(Reposted from Arapahoe County Parenting Examiner)
“You don’t look old enough to be his mom!”
Nearly thirty years old and to my dismay, I still hear this line regularly. When introducing or just talking about my tween son to others, this reaction (or some variation of it) is to be expected. I used to be impatient about growing older, because I assumed society would think of me as a valid parent once I hit the magical age of thirty. As it turns out, however: once a teen mother, always a teen mother.
My son was only two weeks old when I first heard this line. We were at the grocery store, preparing to check out when the older woman standing behind me cooed, “He’s precious. Is he your brother?” I replied, “No, he’s my son.” She clicked her tongue and said disapprovingly, “You don’t look old enough to be a mom.” I was taken aback and stuttered something along the lines of, “well, um, I am, though…his mom.” Again and again, I encountered this situation and each time, it felt like I had been sucker-punched.
Now why, you may be asking, would a teen parent find this line to be so offensive? It is simply stating a fact, right? Let’s get this out there right now: teen parents realize they are young. They know better than you how young (and often, ill-equipped) they are for the job which they are now facing. What is offensive is the underlying message of this statement: “You are not old enough to be a mom, period” or to put it more bluntly, “You should not have had a baby.” And so begins a long future of being judged solely on one’s age.
Over the years, I graduated high school and then college, all while working full-time and raising my son. Yet my status as a parent was often questioned or disregarded completely: in the workplace, at my child’s school, in social settings. On one occasion, some older acquaintances were discussing the ear infections of their children, when I brought up a technique I had found to ease the pain. The conversation halted abruptly, as a woman asked in surprise, “You have a child?” I replied, “Yeah, he’s about two years old. He used to get ear infections—” She cut me off to say, “You don’t look old enough to have a child.” With the indignation of any teenager forced to hear the same line repeatedly, I replied, “You wouldn’t believe how young you can have sex these days!”
Despite my sarcasm, I learned something that day: the advice or knowledge of a teenage parent is considered not as valuable as that of an older parent. For some reason, how she potty-trained her child is not as effective as how you plan to potty-train yours. The dosage of Tylenol she gives to her child is not quite as right as the one an older parent provides. Despite experiencing many of the same woes as every other parent, she is still not taken seriously as a mother. Even today, new mothers (most of whom are older than I am) seem to discount my advice or experience, simply because I was so much younger when I became a parent.
Currently, the average age of other parents of tweens is at least ten years older than me. When today’s pregnant teens reach their 30s, that difference may very well be closer to twenty years. Because of this gap, teen mothers can expect to be treated as such, long after they have entered into adulthood. Luckily, if there is anything that we have learned from taking care of a child while still children ourselves, it is how to develop a thick skin…and a repertoire of scathing retorts.