The last seat of this latest Assembly election was yet to be declared and the Sunday papers were clamouring to write their headlines rounding up what had been a seismic turn of events in Northern Ireland politics. I opened Twitter and was quickly sucked in by the latest furore as the Twitterati expressed their outrage over a headline about Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader. “From pregnant schoolgirl to Northern Ireland’s next leader?” it asked.
It’s not the first time Michelle O’Neill’s teenage years as a young mother have been mentioned, nor is it the first time she’s spoken about it when drawing attention to the discrimination she faced when she first became a mother at the age of 16 to her daughter Saoirse.
But reading that headline, undoubtedly sexist and ill-advised (and later amended by the newspaper), it’s hard for me not to be transported on a trip down memory lane to my time as a schoolgirl, fifteen years after Michelle was the same age as me but facing many of the same attitudes that meant the Sinn Fein politicians own journey in parenthood is worthy of such a prominent mention in a national newspaper.
It doesn’t take much to cause a stir on social media but when I think about it, the trajectory highlighted in that headline is all the more amazing given the societal attitudes and beliefs that make it so noteworthy when someone successful overcame that hurdle in early life. Perhaps I’m contributing to that stigma by describing teenage parenthood as an obstacle but really, it’s more the attitudes of society at large that make us think that way.
When I was 16 and attending an Irish-speaking school in my hometown of Dublin, it was less than a decade before the abortion referendum in the south but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that was the case within the walls of my extremely conservative school. We regularly had ultra-religious groups preach to us about the importance of saving yourself for marriage, using a piece of Sellotape to show how sex with more than one person before your wedding night meant your relationship wouldn’t “stick”.
To say nothing of pregnancy, which was a fate worse than death and too horrific a prospect to be spoken about.
That was so much the attitude that I don’t remember the possibility of pregnancy ever being referenced in school, despite being in a year group of more than 80 young women. No wonder we felt like we would be cast aside and left on the scrapheap with all our prospects ruined when this very real possibility was never even discussed. Nor did I ever hear of a teen pregnancy in my year group. Looking back, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t one. Meanwhile, we watched TV programmes like ‘16 and Pregnant’ with a grim fascination, wondering what life would be like on the other side.
There we were with phones and ready access to the internet, yet sex education, how we were spoken to or had things explained to us hadn’t changed since my mother went to the same school. That’s despite how much being a young person had changed, largely due to how much our access to information had also changed. We were still expected to be good Catholic girls, acting as if we were growing up in Ireland of old instead of young women graduating in 2010.
I’m 30 so while school feels like a long time ago to me and I’ve left a lot of the things I was taught there — like Catholicism, ideas about how young women should be seen to behave and maths — far behind me, I wonder sometimes whether things have actually changed or whether teenage girls and boys still think their lives would be ruined if they happened to become parents during those years. Thankfully, however, Michelle O’Neill is not the only political figure who leads by example. Labour MP Angela Rayner has spoken about being saved by her child — not in the religious sense of course, but by finding a purpose by having someone to provide for.
Shame, of course, isn’t a new concept in Ireland. It’s beyond time to start writing off young people who take the road less travelled or more widely, to punish or criticise women for the choices they make about their own bodies.
When it comes to teenage pregnancy, there is and never was a need for it to mean, as we thought, that you’d never travel, go to university or have a good job — perhaps even lead a political party. Perhaps that’s why I find Michelle O’Neill so inspirational.
Instead, let’s focus on showing young women and men that there’s no stereotype they can’t shatter, nothing they can’t achieve — nor should they let those who try to shame them have any power over their lives.