I became a grandmother at the age of 44. I hadn’t planned this. And when it happened, I didn’t feel as much joy as one would have expected.
My daughter was 19. For a short while I was more concerned how her pregnancy would reflect on me. I am not proud of this, but it is a reality. We live in a world where appearances are everything. And where perception is reality. I was petrified of the judgement that would follow, of the view that somehow I should have done more as a mother to instil in my daughter the wherewithal to not fall pregnant. Despite being on the pill at the time it happened.
I supported my daughter from the very beginning. During her early teenage years we had gone over this ground:
“If you ever fall pregnant, Miss J, I want you to know that dad and I will support you. Never feel like you are alone. You can tell us anything. We will not judge you.”
Miss J would nod knowing that our philosophy was that there was nothing we as a family couldn’t overcome.
But then it happened and the reality hit. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I did judge. Myself most of all.
It is fair to say that my parenting style is somewhat relaxed. From the very beginning, I wasn’t big on being the strict parent insisting on conformity. Don’t get me wrong, my children will be the first to tell you that I would yell, usually for them to clean their mess, but on the whole, I am all for my children having a very long leash.
I would tell myself that I was picking my fights. That it was important for them to learn their lessons without me trying to stifle them. On the other hand, I would see children that had the most impeccable manners, who remained blissfully quiet whilst their parents talked ad infinitum to their friends, who were studious and focused and achieved greatly at school. And I would denigrate myself for not being a good mother.
I stopped following mummy blogs because, frankly, they just helped solidify the image I had of myself as a crap mother.
So when my daughter fell pregnant, I felt, for a very short period, like I was being punished. Like it was all about me and what I hadn’t done as a parent.
I would watch peoples’ reactions when they would hear that I was about to become a grandmother. For a split second, it was there, that judgment, always followed by:
“Wow, you look so young to be a grandmother.”
It wasn’t a compliment. It was loaded with judgement and, for a short while, I let it wash over me, like self flagellation for being a bad mother. I deserved this, I would tell myself. This was all about me and not about my daughter at all.
As the weeks wore on, however, my mood shifted. I began to realise that it doesn’t matter if I was a “bad” mother or not (which for the record I know I am not and really don’t give a shit of someone thinks I am). It wasn’t about me at all, it was about my daughter. Was she being supported to make the decisions that were important to her, that were empowering her, that were setting her up to be a mother in her own right at what is considered in our society to be such a young age?
This was highlighted when, at 22 weeks it was discovered my daughter was already 2cm dilated and at 24 weeks she went into labour for the first time (a number of times would follow). There was a real chance we could lose Baby C. We sat in the labour ward as my teenage daughter and her partner were told that at 24 weeks it is better for them to consider not to resuscitate their, previously unwanted but now very much wanted, infant.
As I listened to the doctor telling my distraught daughter the cons of saving a 24 weeker, whilst she was breathing through labour pains, I became angry. Very angry. This was no longer about people judging me as a mother, or about him and the seeming inconvenience it would be to society to bring a child into the world that would be “riddled with special needs” – this man was asking my 19 year old daughter to decide to not let her child live – this was about my daughter, my beautiful brave daughter who had chosen not to terminate the pregnancy as so many teenagers would have done, but chose to keep the baby and then fight for him when things went awry.
I couldn’t help but wonder if a woman in her thirties would be treated in the same fashion. Even the midwifery nurse was mortified.
The doctor left and I rushed to my daughter and cosseted her as she wept in my arms. I looked at the lovely nurse and ordered that “that man is never to come near my daughter again”. It wasn’t me that would have to endure the judgement, I realised, it was my daughter. And I would do everything in my power to stem that.
Thankfully, through the power of modern day medicine and bed rest, Baby C managed to hold on until 37 weeks and he was born a healthy, bouncing, delightful, very much loved, baby boy.
But the judgement continued. In Australia, only 4% of babies born are born to girls and women below the age of 24. Young mothers are on the wane. And as a society, we consider those young mums incapable. We assume them to be slappers who clearly screwed around and got themselves into trouble. And bugger it, we will leave them and their children to rot!
My response is this: So what? So what if they are all these things and more. Does that mean that their youth-fuelled hormonally driven poor choices warrant less support, or none at all? What gives us the right as a society to imagine that these young girls aren’t deserving of the support or resources afforded to the more mature mum. What makes us decide that they “got themselves into trouble and now must pay the piper” as one delightful woman told me.
My daughter refused to go to a mother and baby group because the one time she attended she was surrounded by older mothers who did not speak to her. She felt vulnerable and very much isolated. And she felt judged. As a mother, she continues to feel isolated. None of her peers have children. No-one her age in her circle can identify with the exhausting needs of a baby and how difficult it is to hold down a full time job, study and look after a very active two year old. Because that is exactly what she is doing.
Judgement is rife for these young women. Recently I had to attend hospital as Baby C had fallen and broken his thumb. The nurse came in, and immediately said to me,
“So, Mum, what is wrong with baby?”
Despite Miss J being the one to hold Baby C. Despite her being the one listed as his mother. A quick glance at her and her look of brokenness will live with me forever. When, exactly, is it that we are able to claim our right as mothers?
Can I blame the nurse? Not really, I guess. Society’s new more for mothers is in the 30 plus age bracket, with that age bracket increasingly being pushed out beyond 40.
We need to challenge the status quo. As women, we need to do this. Rather than judge and isolate these young women, we need to empower them, to encourage them to own their right as mothers, to feel confident in their choices, and capable of following it through. Motherhood is hard, we all know that. How much harder is it for a young woman who feels so alone?
I am a young grandmother and though it took a little while, I am really proud of that fact. I get many many years to see my grandson develop and grow and to watch as my daughter does the same in her new role as mother. We are closer than we have ever been. But I could so easily have allowed my own judgements destroy that. So easily have buckled to society’s expectations.
We don’t have to do that. We can challenge the status quo. We can support those young mothers that cross our paths. And let them know that motherhood is a blessing and not a curse, that they have a right to be a part of the only rite of passage we as woman truly own.