Five Ways My Teenager Has Influenced My Parenting Style

So, my oldest son Elijah, is nearing his 18th Birthday, which means he is almost an adult. In many ways, he is already like a little adult. He drives himself to work & school, manages his own schedule, and has an active social life outside of the family. In addition to this man-child, I also have three younger children who are 12, 8, and 4 years old. Basically, I have children all over the developmental spectrum. But the manner in which I parent the younger three has gradually shifted as my eldest grew and taught me a thing or two about mothering. Things that once seemed important to me when Elijah was little, are trivial matters to me now. Over time, I’ve also learned to place more importance or other aspects of parenting that I didn’t give much thought to when I started this journey some 18 years ago. When you have an almost-adult at home, it changes the way you view your other children. Elijah is a walking reminder that my little ones will only be little for so long. That’s an obvious clique, I know, but one that is hard to comprehend in it’s entirety when you are cradling your first newborn and time seems to be standing still. Here some are the things I’ve learned as a parent of a teenager:

1) Our children do not belong to us.                                                                                      When my Elijah was little, I spent a lot of time dressing him up, showing him off, and delighting in the fact that he showed interest in the fads and hobbies I introduced him to. I can’t say I thought of him as a possession, but I certainly felt a sense of ownership over the little guy. Not so much anymore. Though I can see that many of his attitudes and beliefs about the world are a reflection of the home in which he was raised, he also has a mind and will of his own. As he should. Soon, very soon, he’ll venture on out of the nest and into adulthood. The days in which he was my default sidekick are a thing of the past. This realization is constantly on my mind as I watch my younger children grown into their own unique personalities, and it gives me the patience & perspective to deal their increasing bursts of autonomy. Yes, they are in my keeping now. But someday soon they’ll be independent of me with lives of their own. Last week, Elijah randomly text me during the middle of the day asking me if I was busy that evening & if I’d be willing to accompany him to his friend’s soccer game. I wistfully remembered the days in which I made all his plans and accepted invites on his behalf. Then I smiled, and cleared my schedule for the evening. When your teen invites you somewhere, you accept. Graciously.

2) No matter how cool you think you are, you’ll never be one of them.                         I had Elijah when I was 17. Which now makes me 34 years of age with a 17-year-old kid. Which means I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’m still kind of hip in terms of pop culture & trends. But boy, do teenagers have a way of humbling us. Soon after Elijah entered middle school I realized I will always be ten steps behind in terms of what’s “in”. Though we largely share the same taste in music, fashion trends, and some aspects of pop culture, my son still views me as out of touch & jokingly refers to my friends and I as “old.” He cringes every time someone asks if I’m his sister. In his own subtle way, he has reinforced the fact that he values me more as a parent than as a friend. Because I’m not his peer, nor does he want me to be. I’m here to enforce rules, impart wisdom, and provide guidance. And every now and then, he’ll hint at how grateful he is for the relationship we have.

3) Be mindful of your screen time. What are you reaching for?                       Teenagers are really into their electronic devices. But I’m sure you already know that. I preach moderation, and have always put limits on screen time though it’s sometimes difficult to enforce, especially as they get older. I’ve filled their days with a multitude of alternative activities including outdoor excursions, trips to museums, libraries and other such places in an attempt to show them the world beyond screens. But still, when he’s not playing baseball or at work/school, that teen of mine has his smartphone in hand almost always. A while back, we were talking about what a clingy toddler he was, and I quipped that he now reaches for his phone more than he reaches for me. Minutes later, the profoundness of the statement hit me. What do my younger children see ME reaching for? Am I more likely to be holding a device, or their hand? I’m already self-conscious about this, as I work with families on a daily basis, and I constantly see parents with faces in screens while their children attempt to get their attention. But this conversation prompted me take a hard look at my own behaviors, and make a concerted effort to put the problematic ones in check. Have you reached for your child today?

4) YouTube can be a great teaching tool.                                                                          Speaking of screen time and technology, I’ve noticed that Elijah and his brothers use YouTube for all sorts of things besides watching pointless viral clips for entertainment. They’ve taught themselves everything from how to repair a bicycle, to updating smartphone software, to creating their own incense holders. After watching my son plunk away at the piano keys using a YouTube tutorial video, I got an idea. That week, my toddler suddenly developed an aversion to teeth brushing. After a few nights of literally holding her down while struggling to clean her teeth amidst thrashing and flailing limbs, I decided to take a more logical approach to her dental hygiene. The next evening, right before bedtime, I sat her in front of the computer and searched for images of  “toddler tooth decay.” Video after video popped up of children with teeth in varying states of decay. I explained to her why it’s important to brush her teeth, and showed her the cavities that form when we don’t. She was cured. That night, she willing opened her mouth for her nightly brush, without a peep. I’ve used this method for other things as well, including the time my two youngest began complaining about seat-belts and booster seats during a long road trip. After watching a video of crash-dummies being ejected from cars during an accident, they smartly made the decision to stay buckled, noting that it’s far more comfortable to be strapped in than to be injured in an accident. Kids are pretty logical. When we began to show them the reasons behind our rules, you’d be surprised at how well they cooperate.

5) In the end, your influence does matter (but there is no magic formula).                                        Just as we spend 18+ years watching over them, they are observing us as well. As Elijah enters adulthood, I can clearly see the way he is a product of his parents, step-parents, and extended family. All of our collective habits, hobbies, conversations and attitudes are downloaded into our children’s brains during their formative years, and they without a doubt influence the people they become.  Here’s the catch: it does not necessarily mean  they are doomed because of certain circumstances or redeemed due to others. I’ve been working in the field of education for 15 years, and during that time have worked closely with hundreds of families. I’ve met children who have come out of “broken homes” to become grounded, whole, and productive young adults. On the flip side, I’ve seen children from affluent two-parent, religious households slide into depression and addiction. And in between those extremes I’ve witnessed a wide array of stories play out which have lead me to believe that there is no magic formula to raising a child. But there is one thing that continually arises as I hear the individual accounts of children and their families: we internalize the realities of our childhood. We absorb the environments we are raised in. But we come out of them with our own unique understanding and strength. And no one, not even our parents, can predict what that will look like when all is said and done.                                                         

Lovebirth

 "Regardless of our age, every woman deserves to experience the empowerment birth gives with the right support."  -Melinda Lugo

“Regardless of our age, every woman deserves to experience the empowerment birth gives with the right support.” -Melinda Lugo

By Melinda Lugo of Lovebirth.     

I am a butterfly.

Sixteen years of age and midway through my junior year in high school, the store-bought pregnancy test read positive. Recently kicked out of my dad’s home, I had just moved in with my mom. There were many emotions, excitement the predominant one. I wasn’t afraid, probably because of a dysfunctional childhood that had numbed me from believing fear even existed to begin with. Maybe, I just wanted to love the baby in the way I had wished I had been loved as a child. The thought of not continuing the pregnancy did not even cross my mind despite my mother’s determination in persuading me to have the abortion, too young, too inexperienced, too early in my life. However, I knew I was going to give birth; I believed in birth. I believed my body was created to do it perfectly and I trusted the process. Despite everything else around me being unstable, giving birth was the one thing I knew I could do right.

I moved out of my mom’s home and in with my boyfriend. We searched for prenatal care through a midwife that offered homebirth though unfortunately our search was unsuccessful. It was as though the very thought of a 16 year old seeking out untraditional prenatal care was so unsettling that nobody appeared to be very eager to come to the aid of a foolish, ignorant young girl. We were not able to find a homebirth midwife due to not having a permanent address which forced me to accept prenatal care through a nurse midwife at a local hospital. The hospital rejected my birth plan. I had to be confined to a bed with monitoring straps and unable to walk around. I made it clear to them I did not want any of the pain medication they offered but they felt the need to remind me there was still time for an epidural. Nurses literally yelling at me, telling me to shut up was the hospital staff’s idea of “kind” support. I was being too loud, they said. But next to me, my son’s father gave me power with soft words of encouragement. He believed that I could do it. He, too, believed in the process of birth. On December 20th, 1995 at 3:25pm, I gave birth to our son naturally.

Four years later, at the age of 21, I was pregnant again with our second son. This time I refused to give birth in a hospital, ensuring I would get the natural birth I desired. I also refused to let my voice go unheard.   After many attempts, I was able to find a homebirth midwife that treated me with respect, in spite of the circumstance of having a second pregnancy at such a young age. I attended childbirth classes and learned about a doula, someone, usually a woman, who supports an expecting mother emotionally, educationally, and physically during her pregnancy and labor. I thought to myself, my son’s father had been my doula. I knew I was more ready to give birth with all the new knowledge of pregnancy and birth that I had gained this time around and, on August 19th, 1999 at 3:15am, surrounded by family and friends, I gave birth to our second son in the peace of our home. I walked around, ate, laughed, and most importantly, listened to my body, allowing it to guide me through the process. What a difference this birth experience was compared to my first!

The contrasting experiences made me question the foundation of prenatal care; why was it difficult as a teen mom to have my ideal birth? Why did I have to look so hard for options in having holistic prenatal care and not have alternatives to routine procedures? Why didn’t MY voice matter for MY birth? Why should any woman feel so alone at such a profoundly powerful moment such as birth? I reflected on my births and remembered the role of my son’s father, and the term doula. I thought of how wonderful women could feel during labor with a supportive birth team.

If all women, regardless of age, could have that one advocate at their side to trust them, believe in them and say something positive like “You’re doing awesome!” … can you imagine how empowered women would feel, knowing they have a voice, a choice, and, perhaps most importantly, the capability to give birth the way they want? Educating and supporting women in giving birth became my passion and is how I began my journey as a doula and childbirth advocate.

This was the beginning of lovebirth. Through lovebirth, I am able to help teen moms have the strength and knowledge to give birth their way, to trust birth, to know that they are not broken because they are pregnant and that all of their dreams are still attainable. Regardless of our age, every woman deserves to experience the empowerment birth gives with the right support. That they, too, are butterflies, unique and able to fly!

 

Melinda Lugo is a doula, childbirth educator, mother to 2 boys, and childbirth advocate in Tampa, Florida. She has been supporting women of all ages since 2005, specializing with teen moms and young parents. She is the founder of lovebirth, LLC. Through her doula practice, she empowers young women to build trust within themselves so they may experience the art of birth that has been given to them. You can follow lovebirth on Facebook; http://www.facebook.com/lovebirthllc, Instagram; @lovebirth, and on Twitter; @lovebirthllc. You can also find and connect with Melinda using #teenbirth. lovebirth…women are made to do it.

      

16 Candles & Other Musings

IMG_20130127_104042                       Well. The big birthday has finally arrived. My baby boy is turning 16. I feel as if I’ve been anticipating this milestone since the day he was born. Remember the Disney film Sleeping Beauty?  Princess Aurora’s parents spend years anxiously awaiting their daughter’s 16th birthday because it has been proclaimed that, before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic…and I’m pretty sure my son wasn’t cursed at birth, and even if he was, I’m confident that there are no spinning wheels in the nearby vicinity. So, we’re safe in that sense. However, I do feel a teensy-weensy bit apprehensive about this upcoming birthday. Why? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I am seeing him now at the age I was, right before he came into my life. I’ve heard other young moms talk about the coming of age of their children and how their up most concern is that their child doesn’t share a fate similar to their own. In other words, they wouldn’t want their child’s potential to be cut short by an unplanned pregnancy, especially in the teen years. I can relate. A few months ago my son’s (then) girlfriend called me unexpectedly in the wee hours of the morning. The second I heard her teary voice on the other end of the line my mind reeled with hypothetical questions…”Had my continued contraception/sex talks been adequate enough? Had I been too lax on my monitoring of his comings & goings? How far can a parent go to prevent their teen from becoming a parent?” Thankfully, a pregnancy was NOT the issue she was calling about, but in those few seconds I realized how fast our lives could change. I’ve been there before, of course, but not as a parent. That morning, after hanging up the phone, I gained a new sense of appreciation for my mother, and the grace with which she handled herself when I came to her with my news 16 years ago.
                       Anyhow, it’s a peculiar thing to watch my son, as he meanders through the kitchen in the morning in search of a bite to eat…as he curls up on the couch doing normal teenage things like watching movies, texting  friends, or catching up on required reading for school. In the past, these little moments haven’t caught my attention as they do now. But now….now, I am seeing my son as I was, 16 years ago, pre-parenthood. It’s impossible for me to watch him swoop his little sister up for a piggy back ride, kneel down to un-tuck the pant leg that’s caught in her boot, or coach her to take that last bite of oatmeal, without considering that I was more or less his age when I was doing all these things for him. Its humbling in a way that takes my breath away.
                    I think its safe to say that every mother who has ventured into parenthood as a teen hopes that their child will not follow in their footsteps when it comes to early parenthood. I’ve heard others say they would not want their child to repeat their mistakes. That always gives me pause.  For  mistake is not quite  the way I would describe my eldest son. Yes, his birth changed the course of my life, but not necessarily in a negative way. My stating this is in no way an endorsement of teen parenthood. It is a difficult road to travel. Isolating, at times frustrating, and some would say limiting, especially in regards to mothers. But consider this: Parenthood at ANY age can be described as such, and all the while there are countless wonderful aspects to it as well. There is hope in our story, and as his 16th birthday approaches, I want my son to know that. 
                 Yes, my options were limited because I was raising him. I didn’t get the chance to experience college in the traditional “move away from home, live in the dorms, join organizations and party” sense. I didn’t travel the world. I couldn’t take part in many of the twenty-something rites -of-passage that our culture deems so valuable. But what I did do, was help guide a precious little soul into adolescence. And I stand back now, in awe of the person he is becoming. Mark my words; Elijah will a leave positive imprint on this earth. Perhaps not with fanfare and wide-spread recognition, though if he sets his mind to that he is perfectly capable of it. More importantly, with his gentle, thoughtful, old-soul of a spirit, he leaves, and will continue to leave subtle but significant impressions on the lives of all he touches. Beginning with me. As January 27th approaches, I’ll be contemplating new beginnings, a supportive family network, strength in the face of adversity, relentless hope, and the beautiful little baby that made all these concepts a reality in my world one winter night, so many years ago. 
                                                                                                                                                            Happy 16th Birthday, Elijah. I love you with all my heart.

A little child shall lead them…

Image

“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”
  -Isaiah 11:1-10

 
In any given year, Winter Break is typically the highlight of the season. Two weeks off of work for me and school vacation for the kids, it is our time to celebrate, rejuvenate and reflect on the year that’s past. This, in addition to the holiday traditions; tamales, cookie making, light viewing, carol singing, parties, and family gatherings galore, make for an enjoyable end to December.  Festivities aside, one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season is the emphasis on the nativity. Sure, I was raised Catholic, and therefore feel a special connection to the story of the Holy Family…but in all honesty, it’s the story of Mary’s journey that really moves me. Here’s this young unwed mother who, after much soul-searching (and a visit from an archangel), bravely carries her baby to term against all odds. Impoverished and shunned, she gives birth in the humblest of all conditions and in doing so brings forth one who become sone of the worlds most heralded prophets. Regardless of your beliefs or religion, you’ve got to admit the story has some appeal, especially to a former young mother such as myself.
 
A few weeks before Christmas, I found myself sitting in a church service next to my 15-year-old son  who was flipping through a pamphlet inscribed with a bible verse from Isaiah 11: 6-10 which begins..”A little child will lead them…” In an instant, I remembered the days during which I grappled with the new-found discovery of my pregnancy at the age of 16.  A time during which I prayed for an angel to guide me, a prayer that I quickly realized had already been answered. The little child within me WAS my angel. He guided me during those early days–motivating me to walk with purpose and integrity—and he continues to guide me now.
 
A couple of days after that church service, a gunman walked into a school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were children. When I first read of the tragedy, it was in a report accompanied by a picture of a teacher running with her students, hands grasped, faces drawn, and it was unclear who was leading who. I was at work at the time, and the sounds of the kindergarteners in the room next door to me brought me to tears. By the time my own students arrived in the classroom, it was all I could do to keep composure. That afternoon, I relied on their presence to renew my faith in mankind. The horrendous nature of the days events were made more bearable by the children in my care, who constantly exhibit compassion and empathy toward one another, as well as unabashed love toward me and my staff. Without their energy, the afternoon would have been much more grim as details of the slaughter continued to be reported.
 
In the days that followed, my own community experienced its own rash of gun violence that left several dead, many wounded, and countless lives forever changed. In all, the last few weeks are a blur of many raw discussions, tender gestures, and fleeting moments during which I was reminded of how precious life truly is, how nothing is guaranteed, and how petty all the usual holiday stressors really are. Many tears were shed, often alone and out of sight from the children, but laughter was in abundance as well. As is often the case when there are children present, grief and sadness cannot take hold for too long before joy comes bubbling to the surface when you least expect it…a giggle brought on by some silly mishap, a spontaneous smile when a neighbor comes to the door bearing homemade cookies, and an infectious hum instigated by the memory of an all-too familiar Christmas song…
 
This season, though its hardships were plentiful (both personal & otherwise), I was lucky to be surrounded by an abundance of family & friends, and by children. Lots of them. And it is because of their company, that I was prompted to mediate upon the importance of being child-like. I am indebted to the young ones in my life who have led me to live in the present, focus on  beauty, and live free of grudges. Because I’ve found that in my darkest moments, it is child-like innocence, trust, faith, & love that lights the road ahead and ultimately leads us to light.

A Royal Pain

Duchess Kate Middleton

Duchess Kate Middleton

I had one of those moments the other day…one of those mommy melt-down moments where everything seems completely and utterly overwhelming with no respite in sight. It had been raining for seven consecutive days, which meant that my students had been cooped up inside the classroom with me for countless hours and were hell-bent on redefining the meaning of cabin fever. Following a hectic day, I had the privilege of coming home to the sight of my own rambunctious, mud-covered tribe who were just as eager to escape the house as I was. The only problem was, we couldn’t. It was raining so hard we couldn’t see past the porch. I totally would have thrown in the towel – had I been able to find one.  See, the other  problem was that the laundry was  piled a mile high and there wasn’t a clean wash cloth in sight. As dinner was simmering and the boys were busying themselves with their homework assignments, I decided to lay down on the couch for a quick minute. Big mistake; for the second I succumbed to the soft, inviting cushions, I realized just how exhausted I was. Any seasoned parent knows that lying down for a quick rest when you are tired is as disastrous as going famished into a buffet and limiting yourself to a side salad. It’s a complete tease. DON’T do it.

Well anyway, I went against my better judgment and did it anyway. And as I was lying there wishing I could forego the remaining mommy duties for the night, my thoughts turned to Kate Middleton. Yes, Kate. The beautiful royal Duchess of Cambridge who recently announced her first pregnancy much to the delight of the entire Western world. At times, when I’m on the parenting pity pot, I sometimes find myself wondering how my life would be different if I had unlimited income at my disposal. The first thing I’d do is line up a solid support staff for the home.  I’d hire a full-time maid, a part-time cook and sometimes story-reader to cover those nights when it literally pains me to bumble through yet another forced rendition of Goodnight Moon. But alas, I am not of royal blood and therefore I will most likely never enjoy the plush luxuries that Kate Middleton is sure to enjoy as she enters the world of motherhood. The perks I envision are healthy organic meals on demand, a wet nurse who will gracefully waltz into the room at 4 a.m. when poor Kate is too exhausted to get up for yet another night feeding and a nanny who is always on hand to take the cranky infant when Mommy Kate wants to something indulgent like send a coherent email to a friend, eat a hot meal, or use the restroom uninterrupted. Ah, the royal life. Must be nice.

Or perhaps not. Because as I was fantasizing about the ways that celebrity status would make my parenting life easier, I begin to think of the recent reports that Kate also happens to be suffering from Hyperemesis gravidarum, which is THE most horrendous, debilitating form of morning sickness there is. I know; because I had it.

When I first found out I was pregnant with my son at the undesirable age of 16, it was not a good feeling. The funny thing was, despite all the circumstantial drama that was circulating around me, I felt physically fine. Radiant, even. It was that wondrous feeling that a women first experiences as she comes to the realization that her body is capable of something much bigger than she can comprehend…the creation of new life. And that’s what I felt, that is, until the hyperemesis gravidarum set in.

It came on suddenly. From one week to the next, I would careen from feeling completely normal (as normal as first-trimester can be) to losing complete control of my health and well-being. Imagine morning sickness a thousand times worse. I was literally dry-heaving until my eyes were bloodshot. My veins bulged as a result of severe dehydration and my energy was completely depleted. While my normal functioning peers were out in the world enjoying the summer months, I was continuously hooked to IVs in an attempt to re-hydrate my body with fluid and nutrients. The effects of the nausea were so intense that I could not bear to be in a full lit room for more than a few minutes. Instead, I withered away, pale and malnourished in my darkened room while begging God for relief from this awful condition. Keep in mind that this was pre-Twilight craze. The ghastly, paled look had yet to reach cult-popularity. I felt wretched . This all sounds very dramatic, but I assure you, the condition is as terrible as it sounds. Like Kate, I was hospitalized as a result of hyperemesis gravidarum  and I remained in the hospital for nearly a week and a half until my condition was stabilized. To this day, I cannot stomach the taste of Gatorade or Jello (the only two substances that I was allowed to ingest) without getting the urge to vomit. Little by little I began to get my appetite back, and the nausea under control. By the second trimester, I was feasting like a normal pregnant woman, and in the end gave birth to a healthy, 7 pound, 11 ounce baby boy. But you could not pay me to relive those days of crippling morning sickness. I swear by everything dear to me that there is seldom a time when I take for granted a long cold drink of water, because the memory of that parched, liquid deprived summer remains with me.

And as the memory of that time sunk in, I suddenly got the surge of energy needed to hop off the couch and swiftly execute the reminder of my domestic duties without wavering. Because as plush as Kate’s life may be once that little heir is in her arms, I would not trade places with her right now if my life depended on it. Hyperemisis gravidarum is a royal pain in the ass and it doesn’t discriminate. It afflicts both the common teen peasant and the Duchess of Cambridge with equal ferocity. Poor Kate. I wish her a speedy recovery. And in the meantime, I will be happily enjoying a plentiful serving of post kid-bedtime Ben & Jerry’s on my cozy little couch…

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…

Talking Points

Adolescence is a period of rapid changes. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example, a parent ages as much as 20 years.

I remember the day my eldest son came to me with that love-sick look in his eye. He was all of  13 years old, had just begun middle school, & within two days of the new school year, had fallen for one of the cutest, most popular 8th grade girls. He may have said something along the lines of, “I just cannot stop thinking about her!” In any case, I wasn’t as prepared for it as I thought I’d be. Here I was, a 29 year-old mother of a 5’10 young man in the making…and my  normally shy-with-girl-matters kid comes bearing news that he is head over heels in lust. (Okay, I think he used “love,” but at 13…same difference). I wasn’t ready for it. And apparently, neither was he. Within 2 weeks, my silly, self-motivated, scholar of a son was reduced to a distracted mess of adolescent hormones. I saw him become easily frustrated, testy, and prone to tears. His preoccupation with this young lady was crippling him. Of course, I did what any well-rounded, reasonable parent would do. I freaked out. I remember calling my own mother in tears…searching for advice, support, and an easy solution to what was quickly becoming a problem.

In the end, I had the first of many emotionally raw, heart-to hearts with my boy about the nature of love, lust, and everything in between. I gave him what we now reference as “The Binder Speech.” In my effort to get my point across to my son, I had to revert to concepts that were familiar to him. Being that he is a Type A personality in all aspects of life, I thought I’d appeal to the part of him that thrives on organization & order. I explained to him that our thoughts are like  sections in a binder. They are either neatly ordered & clearly divided, with an even amount of space designated to each subject… or they are in utter disarray, leaving us grasping to make sense of the contents. If you devote too much time to any one area, it is inevitable that another will be neglected. In his case, I told him I was highly concerned that his “love interest” was taking up his entire binder, leaving no room for other subjects such as friends, hobbies, and education. These areas were clearly taking a backseat to what he thought was his first love. (His real first love? I’ll leave that for a future post). The problem was: she wasn’t half as interested in him as he was in her… thus his agony.          

During our talk, I suggested to my son that it would be wise to re-organize the binder of his thoughts, and give a fair amount of space to each priority subject in his life. Not that his feelings for this girl were without weight or importance, but that he refrain from allowing them to completely take over his state of mind. I assured him that teenagers are not the only ones who struggle with controlling their thoughts. Adults also spend too much time musing over certain people, situations, etc to the point that it begins to interfere with their functioning. How many times have you gone to work preoccupied with something in your personal life, only to find you have a difficult time concentrating on the particular task at hand until you are able to clear your mind of the problem?

In the end, he agreed that he was spending far too much time thinking about the girl and that it left little time for him to devote to his buddies and school work. Of all the talks I’ve had with him, The Binder Talk seemed to have the most lasting impression. How can I be so sure? Because, occasionally, I’ll reference it and he’ll chime in, reiterating one point or another. That and the fact that the other night I came across an essay of his while cleaning out our desktop…and in it he wrote:

“I believe in being organized, not only with physical belongings, but with mental struggles as well. Being preoccupied on one thought, or issue can distract everything else going on in your life. To me, being organized isn’t just putting things away neatly, it’s living neatly as well. Its true, I leave things unfinished, trash my room, and create messes sometimes, like most other teenagers. But after all the reckless fun is over, I’ve learned to clean up and be prepared for the next task…”

Would it be uncouth to admit I silently applauded myself for this minor parenting triumph? Keep talking to them, parents…at one point or another,  they’re going to listen. And if we’re lucky, they’ll understand our advice. And if we’re really lucky, they’ll find a way to apply it to their lives,  as well.