It's inevitable, in life, that we are stereotyped according to certain things. Whether it be because of our social status, race, sexuality, gender, sometimes even hair colour. And I am no exception. I have been stereotyped many times. I'm naturally blonde, so of course, I'm stupid, for example. Which, I suppose on occasion, is probably true. But for the last few years I have been cast aside into the big bad world of lifestyle stereotyping. Because I had a baby when I was 19 and I have relied on the the welfare state to help me since.
What do you think when you hear "teenage pregnancy"? Silly little school girls getting knocked up so they can get a council house? Leaving their babies with others while they go out clubbing with their mates every weekend? What do you think when you hear "on benefits"? Lazy scumbags who sit on their backsides all day watching Antiques Roadshow and drinking lager? From my experience, and probably mine before it happened to me, that is the general opinion on those topics. Of course, I understand that this is a narrow minded view and not everyone will feel the same but both things are frowned upon in society, not actively encouraged by any means. So I just wanted to give a little insight into the life of your average "young single mum, scrounging off the state."
I was at University when I got pregnant by accident. I had done well in school and had just started my course when I found out. My first instinct was to get rid straight away. I had my whole life ahead of me, I was a very selfish person and hated kids so I was by no means maternal. But the father insisted I keep it. So I did. Less than a month after my 19th birthday, I had Grace. I remember the first night we had together, she lay in her plastic cot in the hospital and just stared at me with her huge eyes. She didn't cry once. Just watched me. It felt a little surreal, being a mother at 19 especially when children had never been on my priority list. But here she was and she was gorgeous. However, things with her dad didn't last and he left us when she was 7 months old. At the time I was on maternity leave from work. I worked at a hotel part time as a waitress and had done since I was 16, which is where I met Grace's dad. So luckily I still had a little bit of money to tide us over. To buy formula and nappies and clothes. But £90 a week was not going to be enough to cover all of that plus the £525 rent and all the bills. So I had a choice. I could live out on the streets or I could apply for benefits. So I chose the latter.
Later on that year, I returned to my job. While I had been away, Grace's dad had been back, telling everybody what a terrible mother I was and whatnot. Even though he was the one that had left me, but obviously he felt guilty and wanted to palm the blame off onto somebody else. So naturally, none of my workmates spoke to me and on the rare occasion that they did, it was in an offhandish kind of way. It was horrible to do an 8 hour shift with everybody ignoring you, whispering to each other about you and speaking to you as if you were something they'd just scraped off their shoe. It upset me that, not only had he left and made my life extremely difficult, he also made it so I found it impossible to work. I called my boss up and I told him that I wanted to leave because I couldn't work in an environment with so much tension because everybody hated me for some reason. A comment he didn't deny but instead replied "Yes, that's probably for the best." So now I was a 19 year old single mother, on benefits, with no job.
That was all a long time ago, as Grace is 3 now. But it hasn't all been rainbows and butterflies. I gave up on looking for a job for a while after leaving the hotel. I started looking again last year and applied for a few with no luck. I was even turned down for a job because I was "too overqualified." This year, I've thrown myself into writing. I started a distance learning journalism course, I am writing two books and of course, I'm updating this blog when I can. I'm looking for a part time job, sending my CV's off and also looking for freelance writing work online. I couldn't think of anything worse than willingly living my whole life on benefits. And even while I am on them, I cannot understand why on earth people would be happy to do so.
Because, you see, not everyone on benefits is an idle scrounger. There are, a lot of us, who have some self worth and want to do something with our lives and the welfare state merely helps us get to that point when we're struggling. I was brought up with a high work ethic. I worked as a Saturday girl in a hairdressers owned by my grandparents from the age of 13 because my parents believed that if I wanted money for something, I should earn it myself instead of them giving it to me, because out in the real world, nobody hands you something for nothing. When I turned 16, I left there and started at the hotel working long shifts up until I was 36 weeks pregnant. But seeing the money I had worked for in my bank account was worth it and whenever I bought something, I felt a sense of pride, knowing that I had bought it with my own, hard earned money. Something that I can't wait to get back to. To be able to say "I pay for this house" or "I bought myself some new clothes." It may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people. But I wish, as much as I love my daughter, I could get out of this house and start earning some money of my own.
Many people do call me lazy because I have no job at the minute. Usually those people aren't single parents with a lot of things going on on the side which I would not associate with laziness. But, on that afternoon when I saw those lines come up on that test and my world fell down around me, when I truly thought my life was over and I could never do the things I'd hoped to do with my life, I genuinely thought I had ruined everything for myself. But it has taken me 3 years and a lot of ups and downs, most of which I could group together and turn into an Eastenders storyline, for me to get to where I am now. I may still be on benefits and not have a job. But one day, hopefully soon, I will. It has taken me this long to realise that if you are determined enough, things will prevail, whether or not you started out as a naive 19 year old, left holding the baby and relying on the state to help you. And I only hope that someday, I can pay back into the system that helped me to get to where I wish to be.
So next time you raise your eyebrows at a teenage mother or you feel like moaning about how you have to pay tax to fund all those dole-heads who class work as getting dressed ready in time to go to the pub, then perhaps stop and think. There will always be a handful of those, the "stereotypes" that let the majority down. There are teenage girls who get pregnant on purpose and for all the wrong reasons. And there are people who bleed the welfare system dry because they don't want to have to get out of bed to be able to fund their lifestyle. But there are people, like me, who blow apart the stereotypes. I became a teenage mother by accident and decided to face the consequences of my actions and ever since, I have only ever done what is best for my child. I hated having to go on benefits, but I didn't make my daughter's father leave us with nothing. And I fully intend to get out of the system sooner rather than later. Unless you have ever been cast in a situation, you are not free to judge. To do so is small minded. Don't aim your anger or your frustrations at a group of people, aim them at the individual who lets them down.