Timelines & Triumphs

Vanessa & her son, Nathan

Tonight, a new season of MTV’s Teen Mom 2 is set to begin. I was reminded of this the other day as I thumbed through a tabloid (a rare occurrence… that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) while in the checkout line during yet another late night milk run. The gossip piece I happened upon focused on the shameful fact that Leah, a mother of twins who is featured on the show, is pregnant with yet another child at the ripe old age of 20. Never mind the fact that she is married to the father of her baby-to-be,  and obviously has means to care for her children (can you say MTV six-figure income?) Despite all this, she is still being paraded down the societal hall of shame because, well…beacuse she failed to do things in accordance with the accepted social timeline. What, exactly, is this timeline I speak of? Surely you remember the old school-yard chant, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage…?” THAT timeline. Well, what if someone ventures off that path to happily ever after? Are they doomed to become a failure, a burden on society? Does it make you uncomfortable to consider that maybe, perhaps, just maybe, things can work out when life is lived “out of order” so to speak? When milestones are reached a little earlier than society deems acceptable?

In the months to come, I’d like to share with you the stories of  young women who have struggled against great odds to live successful, productive lives. Young women who, despite becoming mothers a bit earlier than expected, have completed degrees, begun careers, and are raising happy, well-adjusted children…

And without further delay, I’d like to introduce you to Vanessa…

Vanessa found out she was pregnant when she was all of 16 years old. At the time, she was a junior in high school, & her boyfriend was a senior. Though she had a hunch that she was pregnant, she waited more than a month to finally take a test. Once confirmed, the first people Vanessa told were her close friends and a trusted teacher. But even after confiding to her friends and mentor, the reality of the pregnancy did not hit home until she broke the news to her mom and dad. It’s a funny thing, when a young mother begins to share news of her pregnancy with those she loves. On the one hand, she fully realizes the undesirable nature of her circumstances and yet often a part of her is defensive and – dare I say it?- proud of the new life that has taken root. It’s difficult to share the secret that is both your curse and your joy, and even more painful as you began to grapple with the disappointed response from those around you. Vanessa’s family was  no different in their initial reaction; her mother cried, her father promptly hung up on her and did not speak to her for days. Though her boyfriend (at the time) was excited, Vanessa felt the only people who were happy for her were her close  friends. Eventually, as often is the case, her family came to embrace her  pregnancy and the baby she was carrying. However, like many other teen mothers before her, she had to endure a rocky period before the acceptance stage set in.

Vanessa finished high school earlier than anticipated on independent studies. Though happy to receive her diploma, she regrets missing out on those final years of high school that were filled with traditions such as homecoming games and proms. Rather than finishing out her senior year with her peers, Vanessa spent her days working and wishing she could join her friends on beach outings and school events. When her son, Nathan, was a year old, she began taking courses full-time at a local community college. Thankfully, one of the counselors there who was a former teen mom herself, helped her to navigate through the college process while at the same time providing encouragement & emotional support. Through all of this, Vanessa remembers people often questioning how she was able to balance work, school, and the demands of motherhood. Her response? “I just kept going, day by day, without thinking about it.” As she continued on through college, she realized how much she enjoyed the stimulation of the classroom environment and the rush of accomplishment that came with achieving good grades. She ultimately decided to major in Sociology with the goal of working toward a masters in social work. Vanessa applied to many universities, & was accepted into UCSB, Cal Poly, Northridge, CSULA, and CSUCI. She ultimately decided to stay close to home and attend CSUCI with her older sister who helped her out tremendously as she struggled to maintain her grades while providing for her son. As Nathan got older, Vanessa recalls how she felt she was treated differently by his preschool & kindergarten teachers:

“When it came to discussing issues regarding my son, I got the impression I was being scolded, which was a lot different from the way I’d witness teachers interacting with older or married parents.”

Vanessa’s perception of how she was treated is one shared by many teen mothers. Young parents often report being treated in a condescending manner by their children’s teachers, doctors, or other authoritative figures. The common attitude seems to be that a young parent is in need of schooling themselves, especially when it comes to child-rearing. What is overlooked is that the quality of an individual’s parenthood has little to do with their age and education. Older parents need guidance and support just as much as younger ones do… and ALL parents deserve to be treated with respect whether they are in the classroom, the Dr.’s office, or at the playground. Teen parents are perfectly capable of raising well-rounded children who succeed in school. By all accounts, Vanessa is doing just that. Nathan is now in first grade and his teachers report that he is one of their brightest students. He is surrounded by a loving family who dotes on him and provides him with extra-curricular enrichment, as well as a nurturing environment.

Vanessa graduated with her bachelors in Sociology in May of 2011. She would like to go back to school in the near future, when it is financially feasible for her to do so. For the time being, she works with at-risk and foster youth. The children she works with have many family and behavioral issues and she finds it rewarding that she is able to establish meaningful relationships with them while offering hope and guidance; just as her college counselor did for her. Upon reflection, Vanessa recounts that one of the biggest hurdles she faced as a young mother/student were the exhausting all-nighters spent studying and caring for her son. This coupled with the loneliness that set in  as her relationship with her son’s father had ended made it more difficult to get through it all. To get by, she focused on classes, her job as a student aide for the county, and most importantly, being a dedicated mother.

“Though I was always supported by my family in my decisions, I felt as if I grew up on my own. I was the youngest of three girls (and though I was mature for my age), it sometimes felt that my parents forgot that even though I was a mom, employee and a student, I was still their teenage daughter.”

There is a popular meme floating around the internet that reads, “16 and pregnant ? What about 18 and graduated? 22 and successful ?”, as if a pregnancy at 16 automatically rules out a diploma at 18, or a degree at 22. I get the fact that statistics are not in favor of young mothers, especially in regards to their educational outcomes but that has more to do with trending socioeconomics and environment; not the circumstance of being a parent itself. Just do me a favor: the next time you feel tempted to give a teen mother a discouraging look or a harsh word, consider that she’s probably already encountered adversity countless times that day. Switch it up a bit. Offer support where you can. The fact that she strayed from the timeline does not sentence her to a future of failure. Who knows? Someday she may end up being your child’s teacher, or guidance counselor, or doctor. Don’t write her off just yet…because a bend in the road is not the end of the road until one fails to make the turn…