I Was a Teen Bride and a Young Mother, And Yes, I'm Still a Feminist

I'm so tired of hearing only one brand of feminism touted as the "correct" one.
Publish date:
April 26, 2016
feminism, motherhood, teen marriage, Young Mother

"You're pregnant, right?" a horrified high school acquaintance whispered on the phone.

"Is it, like, an arranged marriage?" a girl on my dorm room floor asked, sharp and brutal curiosity unsheathed, ready to impale every word that fell from my mouth.

The implication in both questions, of course, was that the only reason I could possibly be getting married at eighteen was because I was being held at gun point (either baby or a patriarchal culture being the gun). Indelicate as their questions were, the both of them did have a point. There's data to back up the fact that your risk of divorce is highest when you get married before age twenty or after age thirty-two.

"No," I said, trying, and failing, to sound confident, breezy, and in control, when I was, in fact, just a scared, nervous, sweaty adolescent. "I just...love him."

What I didn't say: I grew up in a family where "love" vacillated between a strange, cold, mostly-dormant thing and an inferno of savage vitriol and spinning chaos. My then-fiancé got this. He saw, and accepted, the darkest parts of me. I knew things about him he'd never shared with anyone else. And so, to me, it was simple. At eighteen and nineteen, we'd had had more psychological insight into each other's characters than many married couples ever gain.

Still: Girl with a past? Boy looking to, some might say, save her? The entire thing could've been a TV movie hurtling toward a disastrous ending. I knew that, somewhat — as much as an eighteen-year-old with PTSD can know things about her future, anyway. I also didn't care.

I was determined to prove a middle-aged car salesman wrong when he sneered, "You're getting married at eighteen? Well, come back in a year and we'll fit you for a minivan," like he was the epitome of wisdom on the trajectory of a woman's life.

But this horrified point of view wasn't limited to American friends and strangers. Even my Indian relatives questioned my sanity. In spite of the popular "arranged marriage" assumption people made based solely on my ethnicity, a large part of my family back in India prided itself on more modern values. They were fine with me waiting and finding someone of my own choosing once I was done with college. They couldn't understand why I was rushing into this (my unstable nuclear family was a well-hidden secret).

When I got pregnant at twenty-four and then (happily but accidentally) again at twenty-five, I did have a momentary panic. That gap-toothed car salesman grinned at me from inside my own hormone-soaked brain. Was he right? Was it just a matter of time before I was sailing down the road in a minivan, a mere husk of my former intelligent, capable self?

I'd had my kids when the time felt right; our first was very much planned. My husband and I were homeowners. We had jobs and healthcare and a savings account. Still, it was always my desire to earn my PhD, and women in academia have one thing in common: They have their kids well into their thirties, sometimes into their forties. Virtually no one was doing it like me —"bass ackwards," as someone was nice enough to say. Never mind that for someone who was born and raised in India as I was, your mid-twenties was a perfectly "acceptable" time to have a child. This new bar set by people I thought I wanted to be one day felt way more real than any previous experience I'd lived.

In my daily life, I was met with the harsh, grim expectations of young motherhood. Moms my age I met at parks and play dates had no aspirations to finish college if they'd even begun, let alone to earn a graduate degree. They'd hear my career goals and look at me askance. Sometimes they'd smile with pity, as though they knew something I didn't. Women who weren't moms never bothered to ask me anything about myself once they heard I had kids. I was that and only that: A mom.

Of course, people have a point when they discourage women from getting married or having kids young. Being saddled with additional responsibility such as marriage and motherhood in your teens or early twenties means a significant impediment to finishing college, which in turn means a markedly decreased earning potential. You're also much more likely to get divorced when you get married before age twenty, which can lead to single motherhood, which has some serious negative outcomes. And then there's the fact that our brains don't even finish developing till about age twenty-five.

Would I advise all women to get married at eighteen as I did? No, of course not. On the other hand, do I feel it automatically follows that if someone does get married at age eighteen, her only remaining options are motherhood and household duties? Absolutely not.

Looking back as a much-more-confident woman in her thirties who has accomplished what she's wanted to accomplish in spite of having made these seemingly rather un-feminist choices, I wonder: Why did people feel the need to weigh in so negatively on my life? Why is there an inherent expectation that once a woman becomes a wife and a mother, especially a "too-young" wife and mother (and of course, society dictates when is too young or too old), that she ends there?

I don't have the answers. But what I do know is this: No woman should feel given up on simply because of the life path she chooses. So I've made a promise to myself. I will respond with enthusiasm when a woman in my life makes a thoughtful choice —whether or not it aligns with my brand of feminism.