She walks confidently through the doors with baby in arm, accompanied by her partner. Despite her small frame, she exudes a fiery energy. And she has a smile so bright you wouldn’t believe that not too long ago, her life was a complete mess.
Khairianti Putri Khairul Johari was a single teen mother who faced the shame and loneliness that plagues many of her ilk. She was ostracised by friends and family. And she almost lost her unborn daughter because of those closest to her.
She lived in a two-bedroom rental flat with her family of seven which struggled to put food on the table.
“I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents. They gave up on me very early on because, I guess, they had my two sisters and two grandchildren to worry about,” said Putri, who is now 21.
When she was 13, she hung out with a crowd that most parents would have considered “undesirable”, further straining her relationship with her family. Apart from providing a roof over her head, they left her to fend for herself.
“Everything else, you settle yourself,” she remembers her father telling her.
“But I understood why they didn’t want to put money in a bad investment,” admits Putri.
Forced to become financially independent at 14, she took on her first job at a fast-food outlet opposite her school, working the night shift to pay her school fees. But the late nights and early mornings affected her schoolwork.
“With the little money I earned, it was either I pay for school and starve, or work and afford to live my life,” says Putri.
Already considered a strange kid by many of her schoolmates, constant bullying and ridicule led her to leave school. She then started mixing with bad company.
“I was really insecure and lonely, so I made a home with people I thought could provide me security,” Putri recalls.
When she was 19, she found out that she was pregnant.
“I had mood swings, I knew something was wrong, but I was just in denial,” said Putri.
Her partner at the time was as shocked as she was but wasn’t ready for the responsibility of parenthood. According to Putri, he left her with the cold parting words: “This is your choice, so live with it.”
But before dumping her, he let slip to her family that she was pregnant.
“When we found out about the pregnancy, I was already a month or two along. He stupidly asked my sister how much a pregnancy would cost. That obviously raised some alarms,” says Putri. She feared how her family would react and was confused about what to do.
“I was so scared of going home. I had to face them alone, without (my partner). I wanted to come clean with them but I knew it wouldn’t be good,” Putri recalls.
Upon arriving home, she was berated by her family.
“They made it clear to me that this situation was my fault, told me about the shame of doing such a thing, that they wanted absolutely nothing to do with it, and that I should abort the baby,” says Putri with a tremor in her voice.
As she sat all alone in the room, abandoned by her boyfriend and facing the wrath of her family, she decided – against her family’s wishes – to keep her baby.
“I knew if I let them make this decision for me without considering my own feelings on the matter, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself,” she says.
The confrontation with her family turned violent: she was beaten, and blows to her abdomen – she was then 11 weeks pregnant – very nearly caused a miscarriage.
The next morning, she was admitted to National University Hospital (NUH), and her injuries were so severe that she to remain there for more than a month.
During that time a doctor introduced her to Babes, an organisation that helps pregnant youths in crisis. But Putri was resistant to the idea of seeking help.
“I was worried they (the organisation) would agree with everyone else and suggest abortion or adoption. Either way, I would lose my child,” says Putri.
Things didn’t get better after she was discharged from hospital. Without a home to go to and with few people to turn to, Putri stayed with whoever would put her up. She would also live on the streets, even roughing it out at East Coast Park for a time.
“The only thing I cared about was my baby, where to stay, and how to survive,” said Putri. Thankfully for her, an older sister who lived by herself offered her a place to live while she looked for stable employment.
“The harsh reality is that there is a huge stigma with teen mums. I spent two months working at a cupcake store but when my baby bump became more obvious, I was warned by my manager that no one would go easy on me,” explains Putri. According to her, she was fired two weeks later for “no apparent reason”.
She soon reached a state of panic, realising she would be a mother in just a few short months while having no idea as to how she would support her baby. She was four months pregnant when she decided to contact Babes.
“They told me that I had three options – abortion, adoption, or parenthood. And that no matter my decision, they were here to support me. It was important to know that I was given a choice,” said Putri.
Babes provided her free weekly counseling sessions and a direct connection to a caseworker who would help her with any questions she had regarding the pregnancy. More importantly, they provided her a community to turn to in her lowest moments.
“I went to a Babes community group with a few other teen mums and social workers, and they supported me emotionally and mentally, teaching me the importance of self-care. How can you care for your child when you’re not taking care of yourself? You will be in no shape to do anything,” says Putri.
Through Babes, Putri was able to adequately prepare for childbirth.
“Babes helped me become more grounded. I was able to be clear about what needed to be done, the research I needed to do, the grants to look at, and what to prepare for,” adds Putri.
They helped make the transition from pregnant teen to parent as easy as possible. She discovered many avenues that single mums could tap into and information about what they were entitled to as mothers. One of these is maintenance from the child’s father.
“Something else many single mothers don’t know that they can apply for is maintenance, which is basically child support. I feel it’s important for (mothers) to know that maintenance is their child’s right. Do not let your own pride get the better of you. Please, ask for it,” insists Putri.
Executive director of Babes Christina Vejan, 39, says that while many teen mums require financial support, most of the teen mums who reach out to them do so for emotional support.
“Most of their families react with shock, shame, and fear when first hearing the news. The teens may feel alone and depressed while they are going through changes in their bodies, so we approach each of our beneficiaries from a motherly standpoint,” explains Vejan.
Agreeing with Vejan, Putri adds: “Babes is like a family. My caseworker was the only one I called on the day I gave birth, and is still the first person I call if I run into any trouble.”
Due to Putri’s financial situation, Babes provided her with baby clothes and milk powder for the first three months after her daughter, Luna, was born.
“They helped me with so many necessities, it was a huge burden off my shoulders,” Putri remarks. “What helped the most was being a part of the Babes community, and meeting other girls going through a similar situation.”
According to Vejan, Babes relies on the community for support. “We get many mothers from all walks of life donating items like prams, clothes, diapers, as well as being a part of our community support group,” she explains.
This community support group offers a safe space for youth in crisis to discuss their options, be counselled on their problems, strengthen bonds with family members, and be a part of a larger community that supports each other through shared information and empathy.
“In 2017 Babes was able to assist 8 to 9 per cent of all recorded unplanned pregnancy cases in the country,” says Vejan. Apart from assisting teen mums, Babes has been actively engaging in various forms of community outreach over the last few years, collaborating with youths, educational institutions, and performance groups to find ways to combat the issue of unplanned pregnancy.
One such outreach programme was their Cups campaign which saw the distribution of cups with important messages for teens. They reached out to 64,300 students across 32 secondary schools and junior colleges.
Some of these students may be in a situation similar to Putri’s, who, as a young adult now, has become a student again. She is completing her Diploma in Customer Service.
She is still paying off her hospital bill from that fateful night just over a year ago, but she has reconciled with her family and now lives with them.
Her daughter Luna is a healthy baby who’s nine months old, and helping to keep her mother on the straight and narrow.
Looking at Putri now, you’d believe her when she tells you that she has never been happier.
“My family have seen how far I’ve come, and how much I love my daughter. She is the light of my world,” says Putri.
She wishes that more teens would reach out to Babes to save themselves the agony of going through the hardship of being a single teen mum alone: “So much of my worries were internal and because I had no one to speak to, they festered in my head and just made me feel worse and worse.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out,” she adds. “You are never alone.”