People say that motherhood changes a person, right down to the foundation; this radical change strips away the nonsense and shakes us to our cores. In my experience, this is especially true for those who become mothers at an early age.
To say that we grew up together is a cliché, bringing to mind the stereotype of ‘kids having kids,’ but there’s some truth to that statement. As a new mother, I used to bristle at such trite truisms, convinced that I had sprung forth from my eighteenth birthday, Athena-like, into fully formed adulthood. How else to explain the grace with which I handled becoming a parent that same year? Who else but a real adult, and a Real Mom, could have produced such a beautiful, intelligent, and kind child, despite the circumstances? But now that you’re a teenager yourself – only a few years away from the age I was when you were born, actually – eighteen looks impossibly young, small, and far away. Believing in my capabilities as a young mother when I was only a little older than you are now was part survival instinct, part defense mechanism. I didn’t want to believe that I still had growing up to do.
But grow together, we did. Like a pair of redwoods, roots intertwined and holding each other up, our progress is hard to separate. While I struggled to love my post-baby body, I watched your simple, uncomplicated delight at your reflection in the mirror. As you learned to roll over, then crawl, toddle, and walk, I learned to feed us on a budget that was never quite big enough for your ever-increasing appetite. When you went off to preschool, I returned to college, teaching myself to balance work, classes, and parenting. Through struggles of identity and self-worth, tantrums and bedtimes, we were there, together. Growing.
Fiercely pro-choice from a young age, I chose you. In doing so, I ventured off of the traditional developmental path, onto one with a steep learning curve. Back then it seemed that girls like me didn’t exist outside of Lifetime movies and daytime talk shows: always portrayed as trapped in amber, developmentally, in a permanent, immature adolescence. Giving birth at an age when the ink was barely dry on my high school diploma guaranteed my admission into a group that was often admonished and stereotyped. When I was pregnant with you, strangers and loved ones alike offered judgmental, not congratulatory, remarks. Trips to the park or to the grocery store in our small Southern town yielded quizzical remarks on my age and your paternity status; often, I watched other parents mentally doing the math before turning away when they realized that I wasn’t the sister or the babysitter, after all. Other outings included charming lectures on birth control and assumptions that we were food stamp recipients. It’s a good thing I learned to believe in myself; sometimes, in those early days, I felt as though few others did. I turned their doubt into fuel, even though most of the time, I felt like I was just pretending to be an adult.
I could present a charming, montage-style overview of those early years: Impromptu dance parties in our rundown little apartment, the White Stripes turned up loud to drown out the neighbors’ fighting. Swinging beside you at the playground while the older moms watched us from the bench. Accidentally burning meager dinners as I taught myself to cook from scratch. Parallel parking the crummy car I’d been driving since high school between the BMWs and Audis as I rushed over between class and work to pick you up from your fancy Montessori preschool, which I managed to pay for each month by foregoing extras and shopping at thrift stores. Often, we’d do homework side by side, reaching for pencils from the same pile as you practiced your spelling and I wrote papers.
But that portrayal would gloss over the hard times, and there were those, too. The isolation, the tears, the spirit-crushing grind of never quite having enough to make it by without worry, with the added bonus of knowing that if I’d just waited 10, 15, 20 years, you could have had everything I wanted for you. The insinuations that if things were less than perfect, at any given moment, I’d brought that upon not only myself, but you as well. Most depictions of young parents focus on the negatives; this made me extra-determined to accentuate the high points, lest someone think that my bad day was a reason why no one like me should be in charge of someone like you. The determination to give you a happy and healthy life pushed me to kick bad habits, ditch shady acquaintances, and try to turn myself into someone you could look up to. I learned through trial and error, always aware that you were watching and learning from my missteps as well as my successes.
As a 34-year-old mother of a teenager, nearly all of my adult life has been spent pregnant or parenting. Every decision has had to be weighed twice: once for me, once for you. You were my compass, pointing me toward true north. But there are no shortcuts to enlightenment or maturity. I skipped straight over many developmental experiences most people learn from in young adulthood. Choosing what’s best based on the needs of someone else for almost half my life forced me into maturity, but it’s also been a crutch at times. I’ve deliberately avoided people or places or experiences, not because of their negative effect on me, but because of their possible impact on you. I was so busy thinking about us, I never fully stopped to consider myself as a separate entity.
Soon, though, the active parenting part of my life will be over. You’ll leave home and head out into the world on your own, and I will be tasked with learning who I am, separate from you. Over time, our experiences will diverge. You’ll learn who you are out there, just as I did, through all the starts and stops of young adulthood. And I will discover who I am without you growing alongside me. In my late teens, I was shaped by your baby weight on my hip; as a young adult, your hand in mine caused me to slow down, be patient, bend to reach you. The choices and experiences that created who I am today were all made with you by my side. With an absence there instead, who will I be? Perhaps the light that shines in on me once your growth takes you on your own path will illuminate all of my leftover immaturities and show me what areas of myself still need improving. Or, maybe, I’ll discover that all the choices I made with you in mind have made me stronger, too: strong enough to survive the untwining that will mark this next part of my life, and still grow upwards, stretching towards the sun, all on my own.