I had to sit in my car and wait to stop crying because of this NPR story corp piece. (Why are they always so gut wrenching?!) It featured a woman and her son grappling with a topic they had never discussed, despite speaking to one another almost daily. Before you read the rest of this, I recommend you listen to their story first.
The touchy topic they discussed was how being a mom at sixteen felt, and whether or not she regret her path. She spoke about how, looking back, she really felt nothing, and, midway through, her voice broke. As she went further into how she felt (or was not allowed to feel), I was reminded, vividly, of how it felt to be pregnant at seventeen, my senior year of high school, feeling as if I were a failure. And actually, I’m fighting tears right now because I guess that feeling of shame has never really left me.
The thing is, when you get pregnant in high school it’s hard to celebrate that pregnancy because it’s seen as such a huge mistake (and a part of you knows that it was a mistake in some ways — not the future person coming into being, but somewhere something definitely went wrong). It’s hard to be happy knowing that you’ve done everything out of order, that you’re missing out on both the joys of being a teenager and the joy that accompanies pending motherhood, and so you resort to feeling nothing (or trying to), feeling ashamed, or feeling rage. Sometimes all three.
It is so so so hard being a parent, but it’s that much harder when you become a parent, and you’re still a child. You’re battling the looks people give you, the sympathetic nods, the whispers behind your back either of shock or the vindicated whispers of people who always rooted for you to fail. You’re coming to terms with saying goodbye to a teenage and young adult body whose potential you will never get to explore, and you’re saying hello to a future where you’re expected to make all the right decisions as a mother. You’re missing your high school proms, your high school parties, going off to the college you had dreamed of since you were eight, staying in a dorm, learning how to be an adult without the responsibility of another human on your shoulders, and so much more. But you’re expected to refrain from grieving over the loss of these now trivial things in the face of impending motherhood.
You’re simultaneously expected to be chastened by your teenage pregnancy (how could you?!), but also exceedingly happy you’re going to be a mother. Don’t have an abortion, and don’t place your baby for adoption, because how could you? The child is not a mistake — just maybe everything leading up to him. Every life is precious so celebrate your child, but be ashamed by the pregnancy. Farewell to the future you’d long dreamed of, but please make sure you never let people hear you say you “regret” the pregnancy because ISN’T YOUR CHILD WONDERFUL? Isn’t parenthood just absolutely wonderful?
Essentially, what, looking back now, I think I felt was that I didn’t deserve to feel any of the good things people who had done it the “right” way got to feel, but I also knew that my child deserved a life where his becoming was a joyful affair. It was all so confusing and sad. It was hard.
So you’re facing all these impossible and contradictory standards, but you’re also kind of excited. You’re growing this human in you, and sometimes at night you wonder how it is possible to feel such love and such anger at the same time. When you look at the luggage your parents gifted you to go away to college, you’re really, really angry. So angry you understand what it means to be “hot-blooded” because you can actually feel your blood pulsating in your hands, your face, your chest. But then you see a movement across your abdomen, and you immediately feel ashamed at having felt such rage, and a small flutter of gratefulness that your child isn’t witness to it calms you down. And when you’re calm enough, you allow yourself to think of names, of how it will feel to actually hold him, how it will feel to put down on forms, “Mother,” how it will feel to be a mom when you had never imagined being a parent, not even to a cat.
And before you know it, you’re a mom at eighteen, married and moved away to a different state, with a newborn baby. And it’s literally like someone, perhaps a bored god, gave you a checklist of everything you knew your future just did not contain, and HaHa! jokes on you because it is your future, present, and past. You are living life in every single way you swore you would never.
But you come to terms with it, you know? “Okay, this is my life, I’ll make the most of it.” And you’re seriously resolved to commit. I was determined to conquer wife-hood and motherhood, but I fell so hard. Flat on my face or, quite literally, into a hospital bed. Something about having dreams you’d long since counted upon because it spelled F-R-E-E-D-O-M to you being ripped away really did a number on my brain. Motherhood was not computing. Neither was being a wife. I was miserable, and not because I had a particularly difficult child. But the crushing responsibility of having someone need me to be the grown up I wasn’t — it’s like when your mom expects and wants you to be a doctor, but you’re like, yeah that isn’t me, but reversed — that filled me with dread, shame, and anger. My child needed, deserved, and wanted a grown up, and I just wasn’t there, and I knew it. Or maybe, in the end, what it boiled down to was I felt (and knew) he deserved so much better a mother, better than someone who had made such a poor choice.
It’s important, I think, to note that while my story is not (thankfully) the typical story of motherhood, it isn’t quite uncommon either. It’s not unique. Every year in Texas, over 35,000 women under the age of 20 will become pregnant. And teen pregnancy is highly correlated with low educational attainment (less than 2% will get a four year degree before the age of 30), higher incarceration rates, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and an increased risk to have their own children become teen parents. And even when those who became parents as teens eventually graduate from college or become self-sustaining, nine times out of ten, they still had to redirect their previous dreams. Priorities change, and with that so do ambitions.
Back to this soul destroyer of a story from NPR:
When I heard this mom’s voice, and how she perfectly described what it felt like to have made what society at large thinks is a huge and stupid choice, juxtaposed with the baby in her arms, whom she loved, I was moved. It’s so hard to know how to feel. You think you’re allowed to feel only certain things, and some feelings should be felt in moderation. Feel joy and happiness — but not too much. Not the amount granted to women who did it the “right” way. To exacerbate that complex, if you grew up in a religious household, the concept that you’re now “spoiled goods” because of the visibility of your mistaken and sinful premarital sex really hits home. It’s so destructive to a young person’s self-esteem. Of someone’s idea of one’s self. If you grew up in an unstable home environment, say…foster care, what happens is you realize that people assume you’re, ‘just like the rest of them.” You’re just like those other kids no one wanted for so long, the other “messed up” kids. But with that awareness, you’re equally aware you have to pull yourself up or risk damaging your own child’s sense of self, and that’s the hardest thing. Trying to keep another person afloat, when you’ve been treading water for what seems like ages.
To this day, I still carry a lot of guilt over being such a young mother, but my guilt doesn’t stem from society’s judgment of teen moms, but the ways in which I just was not prepared for motherhood. My son is so many wonderful things — he is compassionate, protective of his family, intelligent, hilarious, sardonic, ambitious, and curious. But this is despite my mothering — not due to it. Because I was, truthfully, a shit mother for the first three years of my son’s life. I was selfish, I was angry, I was sad, but I loved him. I loved when he laughed or when he reached for me and how his chubby body felt when I held him. But I hated the burden of someone needing me to be so much better than I was ready to be. And all those feelings together made me want to run away and hide. This is not an excuse. It is like the mother of this story said, “it’s not a fairy tale and it’s not a failure. It’s a process.”
The conversation ends with the son asking what she wants for him, and despite her having been a teenage mom, her answer is the answer of any great parent. That her son do and be better than she, and that her son never be afraid to be afraid. That he not settle for mediocrity, but that he strive to be a truly good person. I think that’s what we all want for our children.
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In eight short years, my oldest will be eighteen, and I will be thirty-six. While I am far (so far) from being a perfect mom, I consider myself to at least be an okay mom; I am miles from where I was at seventeen, which, to me, is a mountain of improvement. I still have days where I want to run and hide in my closet, but I’m pretty sure that’s true of every parent. I hope, that despite my many imperfections (both as a mother and a general human), my son knows that everything I have ever done has been for him and his sister. I hope he understands that though I was young and selfish when he was first born, and though my feelings were confused, that I always, always loved him. I hope they both know I will always love them, no matter what. I hope that every single day I am able to show both my son and my daughter in some way, big or small, that I am grateful for their presence, and they make me lucky. That more than anything, I want to give them a happy life, and I want them to be able to be proud of who they have as a mother. I want them to know that I want them to do and be better than me, and that I will push them to be the best versions of themselves every single day. I want them to know that I am proud of who they already are. And I hope they learn, like I had to, that all of life is a process. That being human is a process, and maybe we don’t have to necessarily label things as either “good” or “bad,” but just things that help us grow.