Young mother’s stigma

I am a young mom. At least from the Los Angeles-specific “Youth is Everything” mindset. Obnoxiously enough, when I became pregnant, I was already dealing with “age anxiety” due to my pursuits within the entertainment industry as an actress and model. Why hadn’t I accomplished a, b, and c by my mid-twenties, while I was surrounded by nineteen year old girls who were already tackling z?

My obsessive guilt over “getting older,” as one photographer so diplomatically remarked, was gone by the time I was noticeably pregnant. Since maternity sizes don’t really allow for cutoff shorts and platform sneakers, I was forced to dress modestly. Despite my feigned poise, I quickly became aware of frequent glances from strangers whenever I stepped outside.

Perhaps this was mostly my hormonal paranoia. Perhaps everyone stares at pregnant women, regardless of age. Perhaps I was actually noticing doting glances from people admiring the beautiful profundity of my condition: serving as a vessel for another human being for nine months requires indefatigable patience and love. Still, wherever I went, I could practically hear the thoughts of strangers glancing across the back of my head:
Why is she having a baby so young?
What about her career, her schooling?
Why is she not wearing a ring?
Why is she not wearing a man on her arm at all times?

Being alone was especially hard. Even if I wanted to enjoy a leisurely stroll at noon through a public park, I felt the persecutory glances. I began to realize that I was being viewed as infirm: apparently it is odd for a pregnant woman to do anything on her own. In fact, I was rarely alone. But when I was, I was certainly capable of escorting myself around and driving short distances, unlike the other characters in the “helpless person” category I felt I was being lumped into.

Over the years, developmental psychologists have suggested different arrangements of the human lifespan, but the most recent categorization refers to “budding adulthood” as pertaining to ages 18-25, while “young adults” are those in the 25-40 range. When I gave birth to my son, I was twenty-five and his dad was forty-one. Despite our age difference, we found ourselves (like any first time parents) equally unprepared for the daily tedium of caring for a newborn.

After a successful 24 hours at home with our scrawny, squalling bundle of a boy, we high-fived each other out of relief. Newborn babies don’t practice age-ism when it comes to their pushy demands, it seems.

Dante with his Mom, the author (Photo by Virginia Petrucci)
Dante with his Mom, the author
(Photo by Virginia Petrucci)

As I huffed through the marathon of Dante’s first year, I began to realize that the stigma of being a young mother wasn’t going to go away. I don’t dress in “mom” clothes, and you will never be able to pay me to do such a thing. I’m naturally very thin, so I lost most of the baby weight by the time Dante was six months old. A thin, young-ish looking girl who dresses like a failed hipster fashion blogger tends to generate some looks as she pushes The World’s Cutest Baby through the suburbs.

However, I have had judgmental reactions and advances to my appearance for most of my adult life. It is common to sum up somebody’s personality, social status, income or occupation, or intellectual ability in under a second based on how they present themselves.

When I was modeling, people were annoyingly surprised to find out that I wanted to go back to school for cognitive science, that I read James Joyce for pleasure, and that I can explain the Schrodinger Cat Paradox as well as a quantum physics student.  Granted, I can barely tell you what ten plus three is, but let’s just ignore that; we all have our intellectual peaks and troughs.

When I meet other moms and dads in the park, I can sense their hesitation to ask if Dante is my son. My best friend, who is a model/actress/amazing nanny, is even thinner and prettier and younger looking than I am (Nicole, seriously, yes you are). She has been asked multiple times, when out in public with the children she watches, if she is their mother. When she says no, they are relieved because she is “so young!” Nicole is only a month and a half younger than me.

The medical encyclopedia at the University of Rochester’s Medical Center states that the risk of Trisomy 21 (also known as Down’s Syndrome) is directly linked to the age of a mother when she gives birth 1. The American Pregnancy Association furthers this conclusion by examining the odds of a fetus developing Down’s Syndrome as the mother ages. 1 in 135 babies will develop the disorder in women over 35, as compared to 1 in 1,300 in women who are 25. The odds are dramatically worse for women over age 45: 1 in 30 .2

This is not to say that older women cannot be fantastic mothers. But the supposed trend of increasing age in American mothers may be a bit overhyped. According to the CDC, the average age of a mother’s first conception in the United States for the year 2012, which was the year I gave birth to my son, was 25. 3

So why the stigma against young mothers, who are more biologically fit to have children?

The supposedly feminist mindset of our present era suggests that women are allowed to make their own choices regarding marriage, careers, and families. That is fantastic, except that we are all expected to make the same choices. Many women are choosing to finish their education and land a steady job before they settle down. The modern, metropolitan female seems to maintain an attitude of an obsessive nature: step A leads to step B which will eventually lead to step C — but only when I’m ready.

Take it from someone who knows: you will never be ready. The current thinking of having it “all figured out” can be detrimental to successful parenting. Just because one has been an exemplary student and has an exemplary job and can afford exemplary Shabby Chic décor doesn’t mean that one will be any more prepared for motherhood than a scared and struggling 20-year old.

I’m a young mom — and I’m also a good mom. I have a college degree and plan to earn a PhD. This will take me a million years, since I hope to have more kids along the way. But children aren’t setbacks. They are the reasons we strive for security, an enviable lifestyle and intellectual enlightenment. If leading the life of a role model is one’s goal, then what is the point without little ones around to witness your achievements?





One thought on “Young mother’s stigma

  • Tom Flynn
    February 8, 2014 at 1:45 AM

    Hi Virginia – well done. I’ve never been a young mother of course but had twins at 24 (with some similarities in circumstance) and some of what you write I don’t know that I would say applies to men, but isn’t outside the experience entirely. anyway, interesting to read and well thought thru. – TF

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