Former teen mum breaks down the barriers
BERNADETTE Black has a habit of saying "thank you" a lot. This is probably a reflection of her overwhelmingly optimistic attitude to life, being thankful for every hard-won opportunity she has had since becoming a mum at the age of 16, opportunities she once feared she may never have.
But also it hints at her tremendous drive to share her story in the hopes of giving someone else the courage or inspiration they might need.
Even for my more probing and personal questions, the ones I fear she might decline to answer, she enthusiastically thanks me for asking them before embracing the chance to open herself up.
There is a word for that particular kind of unhesitating willingness she has to bare some tender part of herself in order to reassure or galvanise someone else: bravery.
And brave is another word she enjoys using, not only because it is the name of her foundation for supporting pregnant and parenting teenagers, but also because she believes in inspiring this same kind of bravery in everyone around her. Not the kind of bravery that makes people run towards danger, but the kind of bravery that allows you to show vulnerability without fear. The bravery to empathise with a pregnant teenager instead of judging, and the kind of bravery that might allow her to feel hopeful instead of hopeless.
After becoming pregnant as a teenager and finding absolutely no support available to her, Black has dedicated her life to helping other young mums in the same situation.
Recently named Tasmanian Australian of the year, Black, 42 from Blackmans Bay, knows exactly what rock bottom feels like and she has been there more than once. But she also knows it is possible to climb out of that rut.
Growing up in a Catholic family at Watsonia near Melbourne, Black fell pregnant at the age of 16. She still vividly recalls her furious father shaming her in the middle of the main road, screaming "my 16-year-old daughter has had sex and now she's pregnant!" and "this sort of thing doesn't happen to good girls".
Her father barely spoke a word to her during the pregnancy, her boyfriend's family wanted her to terminate the pregnancy, and despite her determination to do the best she could, Black was feeling judged and scorned.
"I remember going to my Year 10 co-ordinator at school, because I had no idea who else to talk to," she says. "By that time, my tummy was growing, I was starting to show and I couldn't hide it, but I still wanted to be the same person I was. I really wanted to be a girl who everyone could see was contributing to society, but I was worried I was no longer going to have that opportunity.
"He didn't react like everyone else, he didn't judge me. He told me that while the journey might be different now, the destination can stay the same. And those were such powerful words, I've carried them with me ever since.
"And I made myself a three-part promise: that I would be a good mother, that I would complete my education, and that I would write a book to help others who were in my situation. I'm very proud of the fact that I have fulfilled all three of those."
That baby she had as a teenager is now a 25-year-old man named Damien. She finished school and trained as a nurse. She also has a 17-year-old daughter Baeleigh and a 14-year-old son Flynn with her husband, Steven. She has written a book about her experiences as a teen mum, Brave Little Bear, which has gone on to become a touchstone for others in her situation.
She has been named Barnardos Australian Mother of the Year and Telstra Tasmanian Woman of the Year. And in 2009 she started the Brave Foundation to support other young teenage parents as they navigate an extremely difficult part of their lives.
Tasmania has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the country, with 27.1 births per 1000 people aged 15-19, well above the national average of 16.7.
And of those young mums, 79 per cent find themselves on long-term welfare, largely as a result of feeling unable to complete schooling and not having a clear path back into education, training and employment on the other side of parenthood.
"All of these young parents have high hopes and dreams and aspirations for careers but they simply don't know how to get there," Black says. "There is a lot of stigma attached to being a teenage parent but a survey found that the biggest stigma related to being dependent on long-term welfare.
"You need to remember, these young people are often in vulnerable situations [teenage pregnancy rates are higher among those from a low socio-economic background, those who have experienced family violence or sexual abuse, and those who come from unstable housing arrangements], and they also don't have frontal lobes that are developed enough to make pre-decision-making ideas.
"People this age will have very institutionalised ideas of schooling and what is expected in life, and then this happens and they suddenly have no clear pathway," she says. "You probably don't have a driver's licence or a car to get to peri-natal classes or doctor checks, you might not even be on a bus route.
"They want a pathway but have no idea how to get one.
"How could we ever expect a young parent to know what is available for them if nobody tells them? And, as a society, how have we set them up to have any other outcome other than to be part of that 79 per cent?"
Through one-on-one mentoring and providing the best possible individual advice and information to expecting and parenting teenagers, the Brave Foundation is getting these young mums - and dads - back on track, proving that simply treating young parents the same as others makes a difference.
It is easy for people to sneer at pregnant teens or young mums pushing prams. Judging someone you don't know takes far less effort than trying to understand their circumstances. Black knows this well. The judgmental treatment she received from strangers seems all the more unfair in light of the huge effort she was making to get her life back on track at the time.
"When Damien was just a baby, I remember trying to get onto a bus during peak hour and I couldn't get the pram up through the door and onto the bus. The bus driver said something so discriminatory and awful to me that it made me cry and cry and cry. That day I was on my way to the only adult secondary college that would take me. I was going to school. So never judge someone, you don't know what sort of morning they've had or why they are where they are. Maybe just give them a smile instead," she says.
"I remember meeting my husband when Damien was three and even then people told him not to come near me. Thank goodness he did!"
The stigma around teenage parenthood even affects the organisation trying to advocate for them. The Brave Foundation has not always had an easy time securing funding or public exposure. There has often been reluctance among funding bodies and benefactors to be seen supporting an organisation that supports teenage mums.
"It makes me cranky when we are accused of glamorising teenage pregnancy. We absolutely do not glamorise it, we even have policies that specifically refer to not doing anything to glamorise it. If you ask teen parents, the last thing they want is for their child to be a teen parent as well. They want their kid to have what they didn't, and that is the chance to enjoy being a teenager. Teenage life is a gift and these mums and dads want that for their kids.
"What we do, is allow them to have the same access to education and health, as any other parent. And being a parent is tough at any age, let alone as a teenager."
But that socially ingrained stigma is so great that there was a time when Black was convinced she was going to have to somehow hand the group over to a larger organisation to manage, as it was becoming too difficult to keep it afloat on its own.
Fortunately, in 2012, three years after the launch of the foundation, Brave received a $500,000 bequest from a Sydney woman who had no family and chose Brave to be the recipient of her wealth because she wanted to support an organisation that helped children.
It was about this time that former Tasmanian premier David Bartlett became involved with Brave.
"I first met Bernie in 2006 when I was education minister and I presented an award to her son at school," Bartlett says.
"She came up to me afterwards and told me she had been a teenage mum, she was working on a book about her experiences and trying to start up a charity to support other teenage mums.
"I said to her I was the son of a teenage mum, and my mum had no support, nothing. So we had an instant bond and over the years ... several things I did as education minister were influenced by my conversations with Bernie.
"After Brave received that bequest, they needed to set up some good governance structures and when Bernie asked me to be the chair and help out, I leapt at the chance."
Bartlett says Black's dedication to the cause makes her an amazing chief executive for the organisation and a fierce advocate for the young people the foundation supports.
"I'm chair of a number of organisations and I always say the job of chair is easy if you have a fantastic CEO, if they know what they're doing and embody the values of the organisation," he says. "Brave has been a labour of love but an easy one because she is such a driving force, she knows the stigma first-hand."
Over time it became clear that the best way to combat that stigma head-on was to create change at a government policy level, to change attitudes by changing existing institutions and creating new ones.
In August this year, Brave secured $4.4 million in Federal Government funding to roll out a nationwide mentoring program for 350 teenage mums. The Support Expecting and Parenting Teens national trial will see 10 mentors stationed throughout Australia, each supporting 25 parents from pregnancy through to their child's first birthday, helping them complete educational goals, find a fulfilling life path and be the best parents they can.
But even in the midst of all this inspiring personal change and success, Black's life has been far from easy.
"I began this journey with writing a book here 16 years ago and we were in a pretty desperate place at that time in our lives. I was a registered nurse and so was my husband and when we moved to Tasmania we felt pretty isolated but people reached out to us pretty quickly," she says.
"Pretty soon I was pregnant with our son, Flynn, but that pregnancy was complicated and I wasn't able to work any more. Around the same time we also had an investment property that went horribly wrong and as a result we lost our house in West Hobart.
"It took us years to recover, and we've been in our own home in Blackmans Bay for three years now, but it was a real struggle. We spent years in rentals and for a while there were four of us living in one little room. It was while living in those conditions that I wrote Brave Little Bear.
"It's amazing how, when you're in a desperate situation, it's helpful to be able to look at what you can do to help others in your own way. And that situation gave me an even greater passion, and gave my family a greater passion, to get through and make a difference to others. While we were still scraping up a deposit for a house, I was asked to be Poverty Week Ambassador. Walking into Colony47 one day for an event, what nobody realised was that it was the same hostel where we once stayed for three months, working as many nursing shifts as we could.
"I was asked at the time, 'what do you know about poverty?' but it wasn't a story I wanted to tell at the time."
Brave Little Bear, Black's book documenting her experiences as a teenage mum, was published in 2006 and it is still recommended as inspirational reading for other young mums.
This year's Australian of the Year nominees have all been asked, as part of the awards process, to lend a special personal item for an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, something that symbolises the reason for their nomination.
Black has chosen to offer the original manuscript for Brave Little Bear, in all its tatty glory. "It is made from A4 paper that I cut down to 20cm square by hand because that's the shape I had envisioned when I started on it in 2004," she says.
"I had typed up passages of text and printed them on other bits of paper that I just cut out and stuck onto the pages of the book, which was bound together with sticky tape.
"Because I had small kids at the time, some of the pages have kids' drawings on them, there's Vegemite smeared on it in places, and on one page there's some random address written down on it because I needed to write it down and the book was the only paper I could find! So it's not pretty, but it's something so precious to me because it is part of this dream I had, it represents one of the three promises I made to myself. And it very easily could have just remained as some messy little Vegemite-stained manuscript forever if I hadn't made the effort to have it published and make it real.
"The only other option I considered for the museum exhibition was Damien. I asked him how he felt about being on display for a year, but he said 'no'."
Black feels constantly drawn to some form of public or community service. While training herself for the task of running the Brave Foundation, she served on the boards of other non-profit organisations, including the Special Olympics, learning the skills she needed along the way.
She served on the Kingborough Council for five years and in 2013 ran for federal parliament, representing the Liberal Party for the electorate of Franklin, ultimately being defeated by Labor member Julie Collins. She was expected to stand for preselection in the state election the following year but opted to take a break from politics to focus on Brave instead.
At the time she said she still held political aspirations, and while she certainly still has a keen interest in making change at that level, she now says that she prefers doing so from a policy perspective, rather than as an elected representative.
"I'm not a member of any party now but I'm happy to commentate on policies being developed because I think that is important. I don't know about a future for myself in politics in the internal sense, but I do want to continue to impact policy development."
And every little bit helps. Public attitudes to teenage mums are changing, slowly but steadily. The number of teenagers falling pregnant has been declining over the past 20 years and with Brave helping to support the parents who do still find themselves in this situation, everything adds up to a very real shift in perspective, something that gives Black hope for other young mums.
Teenage pregnancy, she says, will always happen, it is not something that is likely to ever stop. But if, as a society, we can focus on helping young mums instead of ostracising them, smiling instead of shunning, the outcome is a win for everyone. Parents can go on to have fulfilling and productive lives, their children can grow up in loving, secure families, and the Federal Government can save millions a year in welfare payments.
Black is unsure what she would say to her 16-year-old self if given a chance. Things certainly worked out well in the end, but it was a very long, very difficult road.
Helping young mums in a practical sense is one thing, but changing people's attitudes to them is another. Despite his tirade in the street 25 years ago and his virtual disowning of her during her pregnancy, Black's father's attitude changed. And if anything gives her hope that anyone can change, it is her father.
"Dad didn't take it well at all when I gave him the news, he didn't talk to me until the end of my pregnancy and I was heartbroken by that," she says.
"He was an insurance clerk and a cleaner, he worked two jobs to give us the opportunities he never had. He worked hard. It makes me teary to think of it now because when this happened, I was still his pride and joy, he was thinking of the ways he could have prevented it happening to me.
"Then, at the end of the pregnancy, one night he came home from work with this mother and baby care book and gave it to me. Inside the front cover he had written 'Dear Bern, I know you will be a great mum, love Dad'.
"There was a lot in that simple gesture. From that day he made the decision to be an active grandfather, to radically change his life. He stopped gambling, stopped drinking, stopped being verbally aggressive, we noticed the change almost overnight. He was an extraordinary grandfather and changed his life so drastically, he ended up having a huge positive impact on his community in various ways.
"I remember him speaking at my 21st birthday, saying 'one day you will talk to politicians, one day maybe the PM, one day the king or queen.' Maybe by that stage he saw a grit and perseverance in me that he hadn't seen before.
"He died a couple of years later, at the age of 49, while training to run in his eighth Melbourne Marathon. I was 24 at the time. But the years I had with him after Damien was born, they were unlike any of the years I had with him before then. I'm so thankful for having that time with him, and seeing how he changed."
For more information about the Brave Foundation visit bravefoundation.org.au
Bernadette Black is now a finalist for Australian of the Year, being announced on January 26, 2019.