Antonia Hayes' debut novel, Relativity, talks about being a single mother to a precocious teenager. Here, in this exclusive essay, she talks about becoming a teenage mother herself, and why it was the most incredible period of her life
Halfway through my first tutorial at uni, I dramatically ran out of the room and vomited in the hall. My classmates probably assumed I was drunk; I knew something wasn’t quite right. All summer, I’d felt exhausted and nauseous but I’d blamed it on sunstroke and post-HSC fatigue. Recently my body had started feeling foreign, my senses of taste and smell had shifted and sharpened, and I couldn’t concentrate. I was probably sick. The previous year I’d had glandular fever so later that week I went to see my GP, positive I had it again.
My doctor listened to my symptoms and gave me a puzzled look. ‘When was the last time you had your period?’ she asked. I remember laughing. That was a ridiculous question. I wasn’t pregnant. I was on the Pill. And since it was summer, I’d recently discovered the joy of skipping my periods for uninterrupted days at the beach. I was only eighteen years old. Four months ago I’d finished high school; earlier that week I’d started university. Pregnant? Nope, not me.
But the pregnancy test disagreed. So did the second one. So did the blood tests. So did the ultrasound. Not only was I pregnant, I was nearly in my second trimester: almost twelve weeks. When my doctor confirmed the baby was already the size of a lemon, my eyes unfocused and the floor fell away. I shook my head and blinked. I didn’t understand. It didn’t make sense. My boyfriend and I had been careful and sensible. From what I’d heard, teen pregnancy was supposed to happen to people who were irresponsible about birth control, to bad girls who were reckless and wild—not bookish nerds like me.
The doctor explained that a course of antibiotics had probably interfered with the Pill, and sent me home with a handful of pamphlets. To say I was in shock was an understatement. For several days, I didn’t tell anybody I was pregnant. I was terrified—that I’d disappointed my parents, that my boyfriend would be upset. All my friends were my age so I didn’t want to burden them with this secret, they’d feel as overwhelmed and stunned as me. But since my first trimester was almost over, I needed to weigh up my options quickly: if I was going to have an abortion, time was running out.
The following week, still hiding my pregnancy, I watched a documentary about new parents who’d lost a baby. The filmmaker had wanted desperately to become a mother but her newborn had died from complications only eight hours after birth. Watching it was harrowing enough but knowing there was a baby growing inside my body, I found it deeply moving and distressing. I knew I wanted to become a mother one day, why couldn’t right now be the right moment? As it dawned on me why I’d kept my pregnancy secret, why I hadn’t sought advice I didn’t want to hear, I started to sob uncontrollably. My mother, sitting beside me on the sofa, asked what was wrong. Blubbering and breathless, I told her I was pregnant. And that I really wanted to keep the baby.
It was a choice I now understand I made on impulse, but I was a teenager—I was impulsive. Looking back, it sounds like a rash decision but at the time I felt like I was taking control of my life. I wanted everything, all at once: my dreams, my future, and my baby. I was a combination of fearless and naïve, a little arrogant and very audacious. At eighteen, I thought I was in the driver’s seat. I was an adult now and convinced I knew what I was doing. Nothing terrible had ever happened to me. I thought I was indestructible.
Both my parents were worried but ultimately they supported my decision. I was extremely fortunate to have an accepting and generous family, who protected me from many negative consequences of teen pregnancy: poverty, instability, a limited education. Not all teen mothers are as lucky as I was—I lived at home and stayed at uni—and at the time I didn’t realise how much my parents’ love and care insulated me from potential disadvantage. After the initial shock, my boyfriend was supportive too. The baby was healthy and I felt excited. I popped folate tablets at home while my friends took ecstasy at raves and I studied What To Expect When You’re Expecting in between cramming for my exams.
What I hadn’t expected was that as my pregnancy became visible, I became a target for discrimination and judgment. Teen pregnancy carried—and still does—a prejudiced social stigma. I know I’m lucky I wasn’t born a generation earlier, when babies were taken immediately from unwed, young mothers, often without their consent. But I was still made to feel like a walking worst-case scenario, a cautionary tale for sexually active girls everywhere. Strangers approached me in the street and asked my age before scolding me for being pregnant; another first-year uni student earnestly asked why I hadn’t had an abortion since now I’d ruined my life.
The more my belly expanded, the more people I hardly knew criticised and condemned my choice to become a mother. Everywhere I turned, I was met with disapproving looks and dismissive glances. I’d made unfair assumptions about teen mothers myself, now they were projected back at me: I must be irresponsible, a bad girl who’s reckless and wild, someone who makes poor choices. My friends tried but couldn’t relate to what I was experiencing. I didn’t know anybody else having a baby so I started to feel alienated and lonely.
I wish I could say that I’d just shrugged off criticism, or that I’d felt indifferent to the judgmental stares and unhelpful, rude comments. But because I was young and hypersensitive, my feelings of inadequacy were amplified. I internalised all the direct and indirect negativity and my self-esteem took a battering. My confidence collapsed and I took everything personally. There are hardly any photos of my pregnancy. Part of me found my body embarrassing—I was very self-conscious of how it’d changed—but now I regret being so camera-shy during those strange and wonderful nine months.
Another part of me loved being pregnant. But I felt like I couldn’t express how much I enjoyed feeling the baby kick, how happy I was, how besotted I’d become with this tiny person I hadn’t yet met. My positive feelings conflicted with the stereotype. Teen mothers were supposed to be suffering and miserable, not smiling and pleased. Any moment I felt complete bliss, I’d instantly be struck by another feeling—that I didn’t deserve it.
When Julian was born, my euphoria intensified. To this day, I still can’t articulate how deeply and fiercely I love my son without shedding a few tears. He was this perfect, amazing little thing. But because I was a nineteen-year-old new mum, there was a sharp polarity between how I thought I should feel and how I actually felt. Stigma said that my life was over; I knew something significant had just begun. Society demanded sacrifice and selflessness but parenting my son never felt passive or transactional; it was always more rich and complex than giving something up in exchange for something else.
I was very hard on myself for the first four years of Julian’s life. No matter a woman’s age, there’s enormous pressure to be a perfect mother but when you begin motherhood as a teenager, there’s also this background anticipation that you’ll probably fail. I felt like everything I did wasn’t good enough. Complete strangers felt compelled to worry about my child on my behalf. When some people discovered I was a mother, their moral expectations of me rose (Why are you at the pub? Where’s your baby?) but their intellectual expectations fell (You’re reading Foucault? I thought you had a baby!)—I couldn’t win either way. Motherhood became the lens new people saw me through, so sometimes I kept Julian’s existence secret to protect him and my feelings. I learned to not draw attention to myself. Just like anyone else, I wanted to fit in; I still hadn’t figured out my place in the world.
But it was Julian who opened the world up for me. He’s never cared about my age, only that he’s been loved and cared for—in fact, these days he’s proud to have a young mum. My love for Julian became the fuel for my ambition. I decided that I wasn’t just going to defiantly prove the teen mother stigma wrong, I was going to be a role model for him and lead by example. Wanting the best for Julian forced me to quiet the negative voices inside my head and give myself permission to follow my dreams.
During Julian’s early childhood, I read lots of books. Literature was a lifeline to the big world, a safe arena where I could be young and foolish, where I could take risks without jeopardising Julian’s routine or welfare. Inside a novel I’d travel to faraway places, feel passion and heartbreak, and try on different identities. I lived vicariously through fictional characters and experienced other lives inside my head. Using my imagination gave me a vital sense of freedom when motherhood sometimes made me feel confined. More importantly, I discovered voices I resonated with, who shared my thoughts and feelings. Books made me feel like I wasn’t isolated and alone.
Armed with a new confidence, I decided our life together wasn’t going to be limited by my age: it could still be an exciting adventure. When Julian was four years old, we picked up our lives and moved to Paris. I started to let myself try new things, act my age and make mistakes, but for Julian’s sake I also made sure I learned from them. We stayed in Paris for four years, then returned to Sydney, and now we’re in San Francisco. Living overseas hasn’t only made Julian adaptable, it’s also helped him thrive.
His biological father and I had broken up when Julian was only a few weeks old. Even now, people often ask if I’m still with Julian’s father and then cluck sympathetically when I tell them we’re not—as though staying with my ex-boyfriend from high school is some marker for success. Although I’ve been a single mother, I’ve never felt like one; Julian hasn’t lacked parents. He’s loved unconditionally by grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, and his self-appointed Dad: my husband, Dave.
Julian is thirteen now, I’m thirty-two. Growing up alongside him has taught me lessons I doubt I would’ve discovered by now if I hadn’t become a mother at nineteen. Time’s given me perspective, I’ve figured out that phases end and new ones begin, that our lives are always changing and evolving. I don’t think I’m indestructible anymore. I’ve learned that people see what they want to see; it’s easier to label and stereotype than listen to somebody’s story. Prejudice and assumption aren’t going to disappear overnight but I no longer take the shortsightedness of others to heart.
But it took developing some maturity for me to trust my own feelings and instincts, to listen to myself and not the stigma, and to feel proud of myself instead of ashamed. To hold my head high. I can still be very hard on myself but these days I try to use that energy to motivate me rather than feel defeated. I don’t think I’m a special case or out of the ordinary. Teenage parents can be just as responsible, devoted, and attentive to their kids as anybody else. I hope in the future, the way we speak about teen pregnancy evolves into a more understanding dialogue. Generalisations, shame, and stigma can dangerously impact the self-esteem of young mothers who are already vulnerable, who need more support and have more responsibilities than their peers.
Becoming a mother at nineteen was a hurdle but it wasn’t a dead-end. Hurdles are there to jump over; hurdles can teach you how to soar. Julian gave my life focus and kicked my ambition into gear. I still think he’s perfect. Because of him, I was determined that being a young parent wasn’t going to limit us, and although my experience has shaped who I am, it isn’t going to define me either. I’d always dreamed of becoming a writer but Julian taught me how to tell stories. Not just bedtime stories; he showed me that I was in control of the story of my life. My first novel is about to be published and while that’s a dream come true, I now understand that my son was my engine. That’s why the most rewarding part of the book to write was the dedication: For Julian. It was always for him; it’s thanks to him.
Antonia Hayes' debut novel Relativity (Penguin, $32.99) is out now.