When meeting a new person, the conversation would sometimes go like this:
Them: So, do you have any kids?
Me: Yes, I have a daughter.
Them: How old is she?
Me: 3, 6, 15, 19, 26 (whatever age she was at the time).
Them: What? Were you five when you had her?
Me: Yes, didn't you see my story in The National Enquirer?
Them: (nervous laugh) Well, you must've been pretty young.
Me: 18 actually.
Them: (slight cough) Well, I've gotta move on now. Nice meeting you.
The issue of teenage mothers hit the news again recently with a 15-year old giving birth in Britain and a 13-year old claiming to be the father. And of course, there's Bristol Palin whose very public teenage pregnancy made her a laughing stock or object of pity in many circles.
Frankly, I would rather not see teenage mothers be mocked or bemoaned; things do not always work out as horrifically as many pundits and other experts often expect. I loved being a mother from the very beginning, and have never for one minute regretted having Jennifer exactly when I had her. But I had to fight through years of negative prognoses to stay positive about it.
The prevailing social attitude is that we teenage mothers should be ashamed of ourselves, and that our children are doomed. So I did, despite my best efforts, struggle with feeling ashamed even though, on a deeper level, I knew I had nothing to be ashamed of, even if many people felt I had ruined my life.
But because I believe that bringing a child into this world is always a blessing, regardless of the circumstances, I became defiant over the years, preparing myself for the withering glances and other revealing gestures that let me know my interlocutor had
suddenly lost respect.
At the same time, I am tremendously grateful for all of those who did not look down on me, did not make me feel ashamed, and who, in fact, embraced Jennifer and me as a solid and reasonably happy little family unit. Our life was not always easy but I do believe life rarely is, even when people follow the rules. There are always challenges.
I know women who were teenage mothers and who are raising wonderful, well-balanced children. I also know women who waited until the right time -- when they were well-educated and established in their careers -- who are having a terrible time raising their children. I also know women who got pregnant as teenagers, had abortions, and tried desperately for the rest of their fertile years to have children and to no avail.
At the same time, I do believe women should have a choice when they find themselves pregnant -- and it can be an agonizing decision, no matter which way one goes.
Raising Jennifer while attending college kept me out of the dorms and endless parties and helped me focus on my studies in a way I probably wouldn't have. And she helped me keep my priorities straight -- I did make sacrifices in my career in order to make myself available for her.
True, I may have become more "successful" if I had followed the usual and expected route for the child of well-educated, middle-class parents, but I chose early motherhood instead. Like any mother, I did some things well and others not that well. I made plenty of mistakes and there is much I would do differently. But I would have had these issues regardless of my age when she was born.
There is no pat formula for parenthood. And don't get me wrong -- I am certainly not advocating teenage motherhood, as it does create hurdles that would otherwise not be there. But I do believe the hysteria that accompanies news of a teenage birth is often overblown.
I can't judge how this teenage mother in Britain will do -- yes, there may be some rough years -- nor can I judge how Bristol Palin will be as a mother. But I would rather give them my respect than my condemnation or even pity and, as with anything in life, wish them the best.