Life after teenage pregnancy
It was the year 2003 and 16-year-old Paula Robinson had everything going for her.
A promising student at the respected Excelsior High School in Kingston, the teen had risen above an unstable home life, which involved her living with various family members, to excel academically and socially.
The popular, vivacious and outgoing fourth-former, who had been elected Miss Excelsior, was acting prefect and classroom and environmental monitor.
She was also a member of the school's Spanish Club, peer counselling group, the choir and the track and field team, and was ready to challenge for the post of head girl.
Then her whole world turned upside down. Little more than a child herself, Paula found out that she was expecting one.
"I cried when I took the test and it came back positive," the now 23-year-old recalled to JIS News. "I just couldn't believe that it happened. I wasn't mad at anybody. I was just sad that I had so many things going on for me and then this. I was like, 'What am I going to do? I am a baby myself. I don't know how to take care of a baby. I never pinned on a nappy before, never washed one; how am I going to take care of a baby?'," says Paula, who works at the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF), an organisation that would play a critical role during and after her pregnancy.
Even as she struggled with the reality of her condition, she had to deal with the disappointment of family members, who saw her as the 'one' that would uplift the family, as well as pressure to terminate the pregnancy. Added to this was facing the judgemental eyes of the public and the stigma that comes with teen pregnancy.
Feeling like a nobody
"The pregnancy happened in March and so I was able to finish the term at Excelsior High, but when September morning came and everybody was ready to go to school, I was at home with my tummy protruding. When I saw my school friends, I would hide and act as if I don't know them because I felt like a nobody, like I was being left behind while they were excelling," she told JIS.
However, resolute in the face of adversity and determined to be a success, Paula, backed by the emotional and financial support of the then parent-teacher association president at Excelsior, put a plan in place to get back on track.
Resuming her life
She enrolled at the WCJF, a government agency that addresses the problems of interrupted education and the accompanying social problems that occur when an adolescent girl drops out of school because of pregnancy. At the centre, she sat and passed five Caribbean Examinations Council subjects.
"When I came to the WCJF, it was much different and you feel like you have a family. You see persons in a similar situation to the one that you are in, so you feel more comfortable and all of that. This was important for me in resuming my life," she explained.
Despite the support, Paula's journey was never easy, requiring a delicate balancing act of school and motherhood.
"It wasn't easy. What you have to understand is that when you have a child, it's different. First, it was you, and now it is you and a baby. So certain things that you had in mind or wanted to do, you have to say that was Plan A, but it's not going to work out so there will have to be a Plan B," she added.
Harking back to what was a challenging period in her life, Paula told JIS she had to make some tough decisions, such as leaving her son in the care of others to attend classes.
"It was really tough because we were so bonded and I was so emotionally attached to him. I never wanted to leave him and so I would wonder, 'Are they taking care of him as I would? Are they feeding him as I would?'" she recalled.
"Sometimes, you would be studying and the baby would wake up and you would have to put your book aside and breastfeed the baby, and sometimes after attending to the baby for whatever reason, you would feel extremely tired and want to sleep," she recounted with a sigh, while emphasising, "You can't, and you have to tell yourself that I am studying and I want to pass my exams. Do what you have to do."
Paula left the WCJF in 2005 and started work as a receptionist at Commercial Investigations and Research Services. Since then, she has upgraded her qualifications by completing courses at the Management Institute for National Development and the University of the West Indies Open Campus.
She is currently employed to the WCJF as a records and information clerk and feels privileged that daily, through her interaction with the girls at the WCJF, she can make a difference in their lives.
"Our presence is important because some of these girls don't want to go home in the afternoons because of what is there. They are troubled at home, and they don't have anybody to talk to. Also, because they are pregnant, some people look down on them. So just a simple word of encouragement will go a long way and allow them to feel better.
"They look at us (me and other past students) as an inspiration to have their child and move on. They see us as an example of success," she underscored.
Meanwhile, Paula, who is a native of Trelawny, is appealing to boys and girls to abstain from sex, and to parents to pay closer attention to them.
"The message that I would give is that abstinence, it really makes sense, and if you think you can't abstain from sex, then use a contraceptive method, condom or Femidom. Protect yourself, be careful, be level-headed and stick to one partner," she urged.
Today, Paula is happy and adores her six-year-old son, whose father, she said, is very involved in the parenting process. "He's there for his son. I have to give him two thumbs up."
Not letting up on her dream to have a successful career, she has applied to the University College of the Caribbean and hopes to begin a degree in human resources management or public relations in September.
"It's just about me being successful and I am working extremely hard at it because I believe and I know that one day, I'll reach wherever I want to be and I'll look back and laugh and cry at how far I have come," she said, laughing.
The WCJF Programme for Adolescent Mothers began in 1978. It also offers walk-in counselling service for women and men; counselling for fathers and parents of teen mothers; skills training for both males and females in the 17-25 age group; confidential counselling service for children of any age and group peer counselling sessions at the Kingston Counselling Clinic; and day-care facilities for babies of teen and working mothers, among others.
Persons interested in finding out more information about the WCJF can call 929-7608 or 929-0977.