Young Parents Matter, don't they? The group of young mums and dads who embarked on a project with NCB to seek the views and experiences of other young parents living in Northern Ireland really hoped so.
The majority of the group at NCB were all experiencing issues that arise from being or becoming a young parent.
They were expressing concerns about various issues in terms of difficulties they, and their peers, are facing when becoming a young parent. The group discussed the perceived lack of information available to young people about their rights, entitlements, knowledge of and access to support services and they had strong opinions about the way in which some professionals were dealing with them.
"Midwifes really discriminated, directed questions at my mum instead of me as if I was a child".
So in April 2015 they embarked on the Young Parents Matter project and, with the help of NCB, spoke to 95 other young parents about their lives and experiences in Northern Ireland. The results were fascinating, inspiring and heart-breaking all at once.
It was clear that on the whole these young people are enjoying the experience of being parents and with the right support, feel confident about bringing up their children. The young parents we spoke to in this project reported the joy and reward of parenting and spoke positively of themselves and their achievements. However, they commonly reported experiences of stigma, judgement and discrimination, both during pregnancy and as a young parent, from a range of people including trusted professionals. Young mums talked about being looked at in a judgmental way.
"You get judged a lot [for example] when your baby cries. All babies cry not just mine because I'm young".
It's so important for professionals to accept and understand those feelings and to make them feel comfortable. There is a need for communication which provides positive reinforcement to young parents' self-concept rather than unintentionally undermining it.
Unfortunately, the voices of young fathers are as notably underrepresented in this project as in many others. The young fathers we did speak to reported feeling unsupported and uninvolved with a lack of targeted support. One young dad at a project event said; "it's good to get out of the house, get your head showered a bit". That comment stayed with me, because I realised that without that targeted support he and his family have limited opportunities to socialise with other young parents.
The young people we spoke to all expressed the need for more social spaces, somewhere not to feel different and get support, somewhere to reduce the social isolation they can feel when becoming 'different from their peers'. Young parents told us they want to access information in safe spaces where they feel confident to ask questions, admit to making mistakes and be supported to understand parenting issues.
At a recent NCB event, I witnessed a young mum chatting to another young mum (to be) who was obviously nervous about her first child. The natural way in which they gave each other peer support was magical, and not contrived (the focus of the event was nothing to do with young parents) and so it was great to see first-hand what can happen if young people are given the space and opportunity to socialise together.
These young parents are doing a fantastic job of bringing up their children in a society which can be judgemental about 'children having children'. They do matter and it's our job to ensure they know that and experience it as a reality.