Sarah Stone: Why teenage mums deserve a break

'You're the scum of the earth'. 'You'll never amount to anything'. 'You're immoral'. 'No one is ever going to want you'. 'You must be stupid'.

These are some of the degrading words that have been spoken over teenage mums in the UK.

It seems that stigma around teenage pregnancy prevails. Young mums are often criticised as trying to cheat the benefit system and are looked down upon by well-meaning, and not-so-well-meaning, members of society. Many of our tens of thousands of young mums feel that they're written off the moment they admit that they're pregnant.

Although it is the lowest it has been since 1969, the UK still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe. But as the government works to reduce this further, and charities and other organisations work to support young mums, do the rest of us need to check the stereotypes that we're holding?

Raising a child is hard. Raising a child on your own is really hard. And raising a child while everyone is judging you and expecting you to make a mess of it? Well, that must be even harder.

On Wednesday, Young Motherhood, a documentary project by Jendella Benson, was presented at the House of Commons. Benson travelled around the UK to interview, film and create family portraits of 27 young mums. One of her videos, featuring young mums speaking about their experiences, was played at yesterday's exhibition.

Every story was different, but in every case the courageous decision to have and raise a child in what were often less-than-ideal circumstances was treated with condescension.

Lucy, one of the women featured in the documentary, recalls seeing what her doctor wrote on her referral to the midwives: "Unfortunately, Lucy is pregnant." It wasn't until that moment that Lucy realised how people were going to view her. 17 and pregnant – there were no congratulations.

I think it's great that schools are working to give better sex and relationship education to young people, so that they can make informed and wise decisions about their futures. But isn't there a way that we can do that without making every teenager who does become a mum feel like a failure?

Some of the mothers in Young Motherhood said that they were more worried about what people would say about them than they were about actually raising a child. And most of the time it wasn't their parents that they were worried about – parents who in many cases really stepped up and helped – it was their friends, and strangers they'd meet on the street who would give them dirty looks or make nasty comments.

That makes me really sad.

Especially considering the mothers featured in Benson's project have achieved so much in their lives and have thrived as mothers, despite the judgements.

Justina, who is now a mother of four, found that becoming a mum and encountering people's negative expectations of her made her more determined to do something with her life.

"Essentially when I got pregnant everyone wrote me off, except for my mum," she said. "They said I wouldn't amount to anything, I'd ruined my life, I'd never have a career, I wouldn't be able to get a decent job. At the time, because I wasn't with [my daughter's] father, it was like 'Nobody is ever going to want you, you're never going to be able to get married, nobody's going to take on you and a child.'

"I was super determined to prove them wrong. When I was able to, I went back to college and I studied and I worked, and I worked, and I worked to not fulfil that kind of stereotype."

There are always going to be teenagers who struggle and can't cope with motherhood. But there are always going to be women of all ages who can't cope with motherhood. None of them need our contempt – they need help, and encouragement. People to champion them on, not set them up to fail.

Most Christians would say that they are pro-life. But how can we say that we're pro-life and at the same time pile judgement on young people who fall pregnant? I know for a fact that there are Christian organisations in the UK who have kicked people out for being pregnant. And I think that the Church, as it is at the moment, is the last place most young future-mums would turn to for help.

If Christians don't want people to have abortions, and yet we carry on judging and gossiping and making snide remarks, we have to accept the consequences. How can we possibly expect teenagers to make the brave decision to keep their babies when all they experience is condemnation? We need to stop making people feel ashamed.

It's too late to judge someone once they are pregnant. Whatever the age. Whatever the situation. It's not our place and it's not okay.

But how beautiful would it be if the Church became the place that young pregnant women felt accepted and loved? The place where the doors were open and support was available – without judgement?

Teenage mums need encouragement and respect, like we all do, and Christians should be the ones leading the way.