I gave birth to my daughter a month after my seventeenth birthday. It was a Tuesday night, a school night. After they gave me my epidural (thank the Four Gods for that), I studied for an upcoming math test, pages spread out like fallen leaves across the stark hospital sheets. My ex-husband quizzed me from flashcards over the backs of nurses to distract me from the discomfort and nervousness.
I remember balancing my notebook on my distended belly as I watched the machine monitoring my baby's heartbeat and promising myself that I would be the sort of mother she deserved. I would be the type of mother she could look up to and depend on. I would defy the stereotypes; I would be more than an unplanned pregnancy.
Here's all the stuff people assume about me anyway.
1. People assume you’re stupid.
Only stupid girls get pregnant in high school, right? Of course, because it takes a stupid girl to fall in love in high school, to get caught up in teenage hormones and the promise of romance and to later stare in confusion and mounting horror at a broken condom. I was not the first of my friends to have sex; in fact, I am fairly sure I was the last, and I was far more discreet about it. My sex life wasn’t and still isn’t anyone else’s business. I was raised in a strict, religious home and I was going against everything my parents had taught me. After discovering the broken condom, I lived in fear, too afraid to tell my parents, too afraid to ask them for help. I figured, what were the chances it could happen to me? I was going away to college. I had a plan.
I was too young to understand that life rarely cares if we have a plan or not. A few months later, I found myself staring at a positive pregnancy test wondering what on earth I was going to do now.
I was not an exceptional student but I did very well in English and History. I was generally sorted into the "average" category in just about everything else. I was and am intelligent but, like everyone, I make mistakes. Having a child doesn’t diminish the value of a person and doesn’t reduce their inherent intellect or their drive to better themselves. For me it only heightened these things. I had a true purpose now, a driving force behind every decision I made. I pushed myself in school so I could graduate, not only on time, but with a 4.0 GPA my senior year.
2. People assume you didn’t graduate high school, let alone attend college.
After graduating from high school, I used my small college fund to attend a community college. I completed the two years and was then offered scholarships to a few universities in my area. I graduated early and with zero debt. I was not the only young mother to do so and I certainly hope I am not the last. The greatest disservice we do teenage mothers is to insist that they will never amount to anything. Not only will they be terrible parents, they will never be able to accomplish their dreams. We are so busy trying not to discourage their behavior that we often don’t realize we are dooming them to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. People assume you have a "broken" home.
My daughter’s father and I split some years ago, when my daughter was about four. She will be nine in a few months. It was a difficult time but one we tried to handle with the utmost care for her well-being. I believe we succeeded.
Now, years later, he and I are in stable, healthy relationships with two people who love her just as much as we do. In both of our homes, she is surrounded by people who support, care about and believe in her, and she is flourishing. She has received honor roll both years she’s been in school, and her teachers have assured us both that she is kind, attentive, creative, smart and happy. Every day I am grateful for the life my ex-husband and I are able to provide for her, which I truly believe is that much better because we made the decision to part ways.
4. People assume you are or have been on welfare.
I’ve had several women berate me for "using their tax dollars to further my lifestyle." First of all, I wouldn’t call getting unintentionally pregnant a lifestyle, and secondly your tax dollars took no particularly special part in the caring of my child or in the furthering of my education. Sorry, I just implemented good old-fashioned hard work. And, even if I had utilized welfare for a time, like many Americans who are struggling do, would that have been so wrong? Would I not have been using it for its intended purpose?
5. People feel the need to diminish all your accomplishments.
I am a college graduate and I have a great job with our nation’s government. I live a comfortable and secure lifestyle in a healthy relationship with a wonderful man. I am an aspiring writer and I have been working steadily to complete my first novel over the past year. My daughter is a straight "A" (technically she is a straight "4") student, wittier than I might prefer, and sweeter than I deserve.
But for many people I have come into contact with, none of that matters as much as the fact that I had a child when I was 17. It doesn’t matter how much money I make, how educated I am, how happy, smart and well-adjusted my daughter is, she will always be considered a "mistake" by a fair number of outspoken people. Just about anyone on the planet can conceive and give birth; I would argue that what truly matters is what you do after your child is born.
6. People assume your child is not properly cared for.
Money and a nice house do not necessarily make for a good home environment. Do they help? Sure, but they do not build a loving parental relationship with a child. People often assume that my daughter spent most of my college years in the care of others. Actually, her father and I orchestrated our lives so that she was almost always in our care. I worked hard -- really, really hard -- so that I could dedicate my evenings to my studies and therefore offer my child the entirety of my attention during the day.
7. People assume you are encouraging teenage pregnancy.
I was recently told by another mother that I am every parent’s worst nightmare. My story is the last story she would ever want her daughters to hear. She told me that I had romanticized teen parenthood and that by not falling into stereotypes I had inadvertently supported the notion that all of our teen girls should have babies in high school.
Firstly, I am not at all sure what is romantic about hard work. I went days without sleeping or eating. I pushed myself harder than I had or have ever pushed myself since. I had terrible low points where I thought I would never succeed, that I should give up, that maybe everyone was right about me. Maybe I truly was worthless. But then I would sit next to my sleeping daughter, admiring her budding features, and know why I had to keep going, why I had to keep trying. I don’t in any way encourage teenage pregnancy, but I truly believe it was the best thing to ever happen to me.
8. People assume you either go out too often or not often enough.
I won’t lie and say, that as a parent, I get to go out and party every weekend, or go on spontaneous trips to Mexico (or wherever), but that’s really not my style in the first place. However, because I share joint custody with my daughter’s father, I do have every other weekend and most of the summer. I tend to go for drinks on these child-free weekends (the older I get the less drinking there actually is and the earlier I come home, but I digress) and the summer is made for traveling. I understand this is not the situation of every single mother, but it is mine, and that of several other women I know. All this is to say that being a parent, or a person in general, is about finding balance. It’s about ensuring your child has what they need but not completely ignoring your own needs.
I am not a perfect person or a perfect parent, but who is? I am, however, a good parent, which I think can be achieved at almost any age.