I’m 23 years old. When my mother was my age, she was married with two children.
As my most serious relationship has probably been with Eric Northman from True Blood (aka imaginary), I can’t help but reflect on the type of life she led, and how much it impacted, and continues to impact me.
My parents became parents when my father was 18 and my mother was 19 – not only are they still together, but they are happy, healthy, and have built a strong family around them. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My mother, raised Catholic and conservative, fell in with my father, in the typical "I know he’s a bad boy but I can change him" fashion.
After a few months of dating, my mother discovered she was pregnant. While she fainted in surprise, my father read and reread the test; sure enough, there was a baby on the way.
Luckily, when she came to, there was clarity. “There was no thought other than to have you,” she tells me, when I confess that in her situation, I would’ve sought alternatives to motherhood.
Not that she’s recommending teens to go out and get pregnant; “It’s the worst decision I ever made, with the best result,” she says.
While my parents struggled through my early years, working long hours and multiple jobs to keep themselves together, I remember very little of the difficult times. My youngest memories are of time spent with my Great Aunt and Great Uncle, who often babysat me and taught me to read -- playing video games with my father and finger painting.
But on their end, each week was an incredible struggle.
“I regret my inexperience,” says my dad. “I feel like I would have approached learning opportunities with more rigor if I were raising young children now.”
“The nurturing part came naturally to both of us, the managing to find money in the $50 a week grocery budget for diapers part was much more difficult,” my mother sighs.
I asked her how she did it, how she found the energy. She smiled – “The stubborn desire to not be stereotypical failures. And a true, strong love for each other, and you,” she tells me, as we both choke up a little.
During the beginning, my parents actually split up – unable to cope with the demands of a child and one another on their extremely young relationship (they were only together four months when my mother got pregnant).
When my father told me this, I remember the solemn look on his face.
“You didn’t know me,” he said, “I went to your first birthday party, and you didn’t know me. I couldn’t let that happen. The next time I saw your mother, it was at a party for my family, and she was holding you. I saw her across the room, walked up to her, and just kissed her. We were never apart again after that.”
But, unlike many young parents, they did not jump into marriage. My father has often told me that while he was committed to being a father and being a partner to my mother, he did not intend to marry her until he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would love her forever, and that she would be the right wife to him.
I was the flower girl in my parents’ wedding, at three and a half, and just a year later, my brother was born.
I love that I remember my parents’ wedding. Being able to have these frank conversations with them makes me feel closer to them than anything else – it humanizes them in a way that is almost impossible to explain.
I suppose, when you feel that your parents are impervious to mistakes, that their relationship is flawless and they got it all right on the first try, you become filled with a self-loathing when you slip up yourself.
My parents led me by showing me where they made mistakes, and teaching me how to do things differently so that I do not have to walk the same difficult path.
“We implemented a do as I say, not as I do mentality with you from the beginning,” my mother says.
And it was effective – I was an incredibly well-behaved child and didn’t go through any rebellious phase as a teen (not an ego-trip, my parents have assured me this is true). I’m not sure, now, if it was really that rearing technique that worked, or the fact that I trusted my parents in a way that I think escapes many parent/child relationships; we were growing up together, and we needed one another.
My parents have provided me everything in life that I needed, but I’ve never felt like a spoiled child. In exchange, my successes and my love for them have always provided validation.
My mom tells me “[Being a mother] is my greatest accomplishment.” My dad laughs, and says that if I weren’t born, they would’ve led very different, surely far worse lives.
“We became who we are as a result of our struggles. I think fighting for our wants and desires allowed us to more deeply appreciate the success we ultimately achieved,” he says. Having a child was the catalyst that changed things for both of them, and now, 23 years later, things are extraordinary.
My father spent years in night school and community college, advancing himself to an engineer before graduating with a degree. He is incredibly private about his accomplishments, and takes the path of humility when it comes to what he’s undertaken in his lifetime in order to be so successful now. My mother has pushed through the tech world, and now works as a marketing director.
I laugh thinking that my parents ever thought they weren’t leading me by example – the example that I’ve always known was one of tireless working, of growth and perseverance.
When I was a teenager, I do remember thinking to myself, “My dad was a father when he was my age,” and this thought filled me with a mixture of sadness and regret, coupled with reverence.
I felt regret because I would never have a relationship with my children like the one I treasure with my parents. The advice they gave me, the experiences they shared with me, were richer, deeper, and far more real to me because they weren’t distant memories -- they could advise me in a way that I feel I’ll never be able to replicate.
“We could relate more compassionately to whatever issues you were facing,” my mom tells me. I feel the loss of that chance heavily, still. But, at the same time, I feel proud of my own life, and the pride my parents feel for me.
I’ll be a PhD in two years, with a wide-open world presented to me after that. That’s where the reverence kicks in, I guess. How did they do it?
I think of myself, my going home from work at night and falling into bed, barely enough energy to entertain my dogs; how could I have a child, let alone two, waiting for my attention each night?
The respect I feel for them grows the older and more aware I become.
Now, they are both barely 40 and are empty nesters! My brother, a US Marine, and I are testaments that having children young doesn’t deserve the stigma associated; it may not be a smart choice, but it doesn’t have to be considered the ruination of a life.
While I know I’ll never have children who grow up alongside me, I’ll continue to live by my parents' example, and devote myself to working hard to create a life that my children can be proud that I led.
I feel lucky, blessed even, to be my parents’ child. In my dad’s words, “In my experience, good parents demonstrate love, compassion, selflessness, and strategy. My hope is that you take your time in making the decision to become a parent and act on the decision when the time is right for you and your significant other…no rush!”