I began college a few weeks after my 18th birthday, having graduated high school at the age of 17. From the outside life looked relatively normal. I was following the steps my family and society had set out for me. I grew up in a middle-class suburb just outside of Portland. My grades had always been high, I played sports off and on, and I sang in choir. I was a first-generation college student, something my family was proud of. But as I began navigating this new world, I had much more on my mind than finding the location of my classes and deciding whether to take women’s studies or sociology.
This new world of young adulthood was, in fact, a very small part of what consumed my thoughts. I was not only a new college student but also 18, pregnant, and in a relationship with someone who was carefully hiding his heroin addiction. I tried to focus on school, but my challenges outside of campus could not be ignored. I attended school full time and worked 40 hours a week on swollen feet, all while dealing with the disappointment of my family and the pressures of an unhealthy relationship. I soon found myself as a single mother, waiting in line at the Department of Human Services Self-Sufficiency Office and attending appointments for the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. I was mortified by the place my life was in, uncomfortable waiting in lines with people I wrongly believed I didn’t belong with.
School brought me out of my dark days. I began to explore who I was as a young adult outside of the “teen mom” label I had been given. I slowly started to veer away from the business courses my family insisted I take and to dive into writing and literature, which helped me begin a long healing process. My grades went from mediocre to straight A’s and in June 2012 I was the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Two years later I began graduate school and I earned my Master of Social Work in spring 2016.
My daughter, Naomi, now nearly nine years old, is a bright, beautiful third grader who was recently described by her teacher as “having ideas that land outside of the box.” She is a self-described feminist who is sensitive to the feelings of those around her and is not afraid to redirect her peers (or mother) for not using person-first language. The day I saw positive results on that pregnancy test feels like it was yesterday. That moment was one of disbelief, fear, and uncertainty. My mother’s first words were, “I thought you never wanted children,” which was true. I never saw myself as someone who was “born to be a mother” as I have heard many women describe themselves. At the same time, at that moment, my choice to move forward in the pregnancy and parenting of Naomi felt right. Unless you count when I was in labor, telling my mom “I don’t want to do this [give birth] anymore,” I never regretted that choice of mine.
There have, of course, been many moments when life would have been easier had I not become a mom at the age of 18. I wouldn’t have experienced the dirty looks as I, a young white woman, carried my brown baby through the grocery store. I wouldn’t have had the embarrassment of doing multiple transactions with my WIC coupons. When I was pregnant, I wouldn’t have had women tell me “good luck with that” when I told them I would be raising my daughter with her father. I wouldn’t have had to wonder if, when I was at the emergency room for an injury, the interview by a social worker was protocol or a judgment based on my appearance. However, had I not been a teen mother, there is so much I would have lost. I would have missed out on lovely relationships with professors who cheered me on and emphasized every day that I was strong and able to do anything with my life that I wanted to. I wouldn’t have met other mothers who had gone through tough times that showed me the beautiful resiliency women are capable of. I would not have the sisterhood I have today because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to witness my friends stepping up to babysit so I could work or go to school, when they could have been out living their own teenage dreams. Most important, I would not know the strength I am capable of.
I want the world to know that motherhood as a teenager does not mean the world is over. I want teachers, counselors, parents, and community members to stop telling teen girls that their dreams can no longer be fulfilled. I want people to point out the responsibility young fathers have as well. I want folks to start cheering young women on, no matter where life has led them. Professors I had instilled a love and confidence within myself I didn’t know before. These few caring adults are the ones who propelled me forward. The world needs more adults like them. We are all resilient, but sometimes need to be reminded of it by those we look up to.
I have not been perfect. I have stumbled many times and cried myself to sleep even more. I have wished I could go out with my coworkers for happy hour instead of rushing across town to pick up my daughter before daycare closed. There have been days I did not want to go to soccer or ballet, days I missed birthday parties and concerts. I have felt mad, sad, and annoyed. I have gagged while cleaning puke off of the carpet more times than I would like to say. Sometimes I just want to be alone, but opportunities for solitude are few and far between. However, it is in those silent moments that I find myself laughing quietly, reflecting on something funny Naomi said or did earlier in the day or week. I find myself missing her and wondering what she is doing. I call her to check in while she is with grandparents, friends, and family and I find myself counting the minutes until I get to pick her up and be with her again. A mentor of mine once said “It is important to tell your story, even if only for you,” and I am so grateful this is my story to tell.