I could have had, to the point where it became unhealthy. But I've learned that that life was never actually mine to mourn. And it just robs me of the time and energy to live, enjoy, and make the best of the life I have now!
I've also learned that just because something isn't conventional, doesn't mean it can't work. I'm now 21, and these days Reuben and I live in Belfast where I go to Queen's University. He goes to Queen's crèche when I am in class or at the library, and he is only ever 20 yards away. I write a blog called 'Maverick Mum' and I've recently become a columnist for Closer magazine online.
I'm no longer a teen mum. But I'm also no longer ashamed. I've proudly decided that I'm a tween mum. I no longer stand under the labels of 'wreckless', 'worthless', and 'failure'. After a lot of growing and since becoming a Christian last year, I now know I stand under the labels of 'loved', 'strong', and 'valuable'. There is this misconception that all young mums have made a careless mistake and have thrown their life away as a result. Admittedly, I'm still a little scared to go out in public with Reuben in my tracksuit bottoms for fear of looking like a typical teen mum. But sometimes I think of the quivering, uncertain mess I was during my pregnancy, and I think, 'Girl, you did good'.
I am very passionate about supporting other young mums who are that same quivering, uncertain mess that I was. I want to encourage them to live 'up to potential' and not 'down to stereotype'. And what better way to send out this message than through Fixers, the national charity that gives young people a voice?
Fixers works with young people aged 16-25 across the UK to help them campaign on issues they feel strongly about. The charity has helped more than 18,000 youngsters across the UK to have a voice in their community on issues as diverse as cyber-bullying, self-harm, suicide and transphobia.
After meeting with them, I knew I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass me by. Working with Fixers, my aim was to show that no matter what course life takes, it is still possible to achieve and succeed. My campaign was even featured on my local TV news.
I hope I can begin to eradicate the 'teen mum' stigma and in the future there will be more support for those facing the same situation. In all of this there is a need for fresh and positive voices, young voices who are living it, and they need to be heard. We need to raise concerns, highlight issues, champion positive choices and attitudes, and acknowledge that change is possible! Fixers gave me that opportunity and I am thankful for it. I hope they can do the same for others.
Getting pregnant at 18 didn't mean my life was over. It meant that I get to live life with Reuben. Of course I spend most of my time doing all of the dinosaur and Fireman Sam related activities...but I also still do everything I used to. I have pizza nights with friends, I go out in the evenings, I have coffee dates, I travel to new countries, I cry about assignments, I stay up way too late, I worry about money, I binge on chocolate... I do everything, but I do everything with Reuben. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Which is good because the way my mum brain is going, in a few years I probably won't remember it any other way!
For more information about Fixers, visit fixers.org.uk
This summer The Huffington Post UK is spearheading an initiative helping families thrive, with a focus on parent wellbeing, the challenges facing stay-at-home and working parents, friendships and navigating the landscape of modern parenting beyond the 2.4. To kickstart the campaign, Jamie Oliver will be guest editor on 15 July 2016, bringing a focus on feeding healthy families.
We'll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #ThrivingFamilies and we'd like you to do the same. If you'd like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. Jamie's new cookbook Super Food Family Classics, published by Penguin, is on sale at £26.