“You look too young to be a mom!”
Or how about …
“You have a BABY? No! You look like a baby yourself!”
Oh wait, here’s a good one …
“Are you the nanny, ooor … ?”
“No, yeah I’m his mom,” I’d reply. “Yes, I am young,” I’d agree.
Considering I got pregnant straight out of college, I was certainly on the younger end of the parenting spectrum. (No one was more surprised than me, I assure you.) And yet, I wasn’t exactly a teen mom. I wasn’t juggling school courses and motherhood, like so many student moms. I had my own apartment and generally lived like a grown up, despite the thrift-store furniture and empty bank account. I know that some 21 year olds are just starting grad school, or living a parent-coddled lifestyle, but me? I was off into the world with a crisp college diploma, a new full-time job, and a fetus in my womb. I’m not sure I had even thought about my womb up until that point in life, until it was inhabited.
Yes, I know, I am quite young.
I knew I’d be a young mom; I was just surprised at how often the outside world would remind me. And directly, I might add. I would never think to walk up to a random person in the mall food court and ask, “Wow, how old are you?” — half accusing, half astonished — and yet it’s happened, right in front of my eyes.
Often people were just making small talk, as they do, not meaning much harm. We’ve all made knee-jerk comments that we can’t back-peddle away from fast enough. Whether we’re a young mom (“Are you his babysitter?”) or an old mom (“Are you his grandma?”) — whether we have too few children or too many — we all have a set of repetitive comments, as well as a running list of witty comebacks that we rehearse during quiet late-night feedings. The Q&A loop is certainly redundant, but we can at least recognize that most of them are done innocently (or ignorantly, whichever you prefer).
Take the 50-something lady ahead of me at the supermarket, eying my bright-eyed toddler with nostalgia splashed across her face. When she said, “He’s your baby? A baby having a baby!” she didn’t know that two other strangers had said something shockingly similar in the last six hours. She didn’t know how much I dreaded answering yet another question about my age, or how defensive I got — locked and loaded with justifications and life credentials to assure her that I’m not the stereotypical “young mom” who, if Internet commenters are to be believed, “will never do anything significant beyond popping out babies and draining our economy.”
When a Disney cruise hostess sat us for breakfast and asked, “Is he yours? Yes? Look so young,” in her charming exotic accent, she was being cruise-ship friendly — complimentary, even.
“Oh, ha! Yes, well I’m 26,” I warmly replied.
“Wow! I thought you were 18!” she said, laying it on thick.
But you see, I found it to be more amusing than irritating by the age of 26. By that point, I had proven myself competent enough to avoid the tongue-clucks of strangers — not like my bulging stomach and bare ring finger attracted. I had more confidence, more comfort in my role. I took pride in owning up to my chronological age — yes I’m only 26, but look at how happy my child is! And I haven’t burnt down my life, not even once!
But it wasn’t always that way — OH NO. In the beginning, I had serious anxiety and embarrassment over the comments. In fact, 26 is the age I once pretended to be, back when I was 23 and lying about my age. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote on this here Internet was titled, “Confession: I Lie About My Age,” and I continue to get emails about it to this day.
“ME TOO,” say all the young moms who email or comment. They relate to my frustration, my embarrassment, to the way strangers transparently searched my face for an age. They, too, have added two or three years onto their responses, just to cushion the reaction. Looking back at the post, I see my former self dripping in insecurity. (I actually ended the post with the always-mature, “SO THERE.”)
I didn’t realize it then, but a lot of the judgment I felt from strangers was amplified by my own judgment toward myself. I compared myself to the “real moms” in the world. I had a perpetual fear of being “not enough,” which I saw reflected in the wide-eyed reactions of strangers and family alike.
I was also very young. (Yes, I know, we’ve established this.) What I mean is that I hadn’t lived quite as many years, or had as many perspective-shifting experiences as an older mom may have. I didn’t understand that people weren’t wagging their fingers and making blanket prophecies because they had some kind of grown-up insight that I was missing; it’s because all grown-ups get judged for something. It’s because all humans feel insecure and judgmental, inward and outward. It’s because people can be really rude and inappropriate, and that’s more a reflection of them than us.
I wish I knew that things would turn out just fine; that I’d find quite a few perks to being a young mom. I wish I knew how little my age would matter as I gained more confidence and experience.
But more than anything, I wish I could have batted my eyes and fluffed my hair, saying, “Do I look young? Darling, you’re too kind.”
Image courtesy of Michelle Horton