Blogger Rebecca Finlay on starting university and being a young mum
The young Castledawson mum tells Stephanie Bell about fulfilling her dream
At 18, Rebecca Finlay longed to start uni, but then, to her shock, she discovered she was pregnant. Two years on, she's finally made it to Queen's with son Reuben in tow... and is writing a brilliant blog.
Students finding it a struggle to settle into university life should go online and check out Maverick Mum - Rebecca Finlay's hilariously funny, wonderfully heart-warming, exceptionally honest and endearingly-humble blog.
The 20-year-old, who has an adorable 21-month-old son, Reuben, is perhaps more thrilled than most freshers to find herself in the hallowed hallways of Queen's University in Belfast as, since becoming a teen mum, she has had to resit her A-levels twice.
And while the first weeks at university can be overwhelming for any young person, for Rebecca it has been exceptionally challenging as she settles into her life of study with a boisterous toddler in tow.
Not that she is complaining, in fact, it is the complete opposite, which is why she has started her very entertaining blog.
In it, she presents the reality of life as a young, single mum with all of its chaotic, tender and challenging moments.
As tough as it is at times for the young woman, what comes through most strongly in her wonderfully-funny online diary is the great love she has for Reuben and her gratitude that she has him - even though, she confesses, it took the first year of his life for her to get over the shock.
She hopes her blog, which she began in June, will encourage other teen mums and also go some way to getting rid of the stigma which still surrounds young women who have children during their teenage years.
Rebecca has a rare day off from uni, which she is spending with Reuben, when I schedule a call for our interview. When I ring at the agreed time, there is no answer.
A few minutes later, she returns my call full of apologies and explains that she was in the middle of changing her baby's nappy when the phone rang.
She has arranged for a friend to be there to keep Reuben occupied while we talk - but less than a minute into the call, he is in hysterics because he doesn't have his mum's attention.
Rebecca soon has the situation under control, taking him outside, where he can run around under her watchful eye while she gets peace to talk.
It is these simple moments - when even a phone call can be difficult - that she captures so beautifully in her blog. And in the two years since Reuben came along, she has been on quite a journey.
She makes no bones about the fact that she had not planned to be a mum in her teens and thought her life was over when she discovered she was pregnant. While it has taken some time for her to get used to giving up on her dreams, now she wouldn't have it any other way and the joy that her son brings is something she hopes to share with other worried young teens through her blog.
Rebecca is one of three children, from Castledawson. She has a younger brother, John (17), and sister, Sarah (13). Her mum, Jennifer (56), is a civil servant and her dad, David (52), works as a labourer.
She was six months pregnant and had no idea she was carrying a baby when she found out in the most unexpected and excruciating way - in front of her equally unsuspecting mum.
She had woken in the middle of the night with severe pains in her stomach and insisted that her mum take her to the doctor.
While on the doctor's examination table at 3am, both mum and daughter were stunned when the GP asked Rebecca if she could be pregnant. A simple test confirmed the shock news.
Her full, hilarious version is told in her blog, under the heading of what she refers to as "my three month pregnancy".
She says: "I saw my mum's jaw drop to the floor and, for me, it was complete panic stations as I didn't know what I was going to do. I think the reality only hit me when I was in labour.
"I was absolutely devastated. I know that sounds horrible to say as every pregnancy should be a gift, but I just didn't feel like that at the time, it was terrible. It was like my life had ended."
Rebecca had been to India the previous year with school and had fallen in love with the country and its people. She had spent the last year of her A-levels at Rainey Endowed Grammar in Magherafelt fundraising to enable her to go back and spend a gap year there before going to university.
She had her life mapped out and suddenly all her plans and dreams came crashing down.
She recalls: "It broke my heart not to get to India. I really felt I had found the thing in life I was meant to do and had spent the whole year working towards it. All my thoughts and time went into planning for that trip. I had such a heart for the people there and it was devastating at the time.
"It is only now I realise there is a time for everything and my time now is to be a mum. I hadn't got the A-level results I needed to get into university and everyone was saying to me, 'What will you do now? You will hardly get to uni now', because I had the baby.
"I think that gave me more of an incentive to go and prove them wrong. I had to sit my A-levels twice again to get the grades I needed and I was over the moon to get into Queen's. I spent my maternity leave from a job I'd got in a shop studying for my A-levels."
Rebecca is studying Theology, a subject she had no interest in or knowledge of until she became a born-again Christian last year. She still is not sure what career she wants to follow after she graduates, but feels drawn to pastoral care and counselling.
Being a young mum on her own has given her an appreciation of other young women going through a similar experience, she feels that this is an area she could work in: "Young women are really in my heart and I would like in the future to be able to reach out to them in some way. I definitely feel that I am being called to do that - but who knows what will happen?" she says.
Part of her empathy comes from her own tough experience of finding herself unexpectedly pregnant at 18. When she was found out a baby was on the way, she was no longer dating the father of her child, and has been bringing up Reuben by herself, with the support of her loving family - for which she is very grateful.
Rebecca explains: "When I look back, I hadn't a clue what to expect. I was even uncomfortable when the midwife felt my stomach. My mum was there to hold my hand through it all. She never cried and was never disappointed in me, but I think she was disappointed for me.
"Now, I think I can see a lot of her in me as I am determined and independent."
While she enjoyed the support of living at home with her family, Rebecca has moved to Belfast to live alone for the first time with Reuben, since starting her degree a few weeks ago. She is loving student life and making new friends. With a new confidence as a mum, she says she no longer feels embarrassed to introduce Reuben as her son and has been surprised and encouraged by the support from fellow students and lecturers.
While she can't fully embrace the social side of student life because she has Reuben to pick up from creche, she doesn't feel she is missing out.
She says: "I am content because I came into it knowing I would not get all the nights out or be able to go to everything as a new student, but mum has been really good and my friends offer to babysit. I just want to get into a proper routine with Reuben first before I allow anyone to babysit him. I am making the most of the time I have. If I've free time during the day, when he's in creche, I go to things. I've been to a few workshops and I enjoy just going for coffee. I'm easily pleased."
She has met a few girls who are also pregnant and has enjoyed sharing her experiences with them and being able to encourage them.
For Rebecca at the minute, it is about enjoying all of the small, special moments with Reuben. During the first months after she discovered she was pregnant, she dealt with the shock by keeping a journal, which was a way of helping to process her thoughts.
It was only when she started to accept the changes in her life and enjoy being a mum that she decided to set up her blog.
Since starting university, her "views" on her site - maverick-mum.blogspot.co.uk - have leapt from 4,000 to almost 10,000, which has really taken her by surprise.
She adds: "The blog is my way to unwind at night. You don't have hobbies when you're a mum, so it's my time for me.
"I used to be really ashamed to tell people I was a teenage mum, now I love the different reactions I get. Most people are fascinated and want to meet Reuben.
"There is this stereotype of a single mum. I hope my blog helps show people that it is not true. I think people see them as silly girls who give up everything and I hope people don't see me like that.
"When I got pregnant, I thought my life was over and I feel there needs to be someone who is honest and tells it as it is, the good and the bad, so that people can understand and hopefully get rid of the negative view of teenage pregnancy.
"I joined a young parents group at Sure Start and my views on young mums completely changed. Every single one of them just wants to provide the best life they can for their children, just like any other mum.
"I hope through the blog I can get rid of the stigma and maybe give people a bit of a laugh and I hope other young women will read my blog and think if she can do it, so can I."
Excerpts from Rebecca's blog
I feel like My Three Month Pregnancy is the type of tragic title you would read in a gossip magazine. But nope, its just another part of my story. Honestly, I used to think I should be a character in Hollyoaks. It's been two years today since I found out I was going to be a mummy, two years since I found out I was pregnant - six months pregnant at that - and I've found myself reminiscing about it quite a lot recently.
I always love throwing that little bomb on people every so often. "Did you know, I didn't know I was pregnant for six months?" It's unbelievably embarrassing, but an unbelievably great conversation starter.
Let me first set the context.
September 1, 2013 - the summer after I finished A-levels. I had spent most of the previous two months working my butt off to prepare for my return to India in October.
12am - I was still awake with a raging pain in my stomach that I had never in my life felt before. After some Googling, naturally I decided I was dying. I went to my mum's room crying and asked for her to ring Dalriada (I really acted like such a baby. There's so much irony in the fact I was unknowingly having an actual baby).
3am - there I was lying on the doctor's examination table while she felt my stomach. She asked me if there was any chance I could be pregnant and, of course, I said no. Why would I say yes? My mum was sitting right there. And it had been about six months since anything baby-making related had happened. She asked me to do a urine sample so she could check for infection, so off I went to the bathroom. Even as I peed I remember having this dooming feeling over me. I knew something wasn't right.
I gave her the sample and approximately two minutes later the sassy doctor turned round and very bluntly/cheekily said to me: "Well this says you're pregnant." And Doctor Sass, if you are reading this, I don't care if you didn't want to be working at 3am. I don't care if you thought I was lying to my mum. I don't care if you thought I was a reckless teenage girl ... you can't just blurt that out to patient in front of her mother.
Sorry, I've needed to get that off my chest for two years.
10 things I love about Reuben
I've got a bad case of the guilts. All I've been doing recently is giving off about Reuben. He has been extra difficult and I've literally been slagging him off to whoever asks. Nonetheless he is highly in demand. Everyone still loves him and admittedly I'm a little jealous. The first question people ask me is always "What's Reuben doing today?" or "What's up with Reuben?" And I'm thinking... he's one, today he had a nap and ate two packets of cheese.
And I wouldn't dare turn up to someone's house without him. "Where's Reuben?" "Why didn't you bring him?" "We only invited you so we could see him".
But I can't blame them, he's pretty amazing (I'll take all credit thanks). He is currently lying in bed beside me looking so scrumptious that my heart could burst into pieces. Here are 10 things that I love about Reuben. I'm writing this to look back on when he's driving me clinically insane... and to reassure you that I do actually love my son very much.
1. He sleeps. When he was a newborn he didn't sleep for approx 10 weeks but that's all in the past and I know he didn't mean it. These days he sleeps about 12 hours at night and a two-hour nap during the day. Sure, the rest of the time he's bouncing off the walls but that two-hour nap is everything to me.
2. He loves to kiss. I got home from work one day, picked him up and he planted a big open mouthed slobbery one right on my lips and grinned. I knew he was happy to see me. This was so out of the blue, I nearly cried on the spot. Now I have kisses on demand, anytime I ask. What more could I ask for?
3. His crystal blue eyes.
4. He is very social. I could pass him to any one and he would never cry. It takes the pressure off me. He stares for a little while and you might feel uncomfortable … but once he susses you out then congratulations, you have a new best friend.
5. His first real word was "doggy". Not mama. Doggy. He loves animals. To him all animals are potential friends. I have a Dr Doolittle on my hands.
6. His laugh. Cliche I know, but it gets me every time. It comes right from the bottom of his belly and if you're extra funny you might even hear a snort.
7. His sense of humour. He's sassy, and mischievous and I love it.
8. His empathy. He is a real humanitarian in the making. I know he's only a one-year-old but he shows genuine concern for other people. Recently he saw a little girl crying and he pointed with this distraught look on his face and said "awwww". Now for someone who calls his mother doggy, that was a big deal.
9. He is crazy inquisitive. From a young age he has noticed things that I haven't. We went for a walk yesterday and he spent 20 minutes examining weeds in the grass and frantically chattering to himself. I wish I'd known what he was saying. It would have made the 20 minutes go a lot faster.
10. The way he cuddles into my back when we sleep.