Lucy V Hay talks teen pregnancy, stigma and transmedia
Lucy V Hay (aka the infamous script guru Bang2write) took time out of her busy schedule to share some insight into writing her new book THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY, the story of a pregnant teen’s many possible futures.
What inspired you to write THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY?
Personal experience and frustration. I always wanted to write something about being a teen Mum, because I would look around and see no one like me on television, or movies. It’s one area of characterisation where there is very little variety beyond two dimensional stereotypes. Always, teen Mums are depicted as mouthy, ill-educated, scroungers – getting pregnant for benefits, or because they’re too “stupid” to use contraception. If we’re clever, we’re usually trying to trap a (usually much older) man, who can’t resist the little Lolita.
I made many attempts to write something different before THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY – it was my agent, Julian Friedmann who put me on the right track. He said he’d met with a (female) publisher who said she was tired of reading about “teenage love and vampires” and that she wanted something “gritty and real”. He told me not to think of my story as an autobiography, but advice to “teenage me” on what I should do. It broke open the idea in my head at last.
What were the best things about being a teen mum? The worst?
Being a Teen/Young Mum means you can cope physically with the demands of pregnancy, a baby and young child really well. I had a problem-free pregnancy and though I had a difficult birth, I was back to normal within days, rather than weeks. This was just as well because for the first 9 weeks of his life, my son did nothing but cry. No exaggeration. He had terrible colic and slept for ten minutes here, twenty minutes there. It was Hell. Even my own mother didn’t know what to do with him and she’d had five children of her own!
It also gives you a much more realistic perspective on motherhood, too I think – I see many of my peers bigging it up in their own minds as being this perfect thing they’re going to do, buying all the various crap that babies simply don’t need … Then something goes wrong in labour, or they can’t breastfeed, or it’s not what they expect or whatever and they just fall apart, sure they’re terrible parents. As a Teen or Young Mum, you realise very quickly that’s nothing “perfect”, you just get on with it and you’re much more Zen in comparison.
But most of all, raising a teenager is much easier when you can remember what it’s LIKE to be a teenager. That’s not to say my son and I haven’t had our problems – all families do – but I really believe we have been able to keep him on the straight and narrow without invalidating him because we can relate to his worldview, because it wasn’t that long ago we were teens ourselves.
The worst things are obvious: having very little money was a huge challenge for me as a single Mum. This notion that young women do it as a “lifestyle choice” makes me laugh, especially as it’s nearly always uttered by someone not trying to make ends meet on welfare … I remember having to choose between having the lights on, or the television because I couldn’t afford both; or literally staking out the clearance shelf at the supermarket, just so my little boy could have fresh vegetables; never being able to take him anywhere, ‘cos I couldn’t afford the bus fare, never mind an entrance fee to the cinema or a theme park or whatever – just not an option. Benefits were “better” back then too; God knows how Teen Mums cope now. Did you know a Teenage Mother receives less in benefits than a single mother over 25, just by virtue of her age? It’s outrageous, yet this gets virtually no coverage whatsoever, because teenage pregnancy is apparently “self inflicted” … Yet where’s the bloke in all of this?? It’s always the Single Teen Mum’s fault, yet she’s the one who stayed.
Guilt was another thing that weighed on me very heavily as a Teen Single Mum. I internalised a lot of negative messages from society about teenage mothers and worried a lot my son was doomed to failure as an adult. It took me a long time to appreciate these messages were just a load of crap.
What stigma did you face as a teen mum?
I faced a lot of stigma. I will never forget one experience, in which I was pushing my son in a buggy my Mum’s friend had kindly given me. He had a new coat on and I was really proud, because it was the first time I had bought him something that was not second hand. Then a middle-aged woman passed by, looked us up and down and hissed at me: “My taxes paid for THAT”, indicating my baby. I was horrified. To reserve that much contempt for a little baby was astounding to me. I simply could not compute. I walked the streets for hours, dazed and confused.
The DSS office was not much better. They treated us teen Mums as problems, not human beings. Every time I had an issue with payments, I had to go and line up, often for hours and hours, in a line dedicated “for parents under 23”, with all the others looking at us, as if we’re the lowest of the low and once, an old man spent a full half hour berating us. Then we’d sit down at the glass window and some bored official would tell us to fill in another form or go somewhere else or phone a number – but I never had any credit on my phone, coins for the box and no one answered the damn phone anyway. I remember going to the DSS office to tell them I wanted to sign off benefits, because I was going to university. It went like this:
ME: Hi, I need to sign off. Because I’m moving area and going to university.
OFFICIAL: Oh yeah? What are you doing there.
ME: Scriptwriting for Film and Television.
OFFICIAL: Oh that’ll be useful then. See you in a few years.
Do you think that experience affected your mental health?
It definitely affected my mental health. I had lots of problems as a young person – some of them directly lead to my getting pregnant in the first place, in fact – but there is no doubt in my mind that being treated so badly by society, day in, day out contributed to making them worse. On television and in movies, I was always the problem, which was backed up by real life too: I wasn’t able to walk down the street holding my son’s hand, or collect him from school without stares on my back and “tuts” in my ears. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy: get told constantly you’re shit, you will believe you are shit.
Do you think much has changed for teen mums today?
I felt extremely isolated as a young mother, so it would have been amazing to have something like Twitter or Facebook to connect with other young parents. I lived in a rural area and knew practically no one with my age with a child. I think I was about 30 before my friends started having children, in fact. It was hard, because I was always second guessing everything I was doing, plus I felt very depressed and had no one to talk to about it who was going through the same. What’s more, being so cut off literally and metaphorically, I had no idea there WERE organisations and charities who actually wanted to help people like me, especially as I was constantly given bad advice by the DSS. I thought I had been literally cut adrift.
Of course, the internet reveals there are still the same prejudices against teen and young single mothers and my son is frequently mistaken for my brother. But I like to think the tide is turning somewhat. I’m finding less and less people expect me to apologise for being a young parent; I no longer get quite as much surprise when I meet new people that he’s my son, rather than my sibling. As my neighbour said about her own daughter, who is pregnant at 17 and planning to have the child: “It’s just a baby, she’ll do whatever she wants to do and I’ll help her.” Wouldn’t it be great if everyone thought like that!
How hard is it to balance passion for social issues and writing a good story?
It’s very difficult not to get preachy, especially when you really believe in the message. But you have to remember fiction is not a mouthpiece for your own views. Also, you may write stuff you don’t necessarily “agree” with to help facilitate that message. For example, in one of the scenarios in THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY, Lizzie has an abortion. I didn’t back then and never would have an abortion. It’s not the right option – for me. That doesn’t mean I disagree with abortion, or think it is a bad thing. I am fiercely prochoice and ultimately, that is the message behind the story – but that doesn’t mean I liked writing that aspect of the novel! I didn’t, especially as I was pregnant for a third time whilst writing it. But it is a strong chapter and I am proud of it; I hope it helps others in their own difficult decisions.
What are the advantages to telling your story as a transmedia project? Are there any disadvantages?
Having worked with writers for years, I know both writers and audiences alike love to “extend beyond” the “main story”: we all want to see the same characters in different situations. THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY starts with her taking a pregnancy test, which is of course positive. This got me thinking – what LEAD to that situation, the back story if you will. Lizzie mentions a night out in the book two weeks earlier, when she and her boyfriend Mike got drunk, but that’s it really. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to set the first “episode” in real time, on a Saturday night, as if Lizzie is going through that night out? Each status on the Facebook page could be like her thoughts … This became LIZZIE’S DIARY, which starts at midday on March 1st 2014 and will play out on social media over 4 weeks.
The bad thing about transmedia is EATS material. I’ve written so many statuses for the Facebook page (which will update in Twitter, too) – you just wouldn’t believe it. And they’re probably not enough, either – I bet I will be writing even more, yet!
What single piece of advice would you give teenagers about teen pregnancy and motherhood?
Pay attention to what’s important: that’s you and your baby. A happy Mum equals a happy child. It really is as simple as that. Don’t listen to the haters and don’t concern yourself with anyone who wants to “save” you. Do whatever it takes to be happy.
BIO: Lucy V Hay is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers via Bang2write. She’s one of the organisers of London Screenwriters’ Festival and associate producer of the Brit Thrillers DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2014), both starring Danny Dyer. To keep up with LIZZIE’S DIARY, “Like” the Facebook page.