Manitoba

'I did it': Teen mom graduates with honours after juggling school and raising a baby boy

Tamara Fontaine was a lot busier than most of her Grade 11 classmates during the Christmas break in 2014. They were getting ready for the holidays. She was delivering a baby boy.

'Reality hit me, seeing him in my arms,' Tamara Fontaine says after birth of son

Tamara Fontaine shares a sweet moment with her son, Noah. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Tamara Fontaine was a lot busier than most of her Grade 11 classmates during the Christmas break in 2014.

They were getting ready for the holidays. She was delivering a baby boy. 

"Reality hit me right there, that moment: Seeing him in my arms, I was crying," Fontaine said about the birth of Noah, her son. "It was very hard at the same time. Like, 'I don't know how to take care of a baby!'"

Welcome to Teen Parenthood 101, a crash course in growing up fast. More Manitoba teens experience it than teens in other parts of the country. Teens in Manitoba had babies at more than double the rate of the Canadian average in 2012 — there were 7.2 births per 1,000 women age 15-19 in Manitoba, while the national average was 3.4.

In most provinces, teen pregnancy rates have declined in the past decade. Not Manitoba.

Tamara Fontaine was 16, a typical teen in love with her high school sweetheart. They'd been dating for more than a year. Both were good kids. She was a scholar aiming for the honour roll, until they made one fateful decision to take a chance. They lost the gamble.

Teen mother Tamara Fontaine brought her son, Noah, to her graduation ceremony. (Courtesy of Tamara Fontaine)
"The minute when the pregnancy test turned positive, my heart dropped to my stomach," said Fontaine, who is now 19. "My heart was beating so fast. And of course I started crying."

Her boyfriend was speechless. She was scared. She begged him not to leave her. He promised he wouldn't.

Her greatest fear after that? That she'd never graduate from high school, let alone make the honour roll.

"I thought 'Oh no, high school. How am I going to graduate?'" she said. "I wanted to graduate on time, like everybody else."

She also feared the gossip.

"I don't want people thinking wrong about me. I didn't want to get judged at school for being young, for being a mother. I just about, like, not wanted to go to school," Fontaine admitted.

But she did go to school, returning to the classroom two weeks after Noah was born.

"I just needed those two weeks to heal," she said.

Budding journalist Noah interviews teen mother Tamara Fontaine. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)
With the support of her mother and encouragement of teachers, Fontaine continued her studies, and even expanded them to include after-school parenting classes.

Another source of support? The infant development lab at her high school. The on-site nursery, one of five in the Winnipeg School Division, provided care for her son and five other babies while the moms attended classes, and support for the moms when the going got rough.

"In a way, [the infant lab director] was like a mother to us, too," Fontaine said.

But with all the support came hard realities, too. Fontaine's friends continued to live the impulsive social lives of 17-year-olds; Fontaine, of course, could not.

"I felt always left out, like they did not understand at all," she said. "I'd look at them and say 'Wow, I wish I could do that, but you know I can't. I have responsibilities and I'm not like you guys.'"

Any downtime Fontaine did have was devoted to her textbooks. And that downtime was completely at the mercy of Noah.

"I remember working so much, homework every day, studying my brains out," Fontaine said. "He goes for a nap, I go straight to my binder and pull out my notes. And whenever I would get any free time, I would use that and study again."

The effort paid off.

In June 2016, Tamara Fontaine graduated from high school right on time, her son, in a suit and tie, by her side.

She also made the honour roll.

"That was my goal, too. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I really want to get this honour roll!'" Fontaine said. "I was pretty proud. I did it. I did it."

Tamara Fontaine, who became a mother at the age of 17 and graduated from high school with honours, shares her advice for other teenage parents who are trying to finish school. 0:50