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Young Moms Need Support, Not Shame

“You ruined your life.”

“You need to have an abortion immediately; nothing is more important than your education.”

“Pity. You had such potential.”

These sentences were all said to new young moms, straight to their eyes and into their hearts from people they love and value. (I know because I get emails and messages from young moms all over the world.) Looking from an outside perspective, we can see how these things were said with ignorance or misguided love or all of the above. But do you know what that feels like in our hearts? Do you know the weight of those words? Have you felt that kind of searing hopelessness?

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I have. At 21 years old, I was thrown headfirst into the subculture of pregnancy and baby — learning how to breastfeed, sifting through an ungodly pool of must-have baby products and then negotiating maternity leave at an entry-level job that I literally just started. I had no one to teach me; girls my age were barely out of college. “Nipple cream? What is that, some new sex toy?”

And I was in my twenties! I can only imagine the pounding pressure and negativity that young high school girls face. Girls who had sex — just like so many high school girls do, with or without protection — but ended up seeing two lines instead of one on their pregnancy test. There’s no turning back; she’s pregnant. We can’t shame that away, or wag our finger hard enough to turn back the time. But man, we sure do try.

Instead of hearing “congratulations,” we’re told, “I’m sorry.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the young moms I’ve met behind my computer screen, it’s that people say the rudest things when you’re a baby-faced woman pushing a stroller. Opinions, warnings, flat-out prophecies — all is fair game when you’re a young-looking girl with a pregnant belly. Bonus points if your left finger is bare. Instead of hearing “congratulations,” we’re told, “I’m sorry.”

We don’t see moms that look like us on TV — not unless it’s a mug shot or reality TV stereotype or another fear-based cautionary tale. We walk down the street and see billboards about how we’re not only ruining our own lives, but our children’s lives. (SHAME ON YOU.) Billboards that say things like, “You’re supposed to be changing the world … not changing diapers #NoTeenPreg.” (SHAME ON YOU.)

Now I know what you might be thinking: No one can make you feel anything that you don’t allow. Shame starts in the mirror. And you’re right — but that takes a lot of clarity, perspective and wisdom that most young women (most human beings!) haven’t quite learned. We’ve been culturally wired to conform to other people’s standards, and being a young mom is no longer a culturally accepted standard.

Shame whispers that we’re not good enough, and that our lives aren’t worth supporting.

You also might argue that shame has a place in society, that the embarrassment and guilt discourages undesirable behavior. But let’s take a look at what shame is actually doing in this specific situation:

Shame reinforces the idea that there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to be a mother or woman, and the fallacy that anything hard or challenging is bad.

Shame whispers that we’re not good enough, and that our lives aren’t worth supporting. Shame chips away at our motivation and keeps us in a perpetual state of discouragement and defensiveness. It also alienates young women, making us afraid to ask for help because what will people think of me?

Shame is so loud, so consuming, that it keeps us from hearing our true intuitive hearts. It keeps us from being the kind of mothers we could be. It fuels a cycle of insecurity and second-guessing, which ultimately hurts our children as much as it hurts ourselves.

Shame confuses a circumstance with a certainty and makes arrogant assumptions about our futures. It tells us we’re going to fail over and over again … until we eventually believe it.

As we log more parenting hours — as we feel the swell of pride, accomplishment and confidence — the shame doesn’t affect us as much. It holds less power. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t (and doesn’t continue to be) damaging. Not only is the shame-and-blame shtick emotionally taxing, but it can have real consequences on our decision making and overall happiness — all of which affects our children.

Being a mother is hard enough without stereotypes and stigmas building fresh obstacles to battle.

I’m not the only one who sees the backwards logic. #NoTeenShame is a movement started by seven young moms to encourage teen pregnancy messages that don’t have stigmas and shaming messages, but instead provide real, comprehensive sex education to young women. The group recently accepted the Spirit of Service award at the Healthy Teen Network conference.

“I firmly believe the negative ways in which the media … portrays teenage pregnancy and parenting influenced how the adults in my life treated me after I told them I was pregnant,” said Gloria Malone, part of the #NoTeenShame movement. Family and guidance counselors were less likely to help, her self-esteem suffered and she was swallowed alive by negative narratives predicting her future.

Being a mother is hard enough without stereotypes and stigmas building fresh obstacles to battle.

Shame isn’t productive or necessary or kind. Instead, young moms need someone to look them in the eyes and tell them the truth: Raising a child is important work, good work and worthy of support. No one can predict how birthing and raising a child can impact your maturity, perspective and overall growth. Yes, you’ll have unique challenges and life might be harder, but it isn’t over; it’s just beginning.

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If young moms heard these kinds of messages — support, encouragement, positivity — then maybe they’d be motivated to keep bettering their lives, to finish their education, to be the kind of mothers and women they want to be. Not only because it’s possible, but also because they deserve it.

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