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

The Guardian - Family - - Front page -

‘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

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