Cydney Helsdown, 24, hit crisis point last year when she split abruptly from her 4-year-old son’s father.
Her partner was arrested for assaulting her and handed a restraining order, which meant he became suddenly, entirely absent from Cydney and her son’s life. Lumbered with sole responsibility for outgoings that had been shared, and which exceeded her wages, Cydney had to skip meals in order to feed her son, Corben.
“Looking back, it’s all a bit of a blur,” she said. “I had my blinkers on for so long, but then it all got too much for me. On one occasion I just broke down at work crying. It was just really difficult.”
Unfortunately, Cydney’s story is not that unusual; a recent survey indicated that a staggering 46% of mothers under the age of 25 in the UK regularly don’t eat so their children can. A quarter said they had used a food bank.
Loneliness, anxiety, and workplace discrimination were also reported on an enormous scale by the 300-strong sample surveyed for the Young Women’s Trust (YWT).
According to the YWT, the barriers young mothers face in finding work can put a strain on the family budget. Meanwhile, low wages for under-25-year-olds — who are not legally entitled to the national living wage — inflexible working conditions, and inadequate support from the state mean that even for mothers in employment, earnings are often completely gobbled up by expensive childcare costs.
Cydney says this is what happened to her. “My outgoings were more than my wages, so I had to kind of weigh up, 'Do I pay my rent? Do I pay for childcare? Or do I feed myself and my son?'” she told me.
“I had to make certain decisions and sacrifices, like I won’t eat or I can only pay X amount of rent. Every day the landlord was contacting me, and I just didn’t know what to do. I was so stressed at the time that I had a doctor suggest I take a couple of weeks off work because I was suffering panic attacks and anxiety.”
If she had been allowed to work from home, Cydney said, things might have been different, but she wasn’t offered the option.
Eventually, Cydney was forced to move home to live with her parents in a different part of the country. Although she was initially reluctant to give up her independence, she says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the support of her mother.
Sophie Kathir, 29, says she experienced loneliness, poverty, debt and discrimination as a young mother.
A lack of support and advice on what help she was entitled to receive, in addition to poor treatment by prospective employers, left her struggling to make ends meet over and over again after she had her first child, a daughter, at 21, followed by a son at 24.
Unlike Cydney, Sophie didn’t have a supportive family to fall back on.
“I didn’t plan to have kids so young, but things happen,” she told me, over the phone. “I’m still not speaking to my family. My husband’s family were not that supportive [either], because I was just about to go to university [when I fell pregnant] and they were just saying how going to university with a baby was not possible. We were pretty much on our own.”
These circumstances left her without a safety net when she struggled to find work. On one occasion, she said, a job interview turned sour when she admitted her proudest achievement was attaining a degree while caring for her first child. The employer later told her that although she was a perfect fit for the job, they felt she had "too much baggage". Because she couldn’t find work, she was forced to rely on payday loans to buy basic necessities for her family — she is still struggling to pay these back, four years later.
Three months after giving birth, Sophie started university. But again she felt out of place, and struggled to get by financially. “The university didn’t really know how to support me,” she said. “When I asked about childcare and things they didn’t have any idea how to help me with it.”
Sophie relied heavily on the promise of a student loan but, when this was delayed for six months, she was forced to struggle by on housing benefit and dwindling statutory maternity pay. “The childcare costs were so high we were either paying the rent or paying the childminder,” she said. “It was difficult to buy books and feed a baby and all those other things as well.”
Sophie believes a lack of support from universities — and society at large — and the high incidence of discrimination in the workplace can be put down to underlying negative attitudes towards young mothers. “There’s definitely a stigma… [an idea that] we had children just to get on benefits and get a house, to do nothing with our lives, you know…” she said.
This bleeds into every aspect of some women’s lives, compounding the often challenging impact of new motherhood and leaving them isolated and struggling. According to Young Women’s Trust research, 19% of women under 25 with babies report feeling lonely all the time. Some said they barely left the house.
“I didn’t want to go to any playgroups and meet other mums because I felt like the first time I went to a playgroup they just looked down on me,” Sophie said. “I just wanted to speak to someone to see if what I did was right, but I had no one to talk to and that affected my mental health.”
Laura Davies, 26, believes sexism is also part of the problem. She says she was bullied out of her male-dominated sales job after having a baby at 19; during her pregnancy her employer refused to accommodate her needs, even when they were flagged as a health and safety concern, and after maternity leave, she was told she wasn’t welcome back.
“I was made well aware that they weren’t going to welcome me back with open arms, with one manager stating that I should ‘stay at home with my child on benefits like all other teen mums’,” she said. “For someone that was already suffering with postnatal depression, this made me feel numb. I felt belittled and undermined as a person because I had chosen to have a child.”
Like Sophie, Laura was also studying at the time and found her university to be unsupportive, too — it had absolutely no protocol in place, she said, to help students who were also mothers.
But her boyfriend, who was studying at a different institution, encountered more supportive attitudes both at university and at work — being a teenage father didn’t appear to carry the same stigma as being a young mother.
“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” Laura said. “While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”
Like Sophie, she said she found it difficult to befriend older women who had babies — they seemed to judge her. “I had this sinking feeling in my stomach each time I walked into a mother and baby group,” she said. “The sudden looks and stares when you knew that everyone was trying to calculate in their head how young you actually were. The awareness that all the mums had formed cliques, while you were sat in the middle with your baby on your own.”
Cydney, Laura and Sophie mentioned several things that could have helped them: more support from universities; more help and less bureaucracy in accessing tax credits and other benefits; cheaper or free childcare; flexible working; and stronger rules against workplace discrimination, to make it easier and cheaper to prosecute discriminatory employers.
But the negative attitude to young mothers that underpins the way some women are treated needs to shift, too. “Being a young mum shouldn’t be a pass to be judged and walked over,” Laura said. “We need to challenge what society tells us. Young mums are driven and determined, we have ambition and we are worthy.”