As a woman in my mid-thirties, much of my social media feed is filled with baby bumps and tiny toddlers. I watch as my peers wait anxiously for the pregnancy test to turn positive or fret over potty training. Some of my friends long to be parents; others find that their decisions to remain childfree have strengthened over time.
Despite the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we discussions taking place around me, deciding if or when to have kids isn’t particularly relevant for me right now. That’s because I’m at the far side of the active-parenting journey; at 34, I’ve already been a mother for 16 years. When my son was born, I was just 18 years old.
I was a senior in high school when I found out I was pregnant. Starting a family wasn’t part of the 5, 10, or even 15-year plans for anyone I knew – including me. Pro-choice from an early age, I surprised even myself when I made the decision to become a mother at a time when my own childhood was barely in the rearview mirror.
There’s no chapter in What to Expect When You’re Expecting about how to tell your 12-year-old brother that he’s going to be an uncle; no websites are dedicated to getting the most nutrition out of a school lunch when you’re eating for two. In fact, I didn’t see my experience mirrored anywhere in mainstream parenting culture. The only place I saw girls like me represented was on daytime talk shows and after-school specials, where we were portrayed as big-bellied and ignorant. There was no nuance or finesse in these characterizations; as a result, some of the people I interacted with – doctors, potential employers, strangers on the street – wrote me off before I even opened my mouth.
Throughout my pregnancy and the early days of motherhood, I often felt like I was operating without a map. My old high school classmates and I weren’t in the same place in our lives. While they were doing typical 18- and 19-year-old stuff like partying and going to college, my days were filled with naptime schedules and board books. Parenting was the biggest, most important aspect of my life, but I couldn’t talk to my same-age peers about it.
Meanwhile, other parents with kids my son’s age – the responsible ones, the ones who had waited – were a generation removed from me. We didn’t have that much in common besides babies. When I tried to reach out to other mothers at the playground, they often looked at me like I was something that they might find stuck to the bottom of their shoe. I was lonely a lot back then. Even now, I sometimes feel a twinge of sadness when I pass a group of mom friends hanging out in the park while their kids play together, like pressing a finger against an old bruise.
Some of the difficulties I faced as a young mother were fairly universal. After all, many new parents struggle with questions of identity as they find their footing in previously uncharted territory. On this front, I was in good company.
Other challenges were exacerbated by inexperience. The margin of error is slimmer when you have someone else dependent on you for their survival. If you think figuring out how to adult in your late teens and early 20s is tricky, try doing it with a baby on your hip. It’s kind of like that quote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: Teen moms do everything other moms do, but backwards and without resources or respect.
Financially speaking, I would have been better off waiting another decade or so. Decorating a nursery isn’t quite as fun when your paycheck barely covers groceries. I wore the same three unflattering shirts in rotation throughout my pregnancy, topped off with a non-maternity coat that wouldn’t button all the way, and worked on my feet in a pair of $15 shoes until just a couple of weeks before delivery. On the day my baby was born, I had maybe 50 bucks in my bank account.
When I became a parent, blunt honesty about motherhood wasn’t yet considered acceptable – unless the topic was teen moms. While my traditional-age parenting counterparts felt the pressure of putting on a happy show, I faced the opposite: everywhere I turned, society was telling me that teen moms were miserable, regretful, and neglectful. The subtext: Of course they are – how could they not be, after ruining their lives? I longed to add a dissenting voice to the conversation, but moms like me weren’t a part of the dialogue. There seemed to be no room for my experience anywhere, especially the good parts – the bad was exaggerated, the positive ignored.
Of course, the world isn’t as black-and-white as stereotypical portrayals of teen motherhood would have you believe. Not waiting has provided me with plenty of unexpected gifts. Waking up multiple times a night would wreck me now, but as a teenager, I managed to pull off 2 AM feedings and still rise before the sun with enough energy to make it through the day. I hadn’t settled into many routines yet, so incorporating my son into my daily activities was fairly seamless. Working a laid-back retail gig meant that I didn’t have to juggle a high-pressure career along with the demands of a small child.
My original plan was to leave the small town I’d been raised in right after high school, but after my son was born, I decided to stay for a while and put down roots. This allowed him to form tighter bonds with extended family than he would have if we’d lived a plane ride away. His grandparents were there for him in ways that are only possible when you live in the same city; they cheered him on at baseball games, showed up for school performances, and made it to every birthday party. My son formed relationships with his aunts and uncles before they were older and more settled, with responsibilities of their own. Not waiting also meant that my son got to know his great-grandparents, two of whom passed away when he was 13. If he was born a decade later, he wouldn’t remember them at all.
Becoming a mother forced me to slow down, take a step back, and de-focus from myself. In less than a year, I went from a high school student who still lived at home to an independent woman responsible for my own household. In light of those changes, the minor heartbreaks and teenage ennui that had consumed me before my son was born no longer seemed important.
Being relatively close in age also means that my son and I have a different relationship than other parents and their children. It wasn’t that long ago that I was 16 myself, so I neither idealize nor trivialize the experience of being a teenager. We’re both technically Millennials; we visit the same websites and laugh at the same memes. I don’t bemoan the amount of time he spends texting or insist that kids these days are doing it all wrong. In return, he feels comfortable coming to me with concerns large and small.
What would my life look like right now if I had waited? Perhaps I’d live in a bigger house, have a more fulfilling career, or own better shoes. My Instagram might be filled with photos of jaunts to Paris or Rome instead of day trips to Chicago and Cleveland. Almost certainly, I’d be more in sync with my peers.
If I had waited, there might not even be any pictures of a kid on there; it’s possible that I would have foregone having children altogether. Upending a settled life may have looked less attractive with each passing year.
But I’ll never know for sure what that alternate-reality version of present-day me would be. My son has been a constant companion for the entirety of my adult life, give or take a few months. In a couple of years, he’ll be an adult himself, and the next chapter of my life will begin. And while I never imagined the shape my life would take in the moments before I took that pregnancy test in my senior year of high school, I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
About the Author
Jen Bryant is a writer, coffee drinker, and petter of cats. Her work has been featured in several local and national publications, including BUST, Ms., Hipmama, and MUTHA Magazine. A native of the South, Jen currently lives in the Midwest.