The top-performing high school prefect who got pregnant

Cassie Arauzo was a high-achieving high school student who also had a leadership role. She was the last person anyone expected to get pregnant.

Cassie Arauzo was excelling at school as a student leader when she found out she was pregnant. She had thought her school, Botany Downs Secondary College in Auckland, would ask her to leave but instead school staff were hugely supportive, encouraging her to finish her studies. Now her daughter is six and despite Cassie’s life taking a dramatic and unexpected turn since getting pregnant she has overcome many setbacks to continue her education as a young mum and forge a successful career.

Teenagers taking risks and not thinking of consequences – even high-achieving teenagers – is nothing new and while Cassie would never encourage others to follow in her footsteps she does want people to understand that becoming pregnant at a young age doesn’t mean you have to forgo all your dreams either. Here, she shares her story.

When I was at high school I was a real achiever; I had so much drive and ambition to do well.

I hadn’t always been like that. In my earlier school years I failed most of my work, but I figured out that if I put in the extra time I could achieve. So from year 10 I did a lot of study and my grades turned around.

I went from getting not achieved to achieved then merits and excellences. I got a real kick out of it so then I set my sights on becoming a lead student in Year 13.

To be a lead student you have to have more than good grades; you have to be an all-rounder. So I started putting myself in a heap of extracurricular activities.

I did dragon boating, I did soccer, I got my bronze in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. I did a lot of running… I mentored Year 9 students… anything that came up at school I put my hand up for.

I applied and was given a house leader role. I was so happy. It really was a big deal and it felt like ‘I can do anything now’.

Cassie heavily pregnant in her final year at Botany Downs Secondary College.

Our leaders’ responsibilities included mentoring and guiding the year 9 students. We took them to camp, did activities with them and generally helped organise school events.

I remember completing a leadership programme and a politician spoke to us about how he didn’t have much growing up but how every day you need to be grateful.

I remember thinking I wanted to be empowering like that one day and share with people that you can achieve despite where you’ve come from.

Just before I became a prefect I met a guy at my Year 12 ball. We hit it off. He was a year older than me.

We became intimate and to be honest we just weren’t taking precautions. I wasn’t uneducated, I just believed I was invincible. We’d got away with not using contraception a few times and I was kind of like ‘oh it’s not that easy to get pregnant’.

When I started getting morning sickness I took a pregnancy test but I didn’t actually think I would be.

All dressed up for her high school graduation.

Taking the test, I remember to this day – I actually still have the stick. I was in my room; I did the test and put it up on the dresser then sat down and waited. I said to my partner ‘should I look at it?’ and he was like ‘yup’ and I grabbed it and saw two lines.

I was like ‘wait what does two lines mean?’ and I had to check the box three times. I remember going red hot and my ears were burning and it was like ‘okay Cassie this is not a joke any more’.

He couldn’t believe it either. He was ‘maybe it’s a mistake’ so literally that minute we went to the doctors to do another test.

The nurse said ‘yup you are pregnant’ and then it hit him and his face went red too.

I thought what am I going to do? I had just had my 18th birthday.We decided we would keep it a secret but I couldn’t contain myself and that night woke up my brother and told him.

He was like ‘oh my god you are in so much trouble’.

Alexia was born on 3 January 2011. Cassie’s labour was seven hours long.

I didn’t tell anyone else for ages. I wanted to make up my own mind about how I felt first. So I went back to the doctors and found out how far along I was, and I was eight weeks and I knew that to terminate you had to be before 12 weeks.

And then I worked out how much time I had to make a decision and what I needed to do to make the decision. I went to Family Planning and asked what was involved in the termination process.

I wanted to make an informed decision because I was quite aware that keeping the baby was a lifelong decision – but so was not keeping the baby.

I did so many ‘pros and cons’ lists and went back and forth constantly. One day I was keeping it and the next day I wasn’t. I asked the father if he would he stay with me if I kept it and he said yes, I’d prefer if you didn’t but I’d support you if you did.

The thing that swung me in the end was the doctors’ answer to my question, what do you do with it once it’s done? [aborted] and they told me it would go into a mass burial.

The fact that they were burying it meant it was still an acknowledgement of life and it didn’t sit well with me.

Once the decision was made we had the conversations with the relevant people.We were very strategic about who we told first and last; we wanted to get the easy ones done first. My mother guessed because I said ‘I have to tell you something’ and she went ‘you’re engaged’ and I said no, so her second guess was ‘you’re pregnant’.

His mum was very surprised but eventually she came round.

My dad we told last. He is very loving but he is a very hard man, it’s almost like nothing is ever good enough for him. If I got first place in a race it would be ‘but your time could have been better’ – he was quite harsh like that.

Cassie’s first few days at home with her new baby, Alexia.

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Telling him was the hardest part of the whole journey because he was genuinely disappointed, not angry, and I hadn’t been prepared for that.

His face was sad and I felt guilty because he had come over from Mexico and raised me from 13-14 years and it was almost a reflection of his parenting. He said to me ‘you’ve proved them all right’.

I didn’t want people to think he had done a bad job and I felt really sick about it. I remember crying so much and eventually Dad came in and said ‘I’m still disappointed but just think about it and stop crying’.I thought he would really push me to not keep it but he didn’t. It was my decision and my responsibility.

At school the teachers were informed, and they were very, very supportive along with the school councillor. I told a couple of close friends.

I thought I might be asked to leave because a copycat effect can happen – where if students see another student pregnant it normalises it and more kids become pregnant, and especially with me being a lead student.

But I wasn’t asked to leave and although they said they would take my leadership badge off me they didn’t.

For the first few months it was easy to hide but once the rumours started going around they went round really quickly. People still didn’t realise it was me though because I was the most unlikely person. Someone even came up to me and said have you heard someone is pregnant?

But it got to the point where I couldn’t hide it any more. I couldn’t do up my skirt and I was the only student in the school that the teachers were allowing to wear a jacket inside (to hide my skirt not being done up).

The other students were actually supportive and nice. No one was mean or anything although my friends said a lot of people stared.

I carried on working really hard at school but it was so much more difficult because I had no energy. I’d come home from school at three o’clock and fall asleep, wake up for dinner and then fall straight back to sleep again. I felt like an old lady.

I was heavily pregnant for my exams and the school allowed me to sit them in a different room so that I could walk around and stretch and go to the toilet as many times as I needed.

I passed NCEA level 3 with merit.

Graduation was in December 2010 and Alexia was due in January 2011. So I was heavily pregnant, and walking on to the stage I could just feel all eyes on me.

At the prizegiving, I received an award for journalism and I was literally waddling. It was so silent and you could hear me walking and when I got my award everyone clapped extra hard because it had taken me a while to get up on to that stage.

The plan before I got pregnant had been to go to Auckland University and study broadcast journalism, but instead I took 2011 off.

Cassie’s midwife helped Cassie realise that she did not have to be a ‘perfect’ mother and that she and Alexia would learn together.

2011 was a really hard year. You’re out of the bubble of school and everyone is moving on with their lives. People are travelling and going to uni and having fun; I was at home with a new baby and I definitely felt like I was missing out.

The dad and I split up. When the baby came it was a lot harder than we had imagined. You don’t think about things like sleep deprivation and you can only prepare yourself so much. He had quit uni and started working to try and support us but we had gone from being young and careless teens to being real grown up. I had moved out of home as well because there was no room for me and the baby.

I had had this whole idea of having a happy family, even though we were young, and so it was hard coming to terms with the fact I was going to have to do it on my own. My dad helped where he could and he financially supported me where he could but he wasn’t rolling in it and he was often away in Mexico.

So what I really lacked was physical and emotional support – having someone there to talk to or show me how to do things like change a nappy. I had no family support. I remember one of my first nights Youtubing how to swaddle a baby and another time how to do mashed potatoes – thank god for the internet.

It was hard for Cassie to come to terms with the fact she would be raising Alexia alone.

I started getting agitated, thinking I can’t stay home another year; so I enrolled myself at Auckland University and started in 2012; Lexi went in to day-care.

But it was so hard. There were a lot of study hours required that I just didn’t have because when I came home from uni I had to feed her, bath her and she still wasn’t sleeping through the night. Study time normally started at 9pm and went till about 1am so I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.

I ate toast or instant food, and wasn’t taking care of myself. Over the next two years I was in hospital at least twice a year. I was getting high temperatures and abdominal pain but there was nothing wrong from the tests. Basically they said ‘what’s going on in your life?’ and then they told me you need to rest and get in more time for yourself.

I kept thinking ‘I’m doing this for my daughter’ but then realised, well actually what use am I to my daughter if I’m unwell and grumpy and have no time for her?

So I pulled out of uni and it again felt like a real fail, but I took the next six months to recoup and enrolled at AUT in 2013.

Studying with baby Alexia.

By then I felt a lot stronger because I had reshuffled my life and owned the fact that Lexi has got to be the winner and benefit here.

It was good because straight away I said to AUT ‘this is my situation and I need something that will work for me’ and it felt like being back at school a bit because they were very supportive too.

I could take Lexi to class, which I did, and it was really nice to be encouraged to not miss class if I needed to bring her. They nurtured me to succeed rather than pushed me.

At the end of my final year I graduated with excellence in a communications degree. I made a speech thanking them for their support; I felt very emotional.

Lexi was four and had no idea what the day meant but I made sure I had all the photos taken with her so that I can show them to her later and show her that we are always stronger than we think we are.

AUT graduation day – a very proud and emotional day for Cassie.

Life’s been good since then. I’ve had hiccups but watching her first day at school and her first tooth come out and the happiness on her face when the tooth fairy came and all those things, it’s been a real rewarding experience.

After graduating I went straight into working for a PR agency, starting as an intern and working my way up to an executive and then manager. Now I’m working for a large telecommunications company in a challenging new role.

Lexi is six and notices that I’m a lot younger than her friends’ mums.

I don’t want her to follow in my steps but I don’t want her to think that becoming pregnant at a young age means you have to forgo all your dreams either.

After Lexi was born people did start trickling out of my life and I’ve had to learn to be okay in my own company. I hate to admit it but my daughter has seen me cry way too many times and you’re not supposed to be vulnerable in front of your children. Even now, telling people I have a six-year-old, people are shocked and you just can’t let it get to you.

I think we are living as women in a really difficult time because we get criticised if we stay home with our children for not earning our way, but if we go to work we get criticised for not being a good mum and spending time with our children. And it’s such a pull in both directions.

I think all mums feel that. No matter the age you have a baby, all those first experiences and troubles are the same.

Cassie and Alexia are very close.

The blessing in all of this is that Lexi and I have a relationship you can’t buy. I’m so proud of her and I love her so much. She has been such a supportive daughter.

My dad, I thought he wouldn’t be involved but he is Lexi’s number one fan. He adores her and fills that father role and they have a tight relationship.

We had a conversation a year ago and I said ‘I’ve worked so hard to make you proud since getting pregnant’. I wanted him to be able to talk proudly about me and he doesn’t tell me but others have, that he talks about me all the time.

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