“I was a teen mother.”
That phrase usually conjures up the image of a pretty sixteen year-old girl and her jock boyfriend getting jiggy in the backseat of the car. “Oh, no,” her boyfriend says. “I don’t have a condom. Can we still do it.?” Consumed by lust and lost in love, she consents. A few weeks later, she begins to worry. She buys a home pregnancy test. When she reads the result, her hand flies to her mouth. “Oh, no,” she sighs with tears in her eyes. “What am I going to do?”
Now her world is suddenly very complicated. How will she finish high school? What will her parents say? How will she get a degree and build a career? How will she handle the pain of labor? How will she relate to her friends after becoming a mother? Will her boyfriend still want her? Maybe they can get married and rent a little apartment, work together to make everything okay. What will the kids at school say?
The stereotype usually plays out in our minds this way: the young woman tells her parents, who freak out and nearly disown her. Her immature boyfriend, way too young to be a dad or take responsibility for his actions, stops returning her calls. She keeps going to school and endures the teasing when her stomach pops. She screams her way through labor and delivery. She smiles when she first sees her baby and is filled with overwhelming love, but soon she begins to resent her child.
He has taken way her freedom, her childhood, her life. It is too hard to take care of him and go to school, so she drops out for her GED. She ends up a single mother on welfare, working her way through college. Maybe she graduates, and maybe she doesn’t. People tend to hope for the best but expect the worst. We believe her children will grow up impoverished and undisciplined because their mother was way too young to parent well and their father was never around. Ultimately they will make the same mistakes, if not worse ones.
Oh, please. Are you yawning yet? Stereotypes are overrated.
Only a third of teen parents graduate high school, but still more go on to get their GEDs. Some have accepting parents or friends who help them out with living arrangements and/or childcare so they can finish school. Most find a part-time job so that they can support themselves, whether they finish school or not. Only a small percentage of them go to college, but many do go to vocational school or manage to build a career in some other way such as apprenticing or climbing the ladder at a company where they began at the bottom as a low-paid employee.
Very few teen parents end up flipping burgers, making minimum wage, receiving welfare, or living in group homes forever, though some may briefly do those things just as anyone else might. I personally don’t know any teen parents on welfare, with the exception of receiving WIC as the majority of low-ranking military families do. I do, however, know plenty of older parents who are on state aid, which shatters the general stereotype of the teen mom on welfare.
Some couples are both mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions and are deeply in love, and they marry or move in together to raise their child, planning to marry one day. This is a lot more common than people think, and it is something I see quite a bit among my younger friends with children. Parenting as a couple, regardless of age, can make a huge difference. Having someone to share the responsibility can mean less struggling, less stress, and more confidence, though single parents find ways to succeed as well.
Very few mothers turn out to be bad parents. The maternal instinct doesn’t come to all mothers, and some girls are simply too young and unprepared, still too immature. This isn’t characteristic to young or teen mothers. There are women in their thirties who are still too selfish to have children. Drug addiction, mental illness, and a history of abuse increases a person’s chances of becoming an abusive parent. Youth does not.
Let us not forget that eighteen and nineteen year-olds are teenagers, too. Most people this age have already graduated high school and perhaps even started college. Some of them, like myself, are already married and even planned the birth of their child. Some aren’t, but are in a loving, stable relationship. Perhaps they live in their dorm and rely on college tuition or in an apartment paid for by a part-time job. Some may live with their partners or with their parents still. Some may simply have no desire to go to college and want something very different out of life, like me. Most of them do manage to finish college, although they do have to work harder to balance their priorities. Regardless, they are usually great parents, as good as anyone else.
There are a lot of preconceived notions people have about young parents. There is the assumption that they struggle to make their way or take longer to get their lives in order, though nothing forces a person to get it together more than having a child. Images of counting out change to pay for formula may come to mind, though for low-income families (which aren’t only those led by young parents) formula is generally free through WIC, which is a nutritional program–not welfare. Some people envision young couples fighting while their baby cries, but all married couples disagree sometimes. Young parents are also considered more likely to divorce because of the strain of parenthood, scarring their children for life. In this country, however, marriages have about a 50% chance of failing regardless of the couples age.
When people that I am already married with a child, they are usually shocked. Some ask why, though the answer should be obvious. They usually assume that I became pregnant, dropped out of high school, got married, and ruined by life so bad that I had to stay home with the baby instead of going to college. The truth is that I met my husband when I was 15 in our sophomore year of high school. We began dating after graduation and were married four months after my eighteenth birthday. About six months later we decided to begin trying to conceive a child, as we felt ready. We conceived just after my ninteenth birthday and became parents two months before my twentieth. What surprises a lot of people is that about three months later, when I was 20 and my husband still 19, we purchased our first brand new home.
I chose not to go to college. All I’d ever wanted was to be a wife, mother, and writer. After being a SAHM for 18 months, I finally realized the path for me. I have decided to become a birth doula and will certify later this year. I plan to go on to become certified as an antepartum and postpartum doula, childbirth educator, and lactation counselor. I can then use my earnings to put myself through midwifery school. At the moment I am enjoying my time with my young son, whom I plan to homeschool. My husband is working and earning his degree, and I am at home developing my skills as a writer while preparing myself for my future career by reading as much as I can. We have several sources of income and work very hard to support our lifestyle, which most people would not except of such a young couple especially one with a child. We have never accepted state assistance, nor has our son ever been in daycare.
I love being a young mother and wouldn’t have it any other way. The stares I received when I was pregnant and looked 15, especially when I had to wear my wedding band around my neck because of the swelling, were all worth it. Motherhood has changed my life and altered my perspective on the world. It has strengthened my marriage and changed the bond between my husband and I in a way that I could never regret. The love I have for my son is the most overwhelming passion I have ever felt, and I pity anyone who thinks that young mothers eventually regret their choice or resent their child or that having a child at a young age ruins your life. Motherhood has made me a better person, given me a purpose and a reason to live, and is now my higher calling. The same is true of most mothers, no matter what their age.
Before you judge someone, make sure you know their situation. Do not make assumptions based on a person’s age or life choices. If you are going to make sweeping generalizations about a group of people, have some statistics to back it up. Observations aren’t always accurate depictions of the overall truth, especially considering the probability of one not truly understanding what they believe they’re seeing. Young parents may not have it made, but most find a way to balance their priorities–and usually without meeting the characteristics of the typical stereotypes. Parenting is a lot of work, but becoming a mother doesn’t ruin your life or mean that you are destined for failure. Some of the best parents I know can’t even buy cigarettes or order a drink yet. I challenge all young parents to stand up and say, with some spunk, “Yeah, I’m a teen mom. So what?!” Let the world know that bringing life into the world is not a mistake, and that we are good parents, too!