Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, settling down and starting a family in your early 20s was normal—expected, even.
We are not living in those times.
Not only did I get pregnant at 21 years old (the night I graduated from college, in fact), but I also started a site that encouraged other younger moms to email their deepest fears and shockingly similar stories to my inbox. And oh boy, do they ever roll in daily. Some planned a young pregnancy, many did not. Some are excited, many are not. Most aren't sure how to feel.
I've read thousands of emails and comments; I've experienced my own evolution from a scared-shitless pregnant girl telling strangers I was older than I actually was, to the 29-year-old mom of a first-grader who finally has enough perspective and clarity to see the perks in starting a family early.
From my vantage point, getting pregnant in your early 20s is a unique experience—and yet so many of our stories, emotions and obstacles are similar. So if you're like me—like countless other "early mamas" I've met—know that you will be fine. Your life is not ruined. But you should probably expect to experience many, if not all, of these things:
1. Strong reactions and negativity
Their ignorance is not your truth.
Fair or not, there is a very real stigma toward baby-faced women with baby bumps. These reactions come from a place of fear (especially from family and friends) and social conditioning (labeling us as promiscuous, uneducated, unambitious or antifeminist). They come from blanket assumptions, black-and-white statistics and shame-inducing billboards discouraging young moms from ruining their lives.
Their ignorance is not your truth. Their stereotypes are not your truth. Their fear is not your truth.
You will be met with negativity—if not from your immediate family, then from TV scripts and Internet commenters. You might hear a friend say, "I don't want to get pregnant and ruin my life!"—even while you, yourself, are very much pregnant. If you can find a way to take it less personally, you'll have an easier pregnancy.
The negativity will come, but you don't have to believe it.
2. "What Ifs"
I doubt any person can make it through life without comparing their choices to a larger narrative, wondering what their life would be like if they chose Option B instead of Option A. It might be extra torturous for today's young moms scrolling through Instagram during late-night feedings, seeing photos of high school friends trekking through Thailand or clinking glasses at corporate events or partying like a normal twentysomething.
It's so tempting and easy to drown in the "what ifs"—to imagine a parallel life that could have been yours, but isn't. But please know that every person, no matter their life choices, has moments like that. The path you chose is beautiful and important. At some point we have to simply focus on what is, not what if.
3. Toxic comparisons to "real moms"
We don't look like the moms in advertisements, the moms in TV sitcoms or even the moms in play groups. But if there's anything I've learned—not just as a young mom, but as a human being—it's that comparisons are a big, fat, lying trap.
I fall into the trap myself. When I hear that a successful surgeon or wise author has a child the same age as mine, I can't help but compare all that person can offer their child that I can't—not just money, but the experiences of a longer life lived. I feel that familiar weight of insecurity, too.
But I am a real mom, and so are you, no matter if you're on a college campus or in an entry-level job; no matter if you're rocking pink hair and cutoff shorts that are so not "mom-ish"; no matter if you're still figuring out who you. YOU ARE A REAL MOM.
Expect to feel the need to defend yourself, locked and loaded with justifications and explanations, wishing you could wear a sign that says, "I have a college degree and a husband and I'm not a teen mom!"
But that's probably because you'll hear things like ...
5. "Wow, you look SO YOUNG to have a kid!"
Somewhere along the way, it stopped bothering me as much.
This comment will never stop, apparently. I regularly have people scoff at how "young" I look to have a child as old as mine. Somewhere along the way, it stopped bothering me as much. Now I can laugh and say, "Yes, I was quite young, but it all turned out great!"
6. "Was it planned?"
Expect to get this question—a lot. People will hesitate to congratulate you, not knowing how you feel about your pregnancy. Pro tip: People often mirror your reaction, so the more excited and confident you can appear, the less likely you'll be to hear, "I'm sorry, you could've done big things with your life."
7. "There's NO WAY I could have been a mom at your age."
We don't mature through chronological age; we mature through life experience.
Not only will you compare your life to others', but you'll probably have people comparing their lives to yours ... to your face. And from their perspective, they're being honest. They didn't have a child at a young age, thus they can't fathom anyone being ready to parent at that age, either.
But here's what they're not telling you: Those people can't know all the ways that carrying, birthing and raising a child would have changed them. We don't mature through chronological age; we mature through life experience. And having a child is one of the most life-rocking experiences a person can have.
8. People will ask if you're the nanny/babysitter/older sister.
Just be prepared for it, and then chuckle to yourself when it actually happens. Because it will.
9. You'll lose some friends.
Sadly, this is a common and difficult experience for young moms, making motherhood even lonelier than it already is. We might feel disconnected to our pre-baby friends—they're off living wildly different lifestyles, unfamiliar with the responsibilities and experiences of new motherhood. We might feel angry that they've stopped calling, hurt that they don't understand.
Your life has changed drastically, and most of your friends' lives haven't. Here's the truth about big life changes: Some people won't come with you to the next phase. And that's OK. It's sad and hard, yes, but ultimately it's OK.
10. You'll worry about making new mom friends.
Our common experiences as mothers trumps the age difference.
"But all the other moms are so much older than I am!"
I worried about this a lot as a young pregnant woman. How on earth would I connect with moms who are 10, even 15 years older than I am? But what I've found is that as we get on as parents, as our kids start making friends of their own, joining mothers together on playdates or school functions, it becomes more of a level playing ground. Our common experiences as mothers trumps the age difference. And there's a beautiful opportunity to form mentor-like bonds with older women who still feel young at heart.
11. You'll struggle with this question: "Who am I?"
A reader sent me this, and it's a pretty common feeling:
"My biggest challenge has been dealing with the feelings of losing my sense of identity, when it had hardly developed much to begin with. I went from graduating college at 21, to being a pregnant single mom, and then a married mom with another baby, and now I'm pregnant with my third. I hardly had any time to figure out who I really was before I got pregnant and my whole life changed into putting another little person first."
It's easy to let motherhood consume your adult identity when you didn't have an adult identity before motherhood. At some point, you might wonder who you are as an individual, apart from your responsibilities and job titles.
Like so many other young moms, I worried that I'd be emotionally and developmentally stunted without having "found myself" in my 20s, without solitary introspection, without traveling to far-away countries and sleeping in hostels and having a decade of "me time."
I didn't realize how transformative it is to see myself through the lens of motherhood and through the perspective of my child's fresh eyes. I felt an urgency to grow up because I had a small person looking up at me as an example. I had a front-row seat to watching a human, our species, grow and develop from his very first second on earth. Through fear and doubt and sleep deprivation—through doing hard, uncomfortable, demanding things—I learned about my character. I learned about life. I found myself.
I became a better version of myself, the real version of myself, because of my son.