Emma Hewett had plenty of reasons to be excited about the future.
Her college course was coming to an end and a university place was on the horizon.
But with motherhood comes sacrifice. And for Emma – just 18 when she fell pregnant – that meant giving up her plans for further study.
As her three-year-old son plays happily nearby, Emma reflects on how her life has changed.
‘I wouldn’t change Charlie for the world,’ she says. ‘But if I had the chance to wait and have that same child, I would have waited.’
That’s the message Emma, now 22, tries to pass on to other teenagers. As a peer educator, she shares her experience with pupils at Portsmouth’s schools to help them understand the consequences of getting pregnant in your teens.
She’s not there to give them sex education lessons, or lecture them on what they shouldn’t do.
The idea is that by giving an honest account of the ups and downs she’s faced, the pupils will think carefully about contraception, sex and relationships.
Between 1998 and 2010 there was a 24 per cent reduction in teen pregnancies in Portsmouth. In the rest of Hampshire, conception rates have gone down 29.8 per cent over the same period.
Portsmouth City Council’s teen pregnancy manager, Danielle Brunnock, says the peer educators have helped bring about that reduction. In 2009 there were 50 conceptions per 1,000 girls and by 2010 – the latest official figures available – it had gone down to 43.3.
The peer educator scheme has been run by the city council for two years and was set up after young parents revealed they would have responded if sex and relationship education lessons had included hearing from someone who’d been through a teen pregnancy themselves.
For a city that’s battled with high teen pregnancy rates, getting the numbers down is crucial.
‘Most young girls will be young women and end up having a baby at one point,’ says Danielle. ‘We’re saying “Wait until it’s the right time, you’re in a loving relationship, financially you’re in a good place”.
‘It’s about the delay message.’
She adds: ‘It’s going in the right direction at the moment. I’m hopeful that the rates are going to keep going down. The preventative work we’re doing in schools is working.’
Along with nine other volunteers, Emma goes into schools to talk about the impact becoming a mum has had on many aspects of her life, including how she copes financially and how it’s changed the relationships in her life.
The young mums write their own stories down and answer pupil questions. They’re also available to do one-to-ones with girls who have been identified as particularly vulnerable.
‘They tell them it’s difficult, it’s hard, it can be lonely, you can have very little support and very little money,’ adds Danielle.
‘There is no free ride, you do get money but it’s not very much. It’s better to be young and stay young and be at home and get your education than be in this situation, trying to make ends meet.’
Emma, from Hilsea, adds: ‘What I’ve told people is that it’s really hard.
‘If someone came into my school and tried to explain it to me I would have thought “Oh my God”.
‘It probably would have made me think twice about missing my pill.’
Emma was in a relationship and 19 when she gave birth. Although she was taking the contraceptive pill, she admits she would sometimes skip one.
‘I never thought it would happen to me. I just didn’t think,’ she adds.
‘Although I had the grades to go to university I didn’t want to put another stress on my life, so I turned my place down. If I’d gone to uni it wouldn’t have been the same, you can’t live the lifestyle.’
For Charlee Atkinson, being a peer educator is a chance to take part in something she wishes had been around when she was at school.
‘You can tell your own story,’ says Charlee, who was 16 when she found out she was pregnant with daughter Betsy, now two.
‘If you’ve not been through it, they’re not going to listen. I tell them about day-to-day life. You can’t just go off like other people. I try and get across to them that it’s the next 18 years of their lives.
‘At school you can see someone’s pregnant but you don’t have a realistic idea of what it’s like, day-to-day. It’s giving an inside view.
‘If I’d had something like that I would have listened a bit more.’
Now 20 and living in Copnor, Charlee talks to the pupils about how getting pregnant put an end to the college course she’d started. She also shares how she feels about losing her freedom.
‘I’ve got different responsibilities than other people my age,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes I do want to be young and carefree but I can’t be like that.
‘It’s hard seeing your friends do what they want. You have to remind yourself that you can’t do that.’
Dealing with the full-time responsibility
Cairo Paige was 18 when she found out she was pregnant. She’s still with her boyfriend and their daughter Ronnie is now two. But the three of them can’t afford to live together and are saving up for their own place.
Cairo, 21 and from Fratton, had missed a couple of pills when she realised she was pregnant.
‘I was old enough to know it was going to be hard work but it scared me that it would be a full-time responsibility,’ she adds.
‘It was hard to get work and I ended up going on benefits, which was horrible.
‘I’m not going to say I regret having her because I don’t. If I could change anything I would have waited. I wouldn’t have let myself risk having a baby.’
Making other teens aware of the financial implications is important to Cairo who adds: ‘They need to know that it’s not as easy as going to the council and living happily ever after. It’s not like that at all. We’ve moved three times and it’s been hard to find somewhere that was cheap enough.’
‘I felt people were judging me’
Getting pregnant came at a crucial moment in Phoebe Dolby’s young life.
She was 15 and preparing for her GCSEs when she found out she was expecting son Archie, now three.
The 19-year-old, from Fratton, says: ‘I felt that people were judging me. I was still in school uniform and catching the bus home every day.
‘I was pregnant when I sat my exams but I had to sit in another room in case I went into labour.
‘I had lots of support but I didn’t think about what a big thing it was until he was born.’
Motherhood has changed Phoebe. She went back to college to do her A-levels when Archie.
‘I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if it wasn’t for him,’ she adds. ‘It changed my whole life. But if I could pick him up and move him to come later on in life I would.’
Nervous at first, she now enjoys going into schools. Her key message is ‘Just think about it.’
She adds: ‘They can tell what you’re telling them is quite personal and they listen. If someone had come in and done it when I was at school I would have listened. It’s not a teacher, it’s someone you can relate to.’
Not the stereotypical idea
For Sharni Hopkins, pregnancy brought a change in living arrangements that she wasn’t prepared for.
She had to move into a hostel while she waited for a council flat to become available.
And it was a hardship that required her to make many adjustments.
The 21-year-old is now mum to two-and-half-year old Pixie. She was 18 when she got pregnant.
‘It was really hard, a huge shock,’ says Sharni, from Portsea. ‘When I lived with my mum and dad it was really easy, everything was done for us. When I went to the hostel I had to do everything for myself.’
She adds: ‘You can’t just have a child and work. It’s not the life that everyone makes it out to be – this idea that you get a baby and stay together forever and get a flat.
‘You get to tell them your own story, it’s personal and not just the stereotypical idea.’