The fact that I was (am?) a teen mother will come as no surprise to readers who know me in real life or who have been reading my blogs for years. That’s right: long before teen pregnancy and parenting were made trendy by such shows as 16 And Pregnant and The Secret Life of an American Teenager, I was struggling to find my way in a world that could only offer me Spike Nelson.
I will leave the sordid tale of my pregnancy and against-the-odds struggle as a teen mom for another post. That’s not what I want to talk about today.
You know, there are a lot of resources and supports out there for pregnant teenagers, and for teen parents of babies and toddlers. When I first had my daughter and was struggling to finish high school, I was very active in the Collingwood Young Parent Resource Room. It was a fantastic place for me – a free, nonjudgemental place where I could learn to be a mom by accessing counselling services, support, advocacy and referral, parenting workshops and emergency supplies. It was a place I could be with other young women who were going through the same things I was – a rarity when the rest of my “mainstream” friends were shopping at the mall and going to prom.
But then, I graduated high school. Suddenly the title at risk youth was stripped from me. Then, I turned twenty. Even though I was a college student and had a five-year-old in tow, doors started slamming shut in my face. You’re too old – you’re not a teen mom anymore is what I was told over and over.
But wait! I thought. I still need help! I’m the only one in the audience at my daughter’s school play with purple hair and an eyebrow ring! All the “right age” moms look down their noses at me! I can’t get my daughter’s teachers to take me seriously! My student loan money isn’t enough to pay for daycare, so I’m worried I’ll have to drop out of college!
But no. There was no assistance for me then, and can I tell you a secret? There isn’t much out there for me now.
So this post is intended to provide practical, realistic advice to teen moms over the age of twenty – parents who have already overcome the major early-years hardships and now have to get down to the dirty, thankless task of raising their kids just like everyone else.
I know it’s hard to see beyond the “firsts” when you’re a teen mom. Your friends might throw you a shower. You’re going to go into labour and have a baby. The baby will be cute and you can handle waking up at night, changing diapers, and the occasional case of croup. Then the baby will start to walk and talk, how fun! If you get a job or finish school, you’ll have to sort out a daycare situation. Dad may or not be around. Sometimes your parents will babysit so you can do “normal teenage stuff” like go to the movies or a school dance. Solid foods? Upload the pics to Facebook! Potty training? Piece of cake!
Then, someday in the distant, foggy future, is the unknown. Hypothetically you assume that your child will grow up, you’ll get a job, and life will carry on for you like it does for everyone else, but it will be hard to visualize because right now it’s all about baby! But here’s what those years will look like, and what you can do about it:
First and foremost, don’t drop out of high school! If you have, go get your GED! I know that this bit of advice is something you’ve heard before, but I’m going to give it to you straight: Someday, your seventh grader is going to need help with math and you’re probably the one who’ll have to do it. Be smart for your kid’s sake. School teachers aren’t the only teachers your kids will ever have. Also? Someday your daughter will be fourteen and will want brand-name clothing and Manic Panic hair dye and money for concert tickets. Will you be able to afford all that on your McDonald’s salary? No. As a teen parent, you have a lot to prove, first and foremost that you can provide as good a life for your child as anyone else, and I promise that you CANNOT do this if you’re a high school dropout.
Okay, so: someday, your child will be eight years old and maybe not so cute anymore. Cute yes, but ootchie-gootchie-goo adorable? No. This kid refuses to clean his room, snoops through your stuff, stays up after lights out playing Nintendo DS under the covers, pulls the dog’s tail, sasses his teacher and behaves atrociously in front of company. You can’t attribute his misbehaviour to him being a baby and not knowing any better: now people are looking at you and judging your parenting skills based on your child’s behaviour. So it’s important to raise your kid right. Firm but fair. Don’t let the TV (or Grandma) raise your child while you’re out partying. Lead by example. BE THERE. It’s a thankless job but you and your child will be better off for it.
Take care of your finances. I’m thirty two years old and I don’t even have a credit card because I screwed up my finances early in life. Don’t be that guy! Save money, invest in RESP’s for your kids, clip coupons, don’t succumb to retail therapy. Kids are expensive when they’re little, but they’re REALLY expensive when they’re older and need sporting equipment, summer camp fees, school trip contributions, Girl Guide uniforms, iPhones and Ugg boots. For more on this, please see above for information on GETTING YOUR HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA!
In addition to finishing your education, keep your French and your math skills brushed up because when your kid comes to you for homework help, you’re gonna feel really stupid if you don’t know what to do.
One word I cannot stress enough: stable. STABLE. That’s what your home and your life need to be. No drama. No crazy insanity. If you want your child to grow into a successful, healthy adult, he or she needs to know what to expect, from who will be in their house to what will happen if they act like a shit.
The temper tantrums don’t stop when your child turns three years old. In fact, they will get worse. What’s worse than a toddler screaming in anger because you took away their markers? A sixteen-year-old screaming in rage because you grounded her for skipping class. It’ll happen. All those times you insisted that you were gonna do it differently, that you wouldn’t turn into your mom? Dream on. Putting your foot down will continue to be necessary until the day your child leaves home, otherwise you run the risk of raising not only a snot-nosed jerk with entitlement issues, but one who isn’t equipped to handle the very real, very scary curve balls life will throw at her.
Accept that raising a child as a teenager puts limits on your freedom and your social life, and continuing to raise that child as an adult will also limit your freedom.
Put love on the backburner. Sorry, sad but true. Your child is your priority, and as she gets older she will just gobble up more of your time and energy. Trying to satisfy your own needs (hubba hubba) and diminish your own loneliness with someone who’s not in it for the long haul will take time away from your child that SHE needs.
HOWEVER! That doesn’t mean you’ll be alone forever. I just want to stress that wasting time and energy on someone who’s not in it to win it is just that – a waste. When the right man comes along, alllll those puzzle pieces will fall into place. The RIGHT man will not see your child as unwanted luggage to be dropped off at the sitter’s. The RIGHT man will be cool with your third grader coming along on your first date. The RIGHT man will let you be the boss but will quietly and firmly back you up. The RIGHT man is one whose morals, ethics, ideas and actions are good enough subject your child to.
If the RIGHT man also happens to be your child’s father, well aren’t you lucky! If it doesn’t happen that way, don’t despair. You are strong, smart and successful! You can do this on your own!
I want you to do me a favour. Allllll those ideas you have about being more openminded, more lax, more understanding than your parents? All those teenage pledges to your baby that you won’t get all up in their business, that you’ll let them do as they please, that you won’t be that guy? Toss ‘em. What, you want to raise a juvenile delinquent? You really think that people who grow up in dirty party houses with no rules become productive members of society? That by respecting your daughter’s privacy, she’ll be more likely to be open and confiding in you? Don’t make me laugh. By the time your child is a teen you will no longer be the teen mom that succeeded against all odds. You’ll just be another lame asshole parent like all the rest.
Make your child get a job. Teach her the value of a dollar. Make him open doors for elderly people and give up his seat on the train to pregnant women. Teach her about charity. Show him how to calculate retail sales tax so he never has to ask, “how much is that with the tax?”. Don’t give in to the if I just let it go there will be no fight and everyone will be happier mindset. Sometimes things’ll suck, it’s a fact.
Teach your child to wash dishes properly and do his own laundry, even if he bitches that you’re the biggest asshole in the universe. Put your daughter on the pill, but DON’T let her think that’s the only protection she needs. Show him how to prepare his favourite meals – he’ll learn the rest eventually. When the time comes for brand name clothes and expensive big-ticket items, balance needing these things with not needing them. You remember being that age.
Is there more? Oh God, there’s so much more. I wish I could remember it all. Maybe, if there’s enough interest, I could make this a weekly column. Because you know what? I didn’t even get to what I wanted to write about, but if I keep going you’ll drown in my words!
Oh, one more thing: you will screw up. The above was written in 2011, when I thought I had all the answers. In that time, I have occasionally picked my battles, let things slide, respected her privacy, and thrown up my hands in defeat when I should have stood my ground. As a result, my daughter skips school as often as she goes, raises exactly zero fingers to help around the house, hoards the condiments in her bedroom, and came home drunk last weekend. It happens. Sometimes, despite our best efforts (and sometimes because of no effort at all), our kids become jerks. I spend a lot of time recriminating myself for what I should have and could have done. It makes me think, sometimes, that maybe they were right: that I don’t have what it takes to raise a child.
But you know what? All kids skip. All kids are messy. And I double dog dare you to find even one teenager who hasn’t ingested alcohol or smoked a bit of pot. When I’m beating myself up, I struggle to find the bright side, but there is a bright side: my daughter passes all of her classes, she works part time, she makes me dinner occasionally, she gives up her seat on the train for elderly/pregnant passengers, she holds the door open for others, she respects her grandparents and other figures of authority, and she has goals. She does her own laundry, she understands when I’m broke, and she doesn’t lie, cheat or steal. The bad stuff? It’s par for the course. When I look at my daughter, I see the young woman she is becoming, and I am pleased. I did a good job – and so did she.