How girls labelled ‘sl*ts and losers’ proved critics wrong
Slut. Scum. Loser. Dole bludger. You've wrecked your life. No one will ever love you. You'll never have a family or a nice home. Forget a career or seeing the world.
If these insults and dire predictions were not openly hurled at Juanita Wheeler, Kristina Wild and Fanny Barlow, they were clearly implied in the stares and whispers following them everywhere they went.
Teen mums can be judged harshly.
Wild was 17 when she had Juliet, Wheeler was 18 when Joseph was born, and Fanny was 19 when she first held son Coco.
All were single or soon to be, living independently, and trying to juggle work and parenting with limited or no family support. Wheeler and Barlow barely graduated high school, while Wild left after Year 9.
"Everyone says, go out and give it a go, and you do, but this world is not for teen mums," reflects Barlow, now 34. "You don't really get a fair go. It's just like a black mark over you."
Still, these women had something else in common: a fierce determination to prove the doubters wrong. It hasn't been easy but they've achieved their dreams and more.
Wheeler, Wild and Barlow are company founders, seasoned world travellers and intrinsic members of loving families - possibilities they want today's teen parents to embrace for their own futures. Latest figures show 6600 babies were born to girls aged 15-19 years nationally in 2017, a drop of 40 per cent from 2006.
"If I had listened to every person who said my life was over, and believed it, my life would have been over," says Wheeler, now 45. "Every time someone tells you that you can't do something or your life is over, prove them wrong. Not for them, but for you."
Juanita Wheeler, 45, Toowong
Founder of Full & Frank, executive director TEDxBrisbane, senior Atlantic Fellow
"At 16 I was absolutely certain I was going to die. Either I was going to kill (my late mother) to save myself, or she was going to kill me, or I could kill me."
The veneer afforded by a nice family home in Brisbane's western suburbs, private school education and middle income lifestyle belied the "war zone" Wheeler survived daily. Her parents - whom she declines to identify - separated when she was 10. She and a now estranged sister lived with her mother, who was violent, "abusive" and "neglectful". Living with her father, who had remarried, was not an option. Extended family knew of her mother's mental illness but felt unable to intervene.
"There were different times when you'd try to tell people, tell family, what was going on, but I worked out pretty quickly no one is riding in to save you." She pauses as cockatoos crack sunflower seeds on her back deck, squawking in protest at pigeons daring to invite themselves to the daily feast. "I try my best to not be judgmental about anyone who did not do anything to help."
A foiled suicide attempt at 16 brought her to the psychiatrist who ultimately helped her escape, someone she still sees as needed all these years later. After Year 12, Wheeler became emancipated from her parents to access income support, moved into a share house, got a part-time job and enrolled in a TAFE business course. It was a shock to discover she was 24 weeks' pregnant, the father an older boy she'd spent time with the previous year.
"If you could find people to date, particularly if their parents were slightly disinterested or busy with their own lives, and you could spend the night there, it was far safer than my house when a tirade was going on," she explains. "This is not a Cinderella romance story but, guess what, if this is the transactional basis that means I have a safe place to sleep tonight, someone is providing me with food and someone is being nice to me, this is a completely acceptable transaction on my part."
A "screamingly pro-choice" feminist, Wheeler never considered not having the baby; it would be the two of them against the world. Or would have been, had she not met her flatmate's friend Rob, now 51, the tall bank teller and history buff who would become her husband and her baby Joseph's adoptive dad. "I'm still besotted 27 years later and he's just perfect."
TAFE and a year at home caring for her son, now 27, made way for two years of an education degree at Queensland University of Technology. She and Rob then had Rory, now 23, then Harrison, 22. Wheeler swapped to an arts degree and Rob worked nights at Treasury Casino while studying a dual arts/education degree.
The growing costs of raising a family lured Wheeler away from a subsequent public relations masters to join Rob, who left uni to join her father's global biotech company, where she eventually became director of global marketing and market development, earning an Executive MBA and Master of Business, majoring in philanthropy and non-profit studies, along the way.
While completing her MBA in 2012, a life-changing revelation struck Wheeler square between the eyes.
"There was a subject called self-realisation and personal development, which I thought was a bunch of naval-gazing faff. I had to do every kind of aptitude and personality and emotional intelligence test known to man. Two weeks later, you sit down with a consultant who has assessed everything. She's like, 'Okay, you hate your job, you think you should be changing the world and doing big things'. I'm not a crying person, but I cried as I was driving home."
Two weeks later, she attended the inaugural TEDxSouthBankWomen conference, where one speaker in particular, who described leaving a dream job, home and relationship because they weren't fulfilling, resonated. Within six months, Wheeler started Full & Frank to help non-profits, charities and social enterprises achieve their missions. Seven years on, Wheeler is about to launch a digital course teaching presentation and pitching skills to anyone who wants to learn.
"It clicked that I was saving every minute of time only for charities, non-profits and social enterprises because of survivor's guilt. I felt I owed the universe something; I needed to earn that I survived my childhood.
"(Harvard Business School professor) Michael Porter has a TED talk where he said - and I wholeheartedly agree - that doing good is not the sole purview of charities. We can all be in business and do good. That's something I'm very passionate about."
A senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute, an international organisation dedicated to fostering a global community of leaders addressing inequity, Wheeler is also passionate about mentoring, particularly teenage mothers, and educating those who would disparage them. "Rob and I were shopping at Westfield Carindale - I was pregnant, 18 but looked 14. We were going down an escalator one way, this one woman was going up another. She looked across and smiled at us. I remember her because she was the only woman who smiled at me the entire time I was pregnant. You do not want to be a pregnant teenager; you will just be looked at continuously as though you are scum.
"Then there was this wonderful woman Gloria, who worked for Centrelink, and she was the only person in there who continuously tried to help me over the years … because she could see I was desperately trying to study, getting good grades and juggling kids in childcare. I sent her my grades at the end of every semester and when I graduated, started earning a good income and got my first tax return, I sent her a copy of the amount of tax I paid. I was saying, this is me paying it back, give this to the next person who needs it; I've got this now.
"The reason those women stand out is because no one does it. People are so unhelpful as a general rule, which is really sad because I know several teen mums who are incredibly successful, have great careers and great families. It's so much harder than it needs to be.
"If you want these young women to succeed, to be able to care for themselves and their families, and have successful lives, don't tell them their life is over. Don't judge them for what brought them to that point - you have no idea. If you don't want them to be a 'burden' on society, work out what you can do to help, because there's always something."
Kristina Wild, 35, Bulimba, International wedding & family photographer
"Life is totally what you want for it and if you want something bigger, make it work - and work for it."
Wild got her first job at 11, moved out of home at 14 and left school at 15.
She learnt the value of hard work from her mum Carol Dearden, 64, along with a love of travel and photography.
Growing up in Tenterfield, Wild and her younger sister Emma Graveson, 34, spent hours poring over the hundreds of photos of Dearden's global adventures. A single mum, Dearden variously owned a boutique, stationery business, was a TAFE teacher and sold Nutrimetics, taking the girls on the first of many overseas trips - to visit family in Ireland - when they were nine and eight years old respectively.
Wild moved to Brisbane to start a hairdressing apprenticeship at 16 and fell pregnant with Juliet the next year after forgetting to pack her contraception for a long weekend away with boyfriend Scott, now an electrician, 37.
"I was standing in my salon, the afternoon sun coming through the window, looking at the pregnancy test - I've still got it somewhere - and I was like, oh my god. But instantly I was like, yeah, I can do this, I'll be fine. I wasn't scared," she says. Her relationship with Scott faltered but he and Juliet see each other regularly.
"I've always just done my own thing, so anyone saying (you've wrecked your life) didn't really hit anywhere. If anything, it gave me more of an 'I'll show you' attitude. I hate the idea of subscribing to the idea I'm supposed to be anything (specific) to anyone.''
Wild picked up a camera to document Juliet's life and from then on, was never without one over her shoulder. Disappointed with her first blurry and under-exposed images, she was determined to master the art of photography.
Working a variety of jobs, she saved to take Juliet, then three, to meet her Irish family - the first of many overseas adventures. On her return, she ran a cleaning business for several years before becoming a nanny. All the while she'd be taking photos of family and friends, posting them and blogging on social media.
"It was just me photographing where and how I was - it's real, it's who you are, it's your real setting. Someone reached out and said, 'Hey, I've seen what you've done, can you do some family photos for me?' So I made a website."
Wild points to actor Kevin Costner's famous line, "If you build it, he will come" from 1989 film Field of Dreams, framed and hung prominently in the home she shares with partner Will Cunliffe, 33, a music technician. "Once I made that website and made myself a product people could purchase, it wasn't that awkwardness of asking me for a favour and it went really, really well."
Pre-COVID-19, Wild shot an average of 40 weddings and 150 family sessions a year, with clients flying her to Europe, Asia, America and all over Australia. This year will be even busier (fingers crossed), with so many 2020 weddings already rescheduled. She employs a full-time and a part-time assistant.
To today's young parents, Wild says, "Look after your mental health because it can be a very lonely place" and find a good source of peer support, whether online or in person. Wild sought ongoing counselling after her divorce from eight-year-old daughter Iggy's father several years ago and recommends it for everyone, especially young parents and their families.
"Being a young mum doesn't define you. It's more of a superpower. It allows you to have a close, connected relationship with your child," says Wild, tearing up. "When I had Juliet, it was like I met my first true love. Would I have her again? I would - it's the most loving experience to be able to give love and receive it."
Fanny Barlow, 34, Kelvin Grove, Founder of Mermaid Salon, costume designer
"I've wanted to work in the creative industries my whole life. I wanted to be a fashion designer, I wanted to be a prop designer … but all through high school, (teachers) were like, 'No, that's not a job, you'll never make any money," Barlow says. "Instead of trying to find avenues so I could do what I liked, they suggested aged care or pharmacy work. They shot me down, slammed all these doors and, even though I was a teenager, I believed them."
Struggling with a dysfunctional home life in Caboolture, Barlow worked several jobs until she fell pregnant at 18. Already legal guardian for her young brother, 13, Barlow brought him and baby Coco to inner-city Brisbane to start a new life. She rented a house and found a job but could not make ends meet, especially after her brother became ill.
"I was trapped. I was going to my job, working my butt off and I still couldn't pay for daycare. I had no options. I got more (income) sitting at home looking after Coco. It felt never-ending. I got depressed, I started drinking and lost my grip on everything."
At her lowest, Barlow abused drugs and alcohol, and was homeless, alternatively sleeping in her car, public parks or couch-surfing. Coco, 3, and her brother were sent to live with family. A dear friend took her in but, two months later, he was in a serious accident and she was too high to say goodbye before his life support was turned off. "I remember looking in the mirror after he died, thinking I'm going to kill myself, this is it for me. I'm not even a person I like anymore." She survived. "I thought, you even blew this. I've literally failed at everything, including killing myself, so let's see what I can do if I try to rebuild; it's not my time (to die), so start again."
At 23, Barlow completed a rehabilitation program, found a home with good friends and started making the jewellery, brooches and hair accessories she sold at markets for several years. It was here she met mentor Juanita King, who would eventually offer an apprenticeship at her hair salon. Barlow regained custody of Coco, now 15, and welcomed daughter Nenabee, 8, with her then-partner, now co-parent, who she declines to name.
When a spinal injury forced King to close her business, Barlow opened Mermaid Salon and hired a senior hairdresser so she could finish her apprenticeship. What started with one chair, mirror and temporary basin is now a salon and international cosmetics brand, with a cafe and luxury accommodation in development at its Eagle Farm premises.
Mermaid Salon beauty products have more than 40 stockists around the world, while its Chubby Mermaid Carve and Contour Paddle Brush sent the internet into a meltdown and featured in fashion bibles Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
"Getting my apprenticeship meant I could be approved for a loan. As soon as I got that, I launched my cosmetics line - which eclipses the salon times a million. I'm very, very proud of the chubby brush. If I only wanted to live off it, we could do it very comfortably but I'd also be very bored."
As well as managing Mermaid Salon and mentoring budding hairdressers in the Solomon Islands, Barlow has been a costume, prop and make-up designer for Brisbane party supplies wholesaler, Sweidas, for the past two years. Asked why she juggles running a business with a full-time job, she shrugs as we sit cross-legged on her lounge room floor, hot-gluing her latest home decor project together.
"Sam, my boss (at Sweidas), knew I had a successful business and asked the same thing. I really had to do it to prove people wrong; to show people in power who were meant to look out for me, hey, you dropped the ball, there were opportunities for me the whole time. You just didn't believe in them, because they're creative, and you didn't believe in me."
Barlow says she has no regrets and urges other teenage parents to brush off the stereotypes and stigma.
"I don't like the connotation that teen mums have ruined their lives at all, because my life is very good. It was tumultuous. I definitely did it in an order that made it very hard. I didn't hate being a teenage mother; I hated being treated how society treats teenage mothers. That's the difference." ■
Originally published as Teen mums to CEOS: How girls labelled 'sl*ts, losers' proved critics wrong