Cindy-Lee had just graduated high school and got her dream job.
“I was working in a feedlot in the next town over, about 45 minutes away from my hometown, and I was so excited,” the now-22-year-old says.
She’d lived in regional Western Australia all her life but didn’t come from a farming family; Cindy-Lee admits she was “very, very green” when she landed the role aged 18.
She was on her way in her dream profession — everything was going to plan.
“Fast forward a year and a half and I’d gotten married. I was starting to get into a routine and feeling confident in my job.
“And then one day something was different. I went from crying to laughing, to crying, to getting grumpy.”
Cindy-Lee says she’d never yelled at a colleague before, but that day, she did. By the end of the day, something told her to stop at the pharmacy on the way home for a pregnancy test.
“Lying on the bathroom floor, seeing those two pink lines … I didn’t feel anything for about 15 minutes,” she remembers.
The words that changed Cindy-Lee’s perspective on everything
Four generations of women before Cindy-Lee had had children at the age of 20.
She hadn’t wanted to join them.
“I love them to bits, but I know how much they missed out on, with careers and fun.
“Growing up I was made to think that once you have a child you can’t have [those things] because you won’t have time for yourself or the things you want to do in life.
“I had my life planned out in my head, and it got flipped around.”
Because of how physically demanding her job was, she felt the need to tell her bosses, Gary and Josie, that she was pregnant the day after finding out herself.
“I remember telling myself not to cry, to be professional, and then I said, ‘I’m pregnant’ and I just started bawling my eyes out,” Cindy-Lee says.
She didn’t want to quit, but she felt like she didn’t have another option.
“[But then] my boss looked at me and said: ‘You can be a mum and still have a career; you just make it work’.”
Those words were enough to change her perspective on what it meant to be a young mum.
Josie says it was “just a matter of reassuring Cindy-Lee she was valued and that her position would be available and we’d just adjust things as [they] came”.
“Number one was her safety. There were plenty of other jobs we were able to get her to do and [we got] someone else to fill her shoes while she was away.”
Knowing she had their support, Cindy-Lee worked until she couldn’t, and eventually gave birth to baby Clancy.
‘I don’t think work needed me, but they knew I needed them’
Not long after giving birth, Cindy-Lee started feeling isolated from others and experiencing post-natal depression as she struggled to come to terms with who she had been and who she suddenly was.
“I felt like I’d lost my identity,” she says.
“I was still focusing on all the things I couldn’t do anymore instead of all the things I could do.”
By the time Clancy was three months old, Cindy-Lee had realised what she needed: work.
She started going back, just one day a week.
“I don’t think work needed me, but they knew I needed them and to go back to some sort of normal.”
With support from her family and Gary and Josie, Cindy-Lee’s slowly transitioned back to a part-time role — her day-to-day just looks a little different.
She’s also obtained a certificate in beef management and is studying for another in animal nutrition, all while being the mum to Clancy she wants to be.
“I know some mums don’t want to have a career, and that’s completely fine,” Cindy-Lee says.
“But then you’ve got the other half [who do want] to have a career, but maybe they don’t know that they can.
“I didn’t think at the start I’d be able to handle it all, but now I realise how amazing a career in agriculture is for me because of how many different roles there are and because of the flexibility, and I feel like it’s awesome to be able to do this with Clancy,” Cindy-Lee muses.
Ways for young parents in WA to gain confidence, skills and work
“Motherhood for women under the age of 20 can be a positive and maturing experience … [and] becoming a parent can have a transformative impact, particularly with changing unhealthy behaviours and relationships,” the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported in 2017.
The AHRC also found that people who give birth under the age of 20 “are a vulnerable population group, who may experience lower education and reduced employment”.
“Too often, when a pregnant woman is young, or single, or in a tough situation, she’s told that her choice to have her baby is ruining her education, or destroying her career,” begins Helen Parker, founder and chief executive of The Babes Project, a not-for-profit working with parents facing crisis and challenging pregnancies.
“Worse than that, so often she’s told she can’t be a good mother.”
Ms Parker argues the most important step is supporting young parents to gain confidence in their parenting and to value the skills they’re developing.
This is why Cindy-Lee is started a workshop series, Empowered by Agriculture, to help women like her grow confidence in their abilities.
And there’s support for young parents in WA at TAFE, says Karen Ho, acting Director-General of the Department of Training and Workforce Development in WA.
“The state’s TAFE network is a great place to start for people looking to further their education, upskill or get back into the workforce, including young parents.
“Western Australia’s TAFE jobs and skills centres are one-stop shops for careers, training and employment advice and assistance.
“Services are free and accessible to all members of the community,” she adds.
“The centres also provide an online jobs board, to connect job seekers with employment opportunities and to help employers attract and recruit employees.”
There’s also the New Opportunities for Women course, which Ms Ho explains, is “for women who want to gain confidence to get into the workforce, and has been specifically highlighted as helping mums upskill and boost confidence when returning to the workforce”.
But at the end of it, Cindy-Lee thinks it all comes back to employers “being kind and having that flexibility and knowing that [young parents] can do our jobs”.
The ABC’s Heywire competition is open to all regional Australians aged between 16 and 22.
The annual competition provides a platform for the younger generation, in pockets of Australia that rarely see the spotlight, to “tell it like it is”.
This year’s winners were selected from close to 500 entries.
If you are aged between 16 and 22 and would like to find out more about the next ABC Heywire Regional Youth Summit, go to the ABC Heywire website.
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