What To Expect When You’re (Young And) Expecting

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By Adriann Barboa
I always knew motherhood would be an important part of my life, and when I was 18 and found out I was pregnant, there was a voice inside of me that said, calmly and clearly, Now is the time. 
As my pregnancy progressed, my excitement grew, but I couldn’t share it. People around me saw my growing belly as an anchor that would prevent me from moving forward with my life.

I had heard dire predictions about teen pregnancy at school assemblies, seen billboards, and watched after-school specials that warned me of its perils. Girls who look like me were routinely warned against what would happen to us and to our kids if we became parents too soon. From low birth-weight babies to high drop-out rates, our kids were likely to be on the losing end of every childhood measure.

So while I felt ready to become a parent, my community looked at me with doubt. All through my pregnancy, I felt the presence of stigma like it was another person in the room, sucking up all the air. When people noticed my belly, their response was often to look away or change the subject. Even my mother kept grumbling about how she would have to “raise this baby.” I was prepared to prove her wrong.

When I felt the baby move, I kept my excitement to myself, not feeling comfortable inviting my family and friends to touch my belly and feel him kick. Disconnected from the people I cared about, I kept my head down and focused on finishing my freshman year of college and preparing, mostly alone, to become a mom.

I had a long and difficult labor, and when my son Andres was born, I was overwhelmed with emotion and exhaustion. When he was a few hours old, I was alone with him in my hospital room when he began to cry. I changed his diaper, gave him a bottle, rocked him and sang to him. Sore and tired as I was, I pulled myself out of the hospital bed to walk him around and bounce him. I couldn’t soothe him, and as he continued to cry, my heart was racing. Even though I was scared and unsure, I wouldn’t call the nurse. I was determined not to be the young mom who didn’t know what to do.

And I kept up that determination. When the first semester of my sophomore year started a week after Andres was born, I was at my desk, ready to go. I look back on that semester as a blur and still don’t know how I did it … learning how to care for a newborn, keeping up with my studies, and getting food on the table while maintaining the appearance that I had it all under control.

When I look back on those frightening moments in the hospital room and being too afraid of the nurse’s judgment to push the call button, I wonder about how many young moms and dads hesitate to reach out for help and support when they need it?

Now that I am well into my 30s and have seen my friends have babies at every age, I know that all new moms struggle with uncertainty. Most of us have both a powerful love for our new babies and a nagging fear that we won’t know how to be good mothers. The women who thrive in motherhood are usually those with trusted networks of support and the humility to ask for help when needed.

When I see the dismal statistics and negative images our communities are bombarded with, I wonder how many of the negative outcomes are caused not by the age of the parents, but by the stigma heaped on them and the isolation that results? We all know there is nothing inherently wrong with giving birth at 18. Humans have been doing it throughout time; President Barack Obama’s mom did it, every 30-year-old I know has a mother who was “young” by today’s standards.

In a generation, the “proper” age to become a parent has changed. Economic security sure helps in raising kids. Having a partner does too. But 40 percent of babies in the US are born to mothers who are not married, and their ages range across the board.  The current economic crisis and cuts to the social safety net has taught us many things, including that we can’t count on financial security at any age.

For those of us working with young women and men juggling the possibilities and challenges of young parenthood, it has become clear over the years that fear and shame are not stopping our communities from either having sex or becoming parents.  And those of us working with young families know that support can make all the difference--whether it's help finishing school or loving hands to hold a baby, young parents (like all parents) need their village.

A set of creative and daring organizations in New Mexico decided that as a counter to National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, with statistics and images that demonize young parents, we would have an New Mexico Day in Recognition of Support Young Parents. We worked to pass the bill last winter, and now this Saturday, August 25th is the first official day! In addition on online love through YWU's Facebook page, twitter and beyond,  we are having a live event in Albuquerque and inviting young families to enjoy a day of connection, fun, inspiration, and respect. 

This may be just a nice day in the park for young families in Albuquerque, but we also know we are seeding something powerful--the idea that support rather than stigma helps families thrive. And that when young parents are given the tools and resources they need when they need them, in an environment of love and respect, our children have a fair chance of living the lives they dream of, including becoming President.

Adriann Barboa was the Executive Director of Young Women United  for eight years. YWU was instrumental in establishing August 25th as New Mexico's day in Recognition of Young Parents. In this piece Adriann reflects on her own experience as a young mom. As she has worked with young parents over her many years doing youth work in Albuquerque, she continues to be inspired by their power, and saddened by the lack of support, trust and respect they often receive. 

An earlier version of this blog was originally posted on The Frisky.