I got pregnant with my first baby at nineteen, during my second year of college. My son Jacob was born when I was twenty, (recently, and yes, hastily) married, and working as a receptionist for a temp agency.
Up until I got that double blue line, I’d been unfocused, irresponsible, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
But suddenly my life took quick shape in the form of a dependent baby boy.
I threw myself into motherhood with an energy I’d never quite mustered up for school, and through that experience, I found my voice, my vision and my adulthood.
And though my husband and I hit some bumps (and a few huge potholes) in those early years of parenthood, we are now settled thirty-somethings with successful careers, a strong relationship and a great family life.
People, it happens all the time.
And yet our case is seen as the exception, rather than the rule. Young adults in the prime of their fertility, not to mention energy levels, who want children, are actually afraid to become parents, believing they’ll feel “ready” down the road sometime…at 30, or 35, or maybe 40.
Recently the age of first parenthood has become a hot topic, with writers, researchers and experts debating the relative risks and rewards of a societal shift toward older parenting. But I’m not interested in encouraging more people to have kids older or urging them to start sooner: to me, it’s about supporting and believing in parents, period.
Just as I don’t judge older moms, there should be no reason in the world why an intelligent, reasonably stable young woman should feel she cannot successfully raise a child if that’s what she and her partner want to do.
Even if you don’t think you’re judge-y about young moms or young parenthood, ask yourself: how many times have you made an assumption about a young woman with a baby? Have you quietly clucked to yourself about wasted potential or missed opportunities or – admit it, now - “taxpayer dollars’? How many times have you perpetuated the idea that parenthood is something you need to be ready to consider, and I mean REALLY REALLY REALLY ready, with the money and career to prove it?
The more this myth persists that the longer you wait the “more ready” you’ll feel – and that nobody is really ready before at least 28, or maybe 32, or maybe 35, depending on your circle of friends – the more I run into committed couples in their late twenties, early thirties, and even mid-thirties who are terrified of parenting. The myth of “readiness” is creating a monster: women (and men!) who would really like to give into that biological urge to have children and create a family, but are afraid they’ll screw it up.
The result: people who don’t actually want to are putting off child-bearing longer and longer, and running into fertility problems when they finally realize there may be no such thing as a magical age of readiness. And young people who do end up pregnant by accident – or who decide to buck the trend and start a family early in adulthood – feel ostracized and judged.
Here are a few ways our culture discourages young parenthood (and why we should knock it off, already):
1. We treat youthful parenthood as something shameful and sad. I’m not talking about teen pregnancy here – though for some inexplicable reason, the two are often conflated – I’m talking about young, but fully-grown, often educated, adult women being treated like idiots, losers or “wasted potential” because they become parents at 21, or 23, or 25.
Guess what? Our bodies are meant to do it, and while society is not currently set up to support young parents, having a kid young also doesn’t mean you’re permanently derailed. Trust me: when you’re that young mom wondering if you’ve just blown your whole future, a little support, some high expectations, and a dash of optimism can go a long way.
And I’m tired of seeing youthful adult parenthood conflated with teen parenthood. I also think teen parents can be and are successful all the time, but comparing a girl of 15 to a woman of 23 makes no sense at all unless you seriously underestimate that woman.
2. We put way too much stock in the myth of extended adolescence. From watching TV and movies, you’d think that the 20s are a magical age, full of self-discovery, maturation, and success in relationships and work. And for some, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that parenting can’t happen alongside of self-discovery or career success, or that all people are better off having a decade or more of freedom and fun before settling down. Although I do think my intro to motherhood would have been smoother if my life had been a bit more stable first, I felt ready – really really ready – by my early-mid 20s.
I hear all the time “Oh, there’s no way I could have had my crap together enough to have kids in my 20s!” and I believe that for many people, that seems true. I will just say that nothing forces you to take stock of your life and get it in order quite like an impending birth.
Bottom line: there are tradeoffs at both ends of the spectrum. I’ll still be relatively young when my kids leave the house, and I’ll still have plenty of time for fun and freedom – with a little more jingle in my pockets than I would have had in my 20s. And while I did miss out on some partying in my youth, I also know that I spent those years well. That’s more than a lot of people I know can say about that time of their lives!
3. We put too much emphasis on building a career before having babies.
In her much-dissected Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested that having children younger, rather than trying to get one’s career completely buttoned-up prior to having kids, might be the wiser path. “A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement,” she suggests. Makes sense to me – and if more women embraced having kids while in the earlier stages of their careers, they’d be seen as less “other” and be more prepared to support one another through those years in the trenches.
4. We’ve raised the bar way too high on what it means to be “ready” to have kids. This is probably the biggest reason most 20-somethings don’t feel “ready” for kids, but, I think, also the most misplaced.
Remember when you were a kid? If you’re one of the older children in your family, you probably remember having one car, packing a cooler full of sandwiches for road trips, and wearing patched clothes. If you’re one of the younger kids in the family, perhaps the money was flowing by the time you came along and you only heard the stories from your siblings. Families used to follow a socially-acceptable pattern: have kids young, while you’re poor. While the family grows, so too will the family’s financial security.
Now, though, it’s practically required to have two mid-level careers, a fat retirement account, college savings in place, and a three-bedroom home in an excellent school district before you’re allowed to even start thinking about having children. We feel we owe our kids so very much that it seems quasi-abusive to bring a baby into a one-bedroom apartment or skimp on your toddler’s music lessons.
Baloney. It’s perfectly OK to grow your family’s financial stability alongside your kids. It makes you more creative, more resourceful, and can even lead to some great memories. And if there’s anything this recession has taught us, it’s that no job, no home equity, no investment, is guaranteed anyway.
People are not statistics. I have no doubt that young parents struggle in larger numbers than older ones, but there could be many reasons for that. For instance, I would guess that young people from more upwardly-mobile homes are much less likely to continue a pregnancy or keep the baby afterward, which would definitely skew success numbers.
Infancy and young childhood don’t last forever, and with support and high expectations, the poor young couple can have just as good a chance of going on to build successful careers and lives as the ones who wait. But let’s give them a chance instead of writing them off from the get-go. (For encouragement and a glimpse at what ambitious and successful young parents can look like, look to young-mom blogs like Tiny Blue Lines and Early Mama).
And let’s also remember that money, age and the image of stability can all seem to add up to a successful family, but that doesn’t mean those families are any happier than the younger, poorer ones.
As for myself, all I can say is that having a child young was a shock to my system – in the best possible way. Looking back, I truly wouldn’t change a thing. And I would love it if more young moms felt empowered to say the same.