That summer we walked slowly around the duck pond. A five minute walk from our house and we’d go there in the morning once the house was tidy and I’d dressed us both. My toddling, blonde girl and me too-young-to-be-her-mother, we’d feed ducks and name trees, sky, aeroplanes, everything. And I’d always planned to do something, but that summer I sent an application, dressed up for the interview, got into college. That summer, I smashed stereotypes and began to lay foundations to support this little girl and me.
I glowed pride and worth when they asked me what do you do? and I could tell them student nurse. Tell them I was doing something. With barely concealed surprise, they’d comment on how unusual. How fabulous it was that I was working towards a future, fighting for it. Working shifts and studying, juggling and balancing, shedding tears and pounds for it. And I heard so many times that I was an exception. The exceptional teenage mother, redeemed and proven now.
But can I tell you what I know now? Can I explain on behalf of the stereotyped, pigeon-holed and written-off? I am no exception. I’m the rule. Because young mothers, they are mothers too, maternal and fierce with it. Though society stacks odds against them, they fight for a future, determined and stronger than you’ll ever know. Studying and working and staying home and raising children, doing everything that others do, but with no one to cheer them on.
They are watched always, expected to fail, working hard All.The.Time to prove themselves capable, to compensate for youth. And they know it, though they never hear it, that maternal instinct is no respecter of age. That the ability to love a child, to teach them, to raise them well, will never be limited by numbers or years on this planet. That some of us have experienced more of life in our few short years than others ever will.
I was sixteen when the blue line appeared on the test that I took in the public toilet. I was sixteen when I knew it, that I was a mother now and I worked two jobs and I went to classes and read and read and read and I gave up my hot baths and refused mayonnaise on the school trip, in case of raw egg. I planned my labour on pink paper and it didn’t go to plan, but moments after a C-section, I changed her and she changed me and I fed her and held her and loved her and I was a mother now.
And they told me I was an exception, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t. Because young mothers are exceptional just like any other is exceptional and you can’t separate us out or generalise with sweeping arms. Young mums, they work hard like any mother works damn hard and they are superheroes, over-comers, just the same as anyone and worthy of respect.
But no one is telling them. No one reminds them.
So, remind them by not writing off their lives now. By being the one to say congratulations, to tell them how babies are God-given, wonderful, sleep-stealing gifts. By encouraging them when they work hard, when they run homes or write essays – and when they do all of these at the very same time. Remind them, by not expecting failure. By being unsurprised when their children turn out beautifully, when they speak and run and sing and dance and say please and thank you, when they’re kind and considerate, intelligent, even. When they reflect every ounce of amazing their mother poured into them.
Don’t be surprised.
I was never an exception.