Young mums ‘I’m sick of people assuming that I’m the au pair’
When Amy Nickell had a child at 24, she was stunned by the way so many people saw it as a disaster
‘So, does Freddy’s mum work full time, then?” It’s the nursery summer picnic, and it has happened again. Another mum thinks I’m the au pair. “Well, actually she does, but she took the day off today and here she is!” I humorously explain to quickly avoid any awkwardness.
Seeing a woman under 30 with a child made her think I could only be hired help. Not that I blame her. The only time we see a mother under
30, they are portrayed as “struggling” or “troubled” in some way. They certainly aren’t sharing your Laura Ashley picnic rug at the nursery.
When I revealed I was pregnant, my news was received with disbelief by my peers. Some even laughed and one said: “Well, it’s quite shocking because, y’know, you aren’t from a council estate.” I was 24, not 14, and my choice to keep my unplanned baby was condemned from the outset.
Being pregnant and looking young felt like being under a microscope. The bigger the bump grew, the more I feared the judgment of strangers.
I felt so out of place that I didn’t join an NCT group, something I later regretted when I found I had no friends with babies. But having to constantly explain my pregnancy, especially after his dad opted out when I was two months gone, was exhausting. “First-time mum? But you look so
young to have a baby!” was said to me almost daily. A thinly veiled judgmental weigh-up was usually followed with: “Was it a surprise?”
Every time someone says, “You’re doing so well, considering everything,” what it really means is: “I didn’t expect you to be doing so well.” The subtext is that because my life hasn’t imploded, I am an exception to the rule. Anyone of any age or circumstance has the aptitude to be an incredible parent whether they are 15 or 40. Being younger doesn’t remove the capacity to love your child unconditionally.
“I’m so proud of what you’ve managed to do,” friends will say, with the implication being that young mothers don’t achieve, they don’t reach their goals and when they do, it’s a surprise.
“You can tell me it’s a struggle,” health visitors offer sympathy where it really isn’t needed, prodding away, convinced there must be some cause for concern that could eventually be prized out and presented to social services. Meanwhile, strangers assume I stay in, funded by the state, being suffocated by motherhood and dirty nappies while my social and employment opportunities evaporate.
I was recently on a flight to Spain on my own with Freddy, struggling to settle him into his seat, when an older man called me a “silly little girl” and told me to control my child. My son had just turned one when an older mum told me to leave a queue in the supermarket. She said that in her experience it could harm him being left to cry. He wasn’t screaming or in distress and I was doing everything I could to appease him. She went on to leave the queue herself – the crying was upsetting her baby she said.
If you are or look young, on your own, with a tantrumming toddler, the instant assumption is that you have lost control. It can’t just be that you have a tired toddler.
Although there is no wrong time to have children, and your children really don’t know or care how old you are, the media seems hellbent on the idea that all women work through their 20s and 30s, freeze their eggs and settle down in their 40s. Meanwhile, men are too busy being babies to want to have them. I was socialised to see my 20s as a time to explore myself, drink, travel, be irresponsible and selfish. Having children was seen as “settling down”, and it was drilled into me that I couldn’t possibly be ready and actively seek this in my 20s.
Possibly a byproduct of the “don’t get pregnant” sex education hammered into me through adolescence, early motherhood meant career suicide, boredom, getting fat, saggy boobs, the end of romance, sleep and joy, generally dumbing yourself down, depression, poverty and exhaustion. I felt the stigma from myself, especially during pregnancy, so when everything worked out fine, even I was surprised.
Inow know that life doesn’t end because you have a baby in your 20s. Instead, having a child has given me tenfold motivation and confidence to accomplish goals and set new ones. While I establish myself, my son and I are maturing and growing up together. Now a single mum, I recently had a boyfriend whose family couldn’t understand the fact I had a child at 27 and were saddened by my “plight”.
“What on earth did your mother have to say when you came home and said you were pregnant?” the older relation said, aghast. My mum said what you would expect to a selfsufficient 24-year-old living on her own: “It’s your decision.” It was hardly teenage-pregnancy territory, after all.
This same relation later said: “I’m sure we will come to terms with it. It’s just such a shame.”
I thought once I became a mother, I wouldn’t care about what other people say. But I’ve quickly realised that I do care, because I’m still me – just also a mum. Motherhood hasn’t transformed who I am. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the mum bit is an add on. I still get embarrassed, take knocks, I get shy and self-conscious. Only now, I’m not just representing me, I’m also representing two people – meaning criticism hits where it hurts the most.
Parenting is tough, exhausting, mentally and physically draining however many years you have been on the planet and the last thing anyone needs is someone asking how old you are. Rearing a human is difficult regardless of how many candles were on your last birthday cake.
It should be commonsense that a mother who feels encouraged in her parenting abilities will always do a better job than one who feels judged by those around her. Every parent needs support instead of judgment, no matter their age. The year you were born isn’t what makes a great parent. There are rubbish young mums, there are rubbish older mums – your ability as a parent is not defined by age.
We seem hellbent on the idea that all women should work through their 20s and 30s, freeze their eggs and settle down in their 40s
Amy and Freddy, three Photograph by Alicia Canter for the Guardian