Six things I wish I’d known when I became a parent at 22 YEARS OLD
By Jess Perry
Becoming pregnant was never part of Jess's quarterlife plan. But, when the unthinkable happened, she found a way to thrive.
You’re young, carefree, on the right path. You’re a “normal” 21-year-old - whatever that’s supposed to mean. In that year of life that is, for so many of us, a bit of a lost year. You have a vision of what your future will be like. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, you find out you’re pregnant.
It’s not rocket science. Hopefully by the time you hit 21, you should know a thing or two about the birds and the bees. But, as the old cliche goes, you never really think it could happen to you...until it does. And here I am with the stretch marks to prove it.
Your quarterlife is that time when you’re supposed to be hitting adulthood and working out how to leave your childhood behind. Should you find yourself in a similar situation to me, here is my experience on what it is like, and six top tips on what you can do to come through it still smiling.
1. There’s a huge stigma surrounding young mums, but don’t waste your energy worrying about that.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt ashamed at times about getting pregnant so young. I even created an imaginary boyfriend for the duration of my pregnancy, as I felt too embarrassed to admit that I was a single mother when people asked (yes, he was hot, but also totally unnecessary). Feeling ashamed of your pregnancy, relationship status or age, is a complete waste of time. When your baby arrives, all of that becomes an instant irrelevance because that baby is a gift, and it is all yours. Trust me, you will parade that baby around with pride, and whether you were single, married, 18 or 42 when you conceived, it won’t mean a thing – save yourself the stress of caring what other people think.
2. Having a baby is going to change your life.
It might sound blindingly obvious to say, but having a baby young is going to change your life in more ways than you imagine. People will tell you this and make it sound like life is over for you, and like you are doomed to an isolated existence of ‘Mum Buns’, dirty nappies and sleepless nights. Don’t get me wrong – the Mum Bun does become a staple hair choice throughout the early years, and the morning you wake up after an uninterrupted night sleep is always a ‘hallelujah’ moment. Equally, 43 percent of mums under the age of 30 do report feeling lonely often or always. But change isn’t always bad, and there are so many amazing new experiences that you could never imagine before you become a parent.
Of course, there are tricky parts. No sooner do you find out you are pregnant, than you have to start dealing with all the shitty physical symptoms that pregnancy throws at you. No one can really prepare you for this. Although I had family around me, I handled the physical symptoms of those nine months alone. The same goes for any woman who carries a child. You can have all the support in the world, but you are the only one to feel the first kick (and cry with joy). You’re the only one to talk to your own belly every day; the only one who feels the butterflies every time you think about their little face.
Motherhood can be an incredibly isolating experience in so many ways but, importantly, you don’t have to be alone. The sooner you realise this the better. I hadn’t realised how many incredible support groups and baby classes there were for women in my position. The NCT is one of the most underrated services in the UK. A charity for couples and singles of any age who are expecting, the NCT runs local services across the UK. You can get involved with anything from coffee groups to meet-ups for new dads. They offer baby first aid training, family-friendly activities and days out, local parent support, parent socials, and yearly sales of all the gear you could possibly want for your newborn. And when the baby comes, there are services to guide you through the different aspects of new parenthood, like breastfeeding counselling for the parents who are struggling to breastfeed but want to persevere, so need that extra support. You’re never at all as alone as you may feel.
3. It’s ok to freak out.
From the moment you become pregnant, your hormones and your body will change. I suffered pretty badly with post-natal depression after I had my first baby, and as I lived alone there was nobody around me to recognise the symptoms I was exhibiting. I was convinced that if I admitted to health visitors and doctors that I was struggling, they would brandish me unfit and take my baby away from me. Hormones do crazy things to you. Freaking out is a pretty common experience for new parents, and whether it's the hormones, the life change, or the feeling unprepared or ill-equipped to be a parent that does it to you, you can expect it to happen at some point in the process. It might even be a permanent state of freak-out you experience. But whatever your experience, it's all ok -it's all normal.
Even now - 27, married and mortgaged - I still had a near breakdown when we found out we were pregnant with our son. It takes a little while to adjust to the reality of what is happening to you, bodily and emotionally. This leads me onto my fourth point...
4. Until you’re in the situation, you don’t know how you’re going to cope with it.
My friends and I used to love “hypothetical question time”: “what would you do if you won the lottery?”, “how would you react if Channing Tatum turned up on your doorstep and asked you out?” and “what would you do if you were pregnant?”. My response was always “I couldn’t keep it, I have too much going on”. But when I found out I was pregnant I couldn’t even consider abortion.
I instinctively felt like a mother, and I personally felt a duty to the baby growing inside me. I am a bit of a commitment-phobe but, when it came down to it, I knew I had to continue with the pregnancy. I made a silent vow to myself and to my unborn child that I would do all I could to provide for them and give them the best life that I could offer. That being said, everyone will respond to this life-changing news differently, and should feel free to make whatever choice is right for them at the time. You know your body and your mind better than anyone, and no one has any right whatsoever to even begin to question your decision.
5. Never allow anyone, yourself included, to impose any expectations or pressures on you about what sort of parent you should be.
My fifth point is a crucial one. When you become a parent, you are not turning into an angel or some superior godly being - you are still a human. You don’t have to do any of the following: have a natural birth, think only pure thoughts, bond instantly with your baby, be suddenly able to do seven things at once, lose all your baby weight within six weeks, breastfeed like a pro, or even breastfeed at all, spend every waking minute with your baby, never lose your patience with them, or your rag with anyone else, never feel sad or down or lonely OR appear to have all your shit together. You will probably do none of the above to be honest.
Ignore any “perfect mother” or “boss mum” narrative you may have seen and internalised - it’s all bullshit. Being a mum is messy and imperfect. Oh, and also, you don’t have to mourn for your pre-birth body; it is possible to love your body again even with any new lumps or bumps or stretch marks or scars. I am no supermodel but even I found a husband with an 18 month-old and a wobbly size-12 mum-tum. Saggy boobs do happen, but not to everybody. Whatever happens to your body, never write yourself off or feel like you have to change.
6. Sometimes it's ok to forget "the plan". Even if you lose all of your friends, change your job and have to move house to have it, when your baby is born, nothing else will matter.
It was never in my “life plan” to have a baby alone at 22, but it happened. Since then, I have met the love of my life, completed our family with our son and I have never been happier. There was a time only a few years ago when I didn’t think things would ever get better for me.
I never imagined I would have a child so young but the people closest to me have since remarked on how it was the “making of me”. Funny how things work out.
Even us quarterlifers, who love to plan our futures, could never plan how having a baby will impact our lives. I could never in a million years have planned or foreseen what, for me, would turn out to be one of the most wonderful turning points in my life. Getting a positive pregnancy test with a hangover was, at the time, one of the worst days of my life. Little did I know, it would turn out to be up there with the best.
Image from unknown Pinterest artist.