“My mum and dad knew I was really scared. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do.”
The first thing Rhiarne Taiapa did was lock herself away for weeks. She and her parents took down all social media. She ‘disappeared’ for the last term of year 9 that year.
Rhiarne was thirteen years old - and she’d just found out she was pregnant.
“It was real hard telling my mum and dad. I couldn’t change anything, couldn’t do anything ‘bout it, ‘cause it was just too late ... My son is not a regret, ‘s what I just keep on telling myself.”
In many ways 16 year-old Rhiarne is a typical teenager, but then she’s also exceptional. She’s solo-mother to two year old son Braydon and she’s a brilliant young sports star.
Rhiarne was barely even a teenager when she got pregnant and is now raising two year-old Braydon. It’s something she couldn’t do without her extended Taiapa-Hurunui sports fanatic whanau. Mum Rachel, dad Amesh and older sister Shayleigh, fiancé T.K. and their two kids Lakoda (4) and Kahn (2) all live under the same roof; a large, warm four bedroom home in the heart of Hastings, Hawkes Bay.
Contrary to stereotype, New Zealand’s teen birth rate has dropped each year since 2008. As of 2016 it had halved – down to 16 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19.
Rhiarne was 28 weeks pregnant when the whanau found out, almost by accident, during a routine visit to the doctor.
Under New Zealand law, unmarried mothers have primary right to custody - but what happens when both parents are minors? In Braydon’s case, both his parents were 13-years-old at the time, so grandparents Rachel and Amesh became Braydon’s legal guardians until Rhiarne turned 16.
What’s life like for this teen-mum?
It’s pretty relentless. Braydon, school, squash, Braydon ... and then school all over again. Not the normal teenage routine, but one that Rhiarne and her whanau have embraced.
A day in Rhiarne’s life
It’s early Saturday morning at the squash courts in Palmerston North and Rachel Hurunui, Rhiarne’s mum is her wing-woman. There for her at every moment, watching each game, cheering her on.
They’d driven down from Hastings on Friday after a busy week. Rachel picks Rhiarne up from school and drive her to where ever squash tournaments take place, anywhere across the country. She will even raise the funds and fly across the globe – whatever it takes to support her talented young sports champ daughter.
Already ranked 218th in the world and number six in New Zealand Junior under-19s, this Saturday Rhiarne is playing against best friend Caitlyn Watts, currently ranked number one. It’s a tough match, but New Zealand’s top squash players are a big extended family, and Caitlyn and others have embraced Rhiarne’s teen-motherhood.
Caitlyn tells me that she loves to see little Braydon attending squash matches with his tiny squash racket. Apparently he’s got his mother’s great hand-to-eye coordination - it runs in the genes.
The games take most of the weekend and then Rachel gets behind the wheel for the long drive back home to Hawkes Bay.
When Rachel and Rhiarne arrive home on Sunday evening, it’s past dinner time and tantrums are underway. The three pre-schoolers, Braydon and his two cousins Lakoda and Kahn, are in their pyjamas while Granddad – Rhiarne’s dad Amesh - sets out for fish and chips.
Shock and love
Around their dining room table Rhiarne and her parents tell me things are good now, but that getting to this place has been a nightmare.
Amesh says it was terrifying for him.
“When I found out I was – I was devastated. Actually I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to lose her, you know.”
Amesh shut himself away for weeks, out of shock. He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his daughter or look at her. He blamed himself, thinking he hadn’t been there to protect her. But after the birth of Braydon, everything changed.
“Once I seen that boy, that was it.”
“You fell in love with your grandson?” I ask.
Amesh wipes away tears as he nods. “Time to harden up and now he’s my boy. He’s always with me.”
“Between the three of us,” says Rachel, “Rhiarne’s older sister, Shayleigh, and us, we share the dad role.”
Rachel is the practical one, but it was a shock to her too. And, she had to prepare herself for not one, but two new grandchildren, as Braydon’s and his cousin Kahn were born six days apart.
But it takes two to make a baby, so what about Braydon’s dad? How did he and his family take the news?
Rachel answers. “I know in my heart-of-hearts if I had the son, that there would be a lot more responsibility put on him. A lot more. And people say aw they’re young. Yes, they are young, and they were two very clever kids that did a very dumb thing.”
“It happened; you had to deal with it. You know, with becoming a parent there’s responsibilities and that’s where it just sort of, cuts a little bit deep with me, you know. We all want to protect our children. We do! Gosh we wanted to wrap Rhiarne up in cotton wool and run away, leave town, leave the country! But you can’t do that. There’s a fine line between protection, and then manning up and taking some responsibility.”
An understanding school
After missing a term of school while she was pregnant, Rhiarne returned to Hastings Girls High School and she is on the way to completing NCEA level two. Rachel is grateful to the former principal Geraldine Travers and the teaching staff who supported their whanau through the toughest times.
“The school was amazing. Not once did they say that she couldn’t go back to school. That was huge.”
As for other teenage solo-mums, Rachel has this to say to parents out there: “I feel for the girls that do have the families that unfortunately look at it like ‘you’ve shamed us’ – or whatever. I feel for those girls. You’d be stumbling as a mother if you chose to turn your back on your own child for something that they’d done. There was no way that we were going to do anything but come to the acceptance that this had happened, and how do we deal with it together.”
Amesh says there were a lot of doubters but Rhiarne has turned her life around. “There’s still big things for her. She knows that Braydon will be okay because he’s got all of us here, plus his extended family that love that boy, so everything’s gonna be okay.”
“I am going to become a champion,” says Rhiarne. “I am going to become the best mother. I am going to finish school. I am going to do everything I wanna do as a normal teenager, but I have a baby. And I’m gonna do it.
This was the final episode of Flying Solo. A heartfelt thank you to all the families who shared their stories throughout the series.
Creator/Producer: Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Senior Producer: Alison Ballance
Executive Producer: Tim Watkin
Flying Solo Episode Six was engineered by Phil Benge.
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