Michelle O’Neill’s journey from mother to political leader is inspiring

The last seat in this latest Assembly election has yet to be announced and Sunday papers have been demanding their headlines sum up what has been a seismic turn in Northern Ireland politics. I opened up Twitter and was quickly consumed by the latest furor when Twitterers expressed their outrage at a headline about Sinn Féin’s leader in Stormont. “From Pregnant Schoolgirl to Northern Ireland’s Next Leader?” – he asked.

This isn’t the first time Michelle O’Neil’s teenage years as a young mother have been mentioned, and it isn’t the first time she’s talked about it, drawing attention to the discrimination she faced when she first became a mother at the age of 16. daughter Saoirse.

But as I read this headline, undeniably sexist and reckless (and later changed by the paper), it’s hard for me not to be transported back down memory lane to when I was a schoolgirl, fifteen years after Michelle was the same age as and me, but faced with many of the same views that meant that the Sinn Féin politicians’ own path as parents was worthy of such prominent mention in the national newspaper.

It doesn’t take much to create a buzz on social media, but when you think about it, the trajectory outlined in this headline seems even more surprising given the public attitudes and beliefs that make it so remarkable when someone successfully overcomes this hurdle early on. . a life. I may be contributing to this stigma by describing teenage fatherhood as a hindrance, but what actually makes us think so is more the attitude of society as a whole.

When I was 16 and attending an Irish-language school in my native Dublin, the abortion referendum in the South was less than a decade away, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that it was within the walls of my extremely conservative school. We regularly had ultra-religious groups preach to us about the importance of saving ourselves for marriage, using a piece of duct tape to show how having sex with more than one person before your wedding night means your relationship won’t stick.

Not to mention pregnancy, which was a fate worse than death and a prospect too dreadful to speak of.

It was such a strong relationship that I don’t remember the possibility of pregnancy ever being mentioned in school, despite the fact that I was in a group of over 80 young women. No wonder we felt like we would be kicked out and left in a landfill with all of our prospects shattered when this very real possibility was not even discussed. I also never heard of teenage pregnancy in my group. Looking back, it’s hard to believe he didn’t exist. In the meantime, we watched TV shows like 16 and Pregnant with a dark fascination, wondering what life would be like on the other side.

There we had telephones and free access to the Internet, but sex education, the way we were spoken to or explained to us, had not changed since my mother went to the same school. This is despite how much a young person’s lifestyle has changed, largely because of how much our access to information has changed. We were still expected to be good Catholic girls, acting as if we were growing up in Ireland among older people rather than young women who graduated from school in 2010.

I’m 30, so even though school feels like a long time ago, and I’ve left a lot of what I was taught there – like Catholicism, ideas about how young women should behave, and math – far behind me. Sometimes I wonder if things have really changed, or if teenage girls and boys still think their lives would be ruined if they happened to become parents during those years. Fortunately, however, Michelle O’Neill is not the only political figure to lead by example. Labor MP Angela Rayner spoke of her child saving her – not in a religious sense, of course, but in finding a purpose, to take care of someone.

Shame is certainly not a new concept in Ireland. It is high time to write off young people who have chosen the less traveled or broader path, punish or criticize women for the choices they make about their own bodies.

When it comes to teenage pregnancy, it doesn’t and never has to mean, as we thought, that you’ll never travel, go to university, or have a good job – maybe even lead a political party. Perhaps this is why I find Michelle O’Neill so inspiring.

Instead, let’s focus on showing young women and men that there are no stereotypes they can’t break, there’s nothing they can’t achieve, and they shouldn’t let those who try to shame them have any power. over your life.