Lizzie Mapplebeck was three months into journalism school, post A-Levels, when she found out she was pregnant. Here, the Associate Director of Strategic Change at NHS Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care Board explains why having a baby as a teenager need not define you – and why the NHS will always have her heart
I met my (now) husband Jamie the summer I left school while waiting to start my A-Levels. He was waiting to start his apprenticeship with BT, so we had a great careless summer driving around in his Nova and playing in the arcades in Felixstowe! I left school with good GCSEs and a strong plan to become the next best beauty journalist so I picked my A-Levels carefully (media and English) so I get could get into journalism school.
After my A-Levels I joined the London School of Journalism and went to beauty school, however after three months we discovered I was pregnant. I managed to finish my beauty qualification but had to drop out of my journalism course. I had held a part time job as a receptionist in a GP practice during my studies, but when I announced I was having a baby I was fiercely judged by many of my colleagues. They made limited adjustments to accommodate my growing bump and cruel words became a daily occurrence. Being so young, I was too naive and too worried to speak up, I left job the in the June, just before I turned 19.
We welcomed our beautiful daughter Hollie into the world in September 2004. No one prepares you for being a new mum, let alone finding your feet with learning to run a household, paying bills whilst trying to fit in to the ‘new mum’ community. I’ll never forget walking into my first mother and baby group and feeling like I stepped into dragons’ den – I was made to feel so unwelcome as an unmarried teenage mother, I spent the entire hour fielding questions about why I wasn’t breast feeding, did I know who the father was, was I on benefits, all whilst trying to stop my baby crying and trying not to cry myself. I never went back.
When Hollie was three months old, I got my first ‘proper’ job, it was at Axa Insurance, I worked from 5pm to 9pm each weekday selling Pet Insurance. This meant Jamie could do his day job at BT from 8am to 4pm (as well as a 6am to 7am cleaning job) and get home with enough time for me to pass the baby over and get into the office. We existed like ‘passing ships’ for a few years, during this time we welcomed our second baby Spencer in 2006.
I was grateful to have a job that was not only flexible but where I was accepted and not judged – also a job which meant no childcare costs, but even with all these benefits, after returning from maternity leave in 2007 I just felt that I had more to give. So, I decided to join Suffolk Constabulary as a Special Constable, I have always felt it is important to give back to the community and this felt perfect. Volunteering gave me the drive to want to do more, in all aspects of my life. Back at my paid job in Axa, I saw an opportunity to help the business reduce its sickness rate and I pitched the idea to the management team, and they really liked it. Soon after, the head of the projects team gave me the chance to apply for a secondment as a projects officer. However, this would mean working during the day, and with childcare costs for a toddler and a baby I would end up paying to go to work – even working part-time.
I was incredibly lucky to have supportive parents, both working full-time themselves, they couldn’t offer support with childcare, but they did offer to contribute towards our nursery fees. So, I took the secondment, I truly feel this was the start of my career, the team I worked in was so supportive and I learned so many skills, I also gained a huge amount of confidence in my ability to be more than a teenage mum.
I was made redundant after I had been in the post for two years, I was gutted, and it really knocked my confidence. I applied for what felt like hundreds of jobs and got more no’s than I could keep count of. But I finally got a break and was offered an IT project coordinator role with the NHS.
I have now been in the NHS for 13 years, I took a short break from the NHS a few years ago and worked for a local authority which was a great experience, but the NHS has my heart, and I soon went back! Five years ago, I handed back my Special Constable warrant card, but as volunteering was still so important to me, I decided to apply to become a magistrate (or Justice of the Peace). I was successful at the interview and now volunteer two days a month in court serving justice to the community across Suffolk.
The NHS have always provided so many opportunities to experience different roles in different teams. I always work hard, look for opportunities to grow and always put my all into my work. Sometimes this has disrupted my work life balance, but my family are not backwards in coming forwards to remind me to switch off my computer! Our babies are now 18 and 16 and we celebrated our 21st anniversary the summer just gone; our journey hasn’t been an easy one, but it has certainly been worth it.
Working for the NHS is so rewarding, everything I do has the patient at the centre. My work is never about what makes the most profit, it is about what makes the best and biggest impact for the end user. Every day I work to make the lives of our local population better.
Working for an organisation with such a positive and supportive culture makes working in a pressured and demanding environment sustainable, there is a real sense of belonging and purpose to what I do which drives me to get out of bed every day.
I would 100% recommend studying for an MBA! I never went to university to study for a degree so the thought of completing a masters was overwhelming – I honestly did not think I was smart enough! I cannot thank the University of Suffolk enough for supporting me through the MBA, they are a fantastic establishment. I am also very grateful to have a line manager that truly believed in me and championed me throughout. I completed the MBA as an apprentice (honestly, you’re never too old!), I even won the Outstanding Apprentice of The Year Award, which I am super proud of! It wasn’t just the course content of the MBA that was valuable, it was the peer network I built alongside it. I studied with a variety of people, all with different professional backgrounds and experiences, this brought such a valuable depth to the course.
Before the pandemic my life was steady and predictable. The pandemic literally turned my world upside down. Being in the NHS it was all hands to the deck so to speak. I set up my home office from my kitchen and worked all hours to support the Suffolk and North East Essex response – both to the pandemic and then latterly to the vaccination programme. Never has my project background been more useful! It was an amazing team to be part of. The pandemic really made me appreciate how incredible our local health and care system is, the collaboration and can-do attitude from all our health and care providers has been (and continues to be) exceptional and I am incredibly proud to be part of it. Personally, the pandemic has taught me resilience, and like many other parents how to juggle being a teacher as well as holding down a full-time job!
On July 1 I led my organisation from three Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to a single Integrated Care Board (ICB). The ICB is the organisation that decides how to spend the NHS budget and plans how to improve people’s health, deliver high-quality care, and get better value for money. There are 42 of these across the country. I became the Associate Director of Strategic Change for Suffolk and North East Essex ICB at this point.
Having a baby when you are a teenager does not define you. Being a teenage or young parent builds character, strength, and resilience – all great traits. You are not a failure, and it is not something to be ashamed of, it is part of you – and it makes your story even more interesting.