When I was a teen mom with an infant, people often mistook me for my daughter’s nanny. I’d been traveling for a few years before she was born and I looked like it: I wore army pants, ripped T-shirts and instead of a diaper bag, I slugged around a ratty backpack. I’d met my baby’s Dad in a squat in Amsterdam, given birth in Italy and left the boyfriend behind, then moved back in with my parents in the affluent California suburb where I grew up – the kind of place where most of the moms were professionals who had waited until well into their 30s to start their families.
I was settling happily into my new, if unexpected, maternity, applying to colleges and counting the days until my 20th birthday. “What a beautiful baby,” one woman at the playground cooed. “It’s sad that her mother had to go back to work so soon.”
The layers of culture and assumptions in that comment left me shy and fumbling for words.
“I’m her mother,” I finally managed. “And I really want to go to college soon.”
I wasn’t sure, even then, why I felt the need to explain myself to this woman, but the truth seemed important.
Almost two decades later, and a week after my daughter went off to college, I gave birth to another baby. This time I was in a committed relationship and had a steady income, and I’d tracked my cycles diligently. I figured that at age 37 with an established career as a journalist I would fit in better at the park and elsewhere. But Max was hardly six weeks old when the nurse at his pediatrician’s office tickled him, then looked up at me: “He’s so cute,” she said. “Don’t you just love being a grandma?”
I laughed. I wasn’t even 40 years old! “I’m his mother,” I admitted. “But I’m looking forward to being a grandma some day.”
Me and my son.
As mothers, we want everything: an easy conception, pregnancy and childbirth, the vitality – or coffee – to make it through the first year, money to keep the rent paid and the electricity on, a partner or other family member to do some of the laundry, and time along the way to go to college, find meaningful work and have adventures.
In the post-modern maternal dilemma – to have kids when we’re young or to wait? To breed when it “happens,” or to plan? – I’ve had it both ways as a parent: I was a teenage single mom on welfare and, years later, I was a partnered homeowner with a really bad backache.
During my first pregnancy, I gained 10 pounds and they called me high-risk for being young and malnourished. During my second pregnancy, I gained 60 pounds and they told me to stop eating so much bread.
Most people I meet assume that parenting when we’re older is intrinsically better or easier. “Congratulations on the improved circumstances,” more than few people told me when I got pregnant with number two.
But of course, there is no better or easier.
At 18, conception was easy and natural childbirth was quick. As a teen and 20-something mom, I could pull all-nighters and hardly look bleary-eyed in the morning. But while other kids were up partying, I was up nursing and studying. I didn’t mind missing out on the keg parties, and I still got better grades than most of them. Every day it was me and my daughter against the world, ready for adventures. What would happen next?
There was an energy and optimism in those years, but it was also soul-crushingly hard to be a solo mom and solo breadwinner when I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And it hurt me deeply when people looked at me like my family was some kind of tragedy.
At 37, my pregnancy took a serious toll on my body. I was tired all the time, had trouble focusing on work, and slipped down the stairs at six months and broke my tailbone. My pregnancy was technically uncomplicated, but I finally understood what pregnant women were always whining about. It was hard.
But of course I also had a stability I didn’t have the first time: I wasn’t in danger of overdrawing my bank account just by buying groceries, and if a work project called me out of town for a few days, my partner picked up the slack.
I miss the closer bond that comes between a single mother and her children, but there is energy and optimism this time around, too. I don’t have the sense that it’s me and my son against the world, but with a bigger family, I trust that someone else will catch him if I stumble.
The biggest difference this time around, however, has less to do with my age and more simply with the fact that I’ve done it once before.
Maybe other mothers are Zen from the get-go, but it took me a long time to learn that I didn’t have control over much. I used to fret endlessly about choosing the wrong school or not being strict enough with the time-outs. I back-talked when people told me I was too young to be a good mom, but I secretly wondered if they were right.
Of course, they were wrong.
Over time I saw that my mistakes rarely caused the catastrophes.
My daughter’s challenges in life have rarely been about my parenting missteps, and they certainly haven’t been about my age or financial status. They haven’t been about me at all. The successes I helped orchestrate for her – steering her into this academic program or that part-time job – were usually not the things that ended up resonating. The schemes she dreamed up on her own (like taking off to art school in New York for a summer or joining the cheerleading squad) were the things that mattered to her.
With my son, I think I worry less about the small stuff. The hard work of motherhood is real and important, but my job as a mom is actually pretty simple: Do my best to keep my children in good health and in good company and know that ultimately, their destinies are their own. I always knew that on an intellectual level, but I had my doubts. Surely all those people who offered the unasked-for advice couldn’t all be wrong.
But, again, they were all wrong. Judgment and unasked-for advice, it turns out, are two things that never change.
And there’s another thing that seems not to change: My strange encounters with other moms. When I was a teen mom, I figured that my weird exchanges with other parents at the park could be explained away by the generation gap. They knew something. They’d waited. They had their “improved circumstances.”
My daughter and my son.
Imagine my dismay the first time I took my baby son to the park, thinking I really had it going on this time, that I’d fit in at last, only to realize almost 20 years later that the exact same kind of women seemed to be looking down their noses at me. The only difference was that this time, these uber-moms with their fancy strollers and very specific nursing strategies were younger than me.
They wanted to know how long I planned to nurse, they wanted to know what my “husband” did even though I gave them no reason to think I had one, and they wanted to know when I was going “back to work.”
“We’re not vaccinating,” one mother tells me as she pushes her daughter in the baby swing. “Vaccines can be deadly, you know? Are you planning to vaccinate?”
I just shake my head. By now I’ve spent too much of my life trying to explain myself. “I don’t know anything about his vaccine schedule,” I lie. “I’m just the grandma.”