Sixteen years ago, I was 20 years old, newly married, working in a variety of office jobs as a low-paid temp, and about two months from having my first child.
A late bloomer, I stumbled through my early twenties without much direction, moored only by the children who gave me purpose and focus. Looking at my life at 24, it looked pretty much like a disaster: two kids, a failed marriage, no money, and no career goals to speak of.
By 26 or so, I felt like I was finally figuring life out. My writing career was taking off, I’d re-married my kids’ dad, and in general, I’d gotten my crap together. By 31, I’d had my fifth and last child.
Now, except for when I attend events at my oldest son’s high school, I don’t feel like the oddball young mom anymore. On the playground or at the grocery store, I’m just…normal.
That tumultuous, but ultimately so rewarding era of my life — the years of being a baby-faced mom with babies clinging to my pants leg — is officially over.
With the benefit of sixteen years of hindsight and the wisdom that can only come from reaching the ripe old age of 36 (ha!), I’ve realized a few surprising things about my former life as an “early mama.” Here are three:
None of those worst-case scenarios I dreamed up ever came to pass.
When I was 19 years old, staring at a positive pregnancy test and watching my world flip upside down, I felt, in a way, like my life was over. All the ambition and optimism I’d had about my future? Gone.
In the version of my life that I saw playing out before my terrified eyes, I’d never finish college, never get a good job, never be anything more than a poor knocked-up young mom who wrecked her life early on. And my child? DOOMED to poverty and strife and low achievement.
(Yes, I can be a bit of a catastrophist sometimes.)
Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I can see how much more was possible than I ever dared to imagine. Had I chosen to, I could have kept right on going to school and moved into family housing, been done a couple of years later and moved on with my life at about the same pace as my friends. Yes, it would have been tough, but people do it all the time.
As it happens, we chose an alternate path with a lot of twists and turns and bumps along the way — and guess what, I never did finish college. But the second time I dropped out of school it was because I realized I didn’t need to finish my degree to do what I was already succeeding at (writing for a living). It wasn't a failure, but a conscious decision.
Also? I was a good mom, even at my tender age. Yes, I was clueless about some things, but I learned as I went. No, I didn’t do everything right, but what parent does? In some ways I think being young helped, because I felt less pressure to fit in with other moms (I didn’t really know any) and more able to follow my gut. I look at my 15-year-old son now, see the awesome young man he is becoming, and know that my young age didn’t doom him at all.
Actually, while I'll admit my life as a new mom was messy and full of trials, I think that's true for most new moms — regardless of their age when they first have a child. We all need time to adjust and get our acts together — but when you're a young mom, those struggles just feel so much more on the surface.
So despite the struggles along the way, my income and standard of living now, at 36, is similar to the friends who went the more traditional route and had kids later. Being an unexpectedly young mom taught me that any setback can be overcome with enough determination.
I am more conventional than I ever thought possible.
When you’re 23 and poor with kids, it’s not that big a deal because everyone else your age – parents or not – are poor too. At that age everybody is living in a cramped apartment sitting on Mom and Dad’s old sofa and eating a lot of pasta.
At that age I didn’t identify with the other moms on the playground – the 30-somethings with the shiny SUVs and three-bedroom homes in subdivisions – at all. I really thought that I would be content to live “unconventionally” forever, moving from one cool city to another, stringing together a series of creative (and likely low-paying) jobs, and shunning the exterior trappings of middle-class success.
But as I approached 30, suddenly all the things that had never mattered to me, like driving a car that’s made up of less than 20% rust, or carrying a nice purse, or living in a house with some closet space, suddenly started to really matter.
In my thirties I’ve really had to accept how how conventional I’ve become. I still have my independent streak and don’t like doing anything just because I’m “supposed to”, but the things that once didn’t matter to me much, like financial security or a feeling of being physically settled, now really do.
I’ve realized it’s just a part of getting older and growing into your life as an adult. And now I chuckle to myself, wondering what the young moms with the funky haircuts and ripped jeans think of me with my ladylike purse and SUV. I always want to tell them that I was like them, once, too.
I don't regret the years of partying I missed in my 20s.
In my 20s, I “went out” (to the bar or a party or whatever) so infrequently that I can remember almost every time it happened. I was broke; I was almost always either pregnant or nursing a small child. Going clubbing was just not part of my reality.
And while I once in a while feel a little pang of yearning for the ability to let loose on a dance floor without worrying that I’m really too old for this and are the kids OK?, I have to say I don’t miss the 20s party scene. My 30-something social life is quite a bit tamer than I’d have likely been as a carefree 20-something, but it’s also really satisfying — more satisfying, I think, than it would have been because I've figured out who I want to spend time with, and how, and don't waste time with petty friendships or people I don't like.
The way I see it, spending my 20s doing the hard work of parenting babies and young kids was an investment in my future. I really look forward to the freedom and time I’ll have in my 40s, 50s and beyond, when I’ll still have energy for travel and adventure — and a lot more money than I would have had in my 20s, at that.