Dear new young mum,
Congratulations! The pregnancy is history and labour is over – and now, you’re the mother of a brand new baby. If you’re in the hospital right now, you probably feel like you’re in a bit of a bubble. It’s easy to lie there and think that the hard part is over – I know, I did it too. Unfortunately, the world is only too happy to burst that bubble, and tell you that the hardest part is still to come.
When you are discharged, you’ll strap your baby into their little car seat, carry them out of the hospital, along with any brightly coloured helium balloons you’ve amassed to herald your baby’s arrival, and take them home. Whether that home is where you live alone, or with your partner, or with your parents, or anyone else – it’s baby’s home now too.
I just wanted to say that I’ve been there. That moment when they tell you that you can take the little one home was one of the most frightening moments of my life – but I didn’t feel able to say that. I was trying to give the impression that I was strong and confident, a natural mother.
I want you to know that it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to feel apprehensive; to get that little chill of fear down your spine when you realise that this tiny human being now relies on you to meet all of its needs, and they are helpless without you. Even as I write this now, I remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, that “Oh, crap” moment as I realised that pregnancy and labour were the easy parts – now we had to take this baby home and raise it into a fully functioning human, without screwing it up too much. It’s totally normal to feel that way – I think most new mums, regardless of age, feel it.
If you want to breastfeed, you’ll need to shout louder for help than older mums. Thanks to your age, a lot of people won’t expect you to even want to try. People certainly seemed surprised when I said I wanted to breastfeed. I remember sitting there, almost in tears, trying to force a baby with a lip tie to latch on, as the mum in her late 20s sitting opposite had a HCP sit with her for upwards of half an hour, showing her the positions. I had someone walk in, grab my boob, manhandle it into my daughter’s mouth and storm out again.
If you struggle, and you can’t do it – it’s okay. I’ve been there. SO many of us have, regardless of age. You are not harming your baby – in fact, sometimes it causes more harm to your own mental health to try and persevere. There is nothing wrong with formula. And if you choose to formula feed from the start, that’s okay too. Don’t let people tell you that you’re making the wrong choice, and don’t let them assume it’s because of your age. People choose formula for all sorts of reasons. If you manage to breastfeed successfully, don’t let anyone tell you that you should cover up, or you should give them a bottle now and then, or that it’s wrong. The only people who matter are you and your baby, and if breastfeeding is working for you, do it in whatever way makes you feel most comfortable.
When the hormones really kick in, on about day three, don’t panic if you suddenly find yourself tearing up or getting angry over the slightest thing. We’ve all been there. You’re not going crazy, you’re not a bad mum, you’re not doing anything wrong.
If the sadness and anger lingers, or you feel like it’s getting out of hand, speak to the health visitor, or to your doctor. I know as a young mum you’re hyper-aware of social services, and it can feel like they’re just looking for a reason to take your baby away – but they’re not, I promise. In fact, that feeling is part of the illness. Doctors don’t call in social services to remove the baby just because the mum needs a little extra support emotionally. Seeking help is the most responsible thing you can do for you and your baby.
But if you don’t feel able to seek help, don’t feel like you’re failing your baby. I’ve been there. I didn’t get help when I should have done. It is so hard – but looking back, I know things would have been so much easier if I’d just spoken to the doctor about it all.
Do you know what the funny thing is? This is a letter to you, as a new young mum – but all of the things I’ve written about so far are issues that can affect every mum, regardless of age. Women of all ages can struggle to access breastfeeding support; they can experience postnatal depression and feel too afraid to seek help; they can feel that same sinking feeling when they leave hospital after giving birth.
That’s one of the most important things to remember. You are not defined by being a young mum. You don’t have to call yourself a young mum – you are a mum. You are every bit as much a mum as a woman in her late 20s, or her 30s, or her 40s. Don’t be tricked into believing that just because it’s prefixed with “young”, that it makes you any less of a mum, because it doesn’t. To your baby, you’re the only mum it has ever known – it won’t care if you’re young or old or right in the middle – you are its mum, and that is what is important. Never let anyone make you feel like an inferior mother because of your age. There is no perfect time to have a baby, and there is no perfect age – but remember, if you’d had your first baby at any other age, it wouldn’t be that baby you’ve just given birth to. And aren’t they just the most perfect baby you’ve ever seen?
It would be dishonest of me, however, to pretend that you won’t face extra challenges because of your age.
Most women who have babies later on in life; in their thirties or forties, have built up a career by this point. They’ve done their studying, they’ve set aside plans and budgets for this baby. Their friends are having babies too, and they’ll all go to NCT groups together.
Life as a young mum is lonely. Often you’re the first of your friendship group to have a baby, so there’s no-one to talk nappies and teething with over a cup of coffee. This is where online parenting groups come in. Okay, so it’s tough to arrange a regular date in Costa – but you’ll always have fellow parents there, waiting with a cup of virtual coffee, to let you vent all your parenting frustrations to.
It’s harder to study with a baby – but it’s not impossible. Had someone told me, eighteen months ago, that almost exactly twelve months later I’d have a letter telling me I’d be graduating with a first class degree, I would never have believed them. It is possible though, if that’s what you want to do.
It’s harder to establish a career with a baby… but there’s thousands of women who’ve done it, if not hundreds of thousands. It’s totally doable, if that’s what you want to do.
Are you seeing the theme here? If you want to do it, you can. Don’t let anyone pressure you into it, though. Being a young mum doesn’t give you any less right to be a stay at home mum. There’s no obligation to do university or a career, although some people will try and pressure you into it. It doesn’t make you a “bad young mum” if you stay at home with the baby, just like it doesn’t make you a “bad young mum” if you put your baby in childcare so you can study or work.
Those issues can all be overcome, if you want or need to. There’s one issue, however, that we have no power over.
Let’s be honest – people judge young mums. I did, before I became one. People have these set ideas in their head of what a young mum does, what she says, and what she’s like – and more often than not, they don’t like those ideas to be challenged.
You’re not alone. I’ve been there. Lots of us have. I’ve had people assume that my daughter is my sister. I’ve had people stand in supermarkets and tut at my bump and my babyish face. I’ve seen the way people recoil slightly when they find out how old I am. I’ve had someone tell me that, for the simple fact that I had a baby at nineteen, my IQ can’t possibly be any higher than 80, and my opinion can be disregarded.
We’re trying to challenge these judgements and stereotypes, I promise. I’m sorry we haven’t managed to do it yet; I’m sorry that in all likelihood, you’ll face at least one episode of judgement for having a baby at a young age. They’re good for one thing, though – they remind you that no matter what they think of you, at least you’ll never be as judgmental and narrow-minded as they are – and it will light a fire in your belly; a desire to fight these prejudices too.
For now, I can only give you the advice of someone who has been through it – advice handed to me by others who have been through it. Rise above it. Ignore them. They know nothing about you, about your parenting – it is more of a reflection on them and their ignorance.
Don’t always assume that people are judging you for your age. This is one piece of advice I will always be eternally grateful for. At one point, I became over-defensive – I assumed that if people glared at me when my daughter was crying, it was because I was young. I was wrong – it’s because some people are idiots, and will glare at anyone whose baby cries, because they don’t think we’re doing enough to quieten them down already. These people can be totally disregarded too – I refer you back to my comment about “judgmental and narrow-minded”.
If you want to, you can challenge their judgments – on a personal level and collectively. Don’t think that just because you’re young, you have to sit there and accept glares, or tutting, or people making comments about lack of education or “having a baby for a free council house”. You can stand up and challenge them – if you want to. You’re not letting the side down if you don’t. I’ve never had the balls to stand up in real life and challenge someone who remarks on how young I am to have a child.
What helped me the most was striving towards proving them wrong. I doubt I’d have got the grades I got in university, had I not been fuelled by all the doubt and the negative comments from people on the internet and in real life. When I see comments now, accusing young parents of being uneducated, of having no ambition – I know that I am helping to change that perception, slowly but surely. You can do it too – if you want to. There is no obligation – it’s not some kind of club, where you have to pledge allegiance and do your duty.
What being a young parent does give you is a support network. Even if you feel like no-one in real life is supportive or understands, know that we do. We’ve been there, we’ve lived it, and we know exactly how it feels. There’s communities of us on forums, on Facebook, on Twitter and on blogs – seek us out, ask our advice, vent about the narrow-minded idiot who made a comment in the supermarket today.
For all the bad reputation we get, I’ve never met a group of people so supportive, so caring, so ambitious and so determined to do right by their children, as the community of young mothers that I have come to know. They will support you, comfort you, rant with you and inspire you.
Finally, know this – there’s one person at the centre of all this that I have barely mentioned. Your beautiful new baby. Next time you’re having cuddles, and they look up at you with those big, beautiful newborn eyes, look back into them and know that in that moment, he or she doesn’t see your age. They don’t see a media caricature of teenage mums, or a Daily Mail headline about benefit scroungers. They look up at you and see the centre of their universe; the person who brought them into the world.
Take it from all of us who have been there, done that and got the t-shirts – you are all that baby needs. You are a great mum, and you are going to be absolutely fine.