I recently scored what I thought was a victory for the name of young parents everywhere. After having my daughter at the age of nineteen and halfway through university, I found out I would be graduating on time, with no less than a first class honours degree. I thought it was another step of progress; another step towards people realising that young mums don’t fit the stereotype they’ve diligently believed for all these years.
But apparently, I’m ‘the exception to the rule’. My achievement means nothing in the grand scheme of things, because I will always be a young mum, and young mums will always be incapable of achieving.
I don’t know what the ‘rule’ is, but I think it goes something like this – young woman, no matter how clever, ambitious and ‘normal’ (although in the majority of cases they must be uneducated and perceived as promiscuous) gets pregnant and must immediately conform to society’s idea of what a young mum is – a layabout with no intention of working, who claims benefits and spends it on alcohol and cigarettes, before having several more children with different fathers. The young woman must follow this formula to keep society happy. Society then criticises the woman for scrounging, for being a ‘slut’, for wanting kids for the free council house (excuse me while I wet myself laughing; they don’t hand out keys to a three-bed semi in your Bounty Pack, you know…).
When a young woman defies or breaks free of that cycle, as so very many of us have done and continue to do so, it’s too difficult for society to wrap its pretty little head around the idea that maybe, just maybe, they got things wrong. Each and every successful young mum is an ‘exception to the rule’.
It’s easy to read this and think nah, she’s just perceiving herself as being seen this way, but people have told me as much. It’s clear that they think I have broken some kind of ‘Young Mum Commandment’ in continuing with my education (FYI, we don’t have commandments. Or a club, or some kind of chat page where we rub our hands with glee at all the money we get and all the men we sleep with. Sorry to burst your bubbles).
The honest truth is that I’m not an exception to the rule, because there’s no rules in the first place. Young mums and young parents are exceeding expectations every day. Take the general perception that young mums can’t parent properly – their children are neglected, or the grandparents do all the work. My partner and I have lived away from our parents for the last two years; we raise our daughter alone – we are doing that every single day, and I know that we are far from alone in that.
When a young parent makes the decision to have another child, I consider that a victory for young parents too. It is a young person making the conscious decision to have the family they want, at the time they want, without bowing to these pressures put on us. To have one child young is considered careless, to have another at a young age is more often described with words that aren’t suitable for a post like this. But there’s nothing reckless or stupid about it – I have so much respect for the young parents out there who are confident and make the decision to expand their families, putting what is right for them ahead of what society thinks they should do.
The same goes for young parents who continue with their education. I know I’m biased, as I did that myself, but it took so much gritting my teeth and forcing myself through it when all I wanted to do was get out of a lecture and run to the nursery, pick up my five month old daughter and cuddle her, but I did it, and it is one of my proudest achievements, and is paying off now that I am working and bringing in money for her.
And for those who choose to leave education – that’s a victory too. It is young people, the young people society makes out to be so reckless and irresponsible as to get pregnant and have children young, making responsible decisions that work for their family. These are victories, each and every one, because we are young parents, not waiting around for life to throw our next opportunity at us, but going out and finding it ourselves, each in our own way.
And do you know what? Being a young person is tough. Being a parent is tough. We’re combining the two and dealing with a whole barrage of ‘tough’ – and if we stumble, we’re failing, exactly what everyone expects us to do. If we succeed, it means nothing – we’re not like those ‘other’ young mums. What they don’t realise is that these ‘other’ young mums don’t exist. They’re fictional caricatures.
The reality of being a young parent? Trying to write an essay while your toddler taps the + key incessantly to add unwanted symbols to your critical analysis of Ibsen and Ayckbourn. Juggling a baby and a toddler in the supermarket and trying to avoid the dirty looks all around you. Trying somehow to please everyone, when your friends want you to be ‘the old you’, and your baby needs ‘the new you’.
We do this all and more.
We aren’t exceptions to the fictional rule. We smash the rule each and every day. To voice your pride is taboo; you aren’t supposed to be proud of being a young parent. It’s supposed to be taboo; something you suffix with ‘ – but I stayed in education’, or ‘ – but the father and I are still together’, in order to convince people that you’re not one of those usual teenage mums – you’re an exception to that rule.
I think we’ve had just about enough of that. We should be standing up and saying no; actually, there is no rule. Each and every one of us isn’t ‘the good kind’ of young parent – we’re all young parents, and we’re all pretty damn excellent at what we do. It’s about time we stood up and took pride in what we’ve achieved – proving that anything other people can do, we can do it, have done it, and continue to do it every day, whilst simultaneously raising pretty awesome tiny human beings. That’s pretty exceptional, and makes me pretty damn proud to call myself a young parent.
Maddy tweets at @maddyleigh1994