Why '23 and Pregnant' is the New '16 and Pregnant'

My pregnancy at 23 swept me into a world I wasn't ready for.

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Nov 28 2016, 5:00pm

Photo via Rodion Kutsaev

Eight years ago, I lay down slowly and lifted my shirt so a doctor could slather my stomach with warm jelly. My abdomen was flat—yet to be adorned with stretch marks and soft rolls that wouldn't disappear no matter how far or fast I ran, or how many rapid-fire workouts I did in the living room. 

At 23, I'd been living my life according to me. I made no apologies for my blatant alcoholism, underemployment, and self-destructive habits. I had never really wanted a baby. I wasn't moved to tears when I heard the "bump-bump bump-bump" on the doppler for the first time. 

When the doctor gently inquired about whether or not my partner and I were hoping for a baby, I tried to be honest. It seemed like a trait any good mother should have. "It wasn't exactly planned… and no, we aren't married," I said. But then she looked me right in the eye with a wide grin. "But you're happy, yes?" she insisted more than asked. I nodded along, unsure of my own truth. Of course I would tell people I was happy if they asked, but I was wary of so many things, happiness included, and I hadn't even begun to perceive the reality of what it took to be a parent. 

I was supposed to be wiser than the girls of 16 and Pregnant. I was in my early twenties, after all. I'd gone to college. But that just meant I'd spent four years skating by in classes and perfecting my beer pong stance. I didn't have a vision for my life or even a savings account. I was still on my parents' health insurance plan. Biologically, my body may have been primed for reproduction but I wasn't. As my belly began to bulge with life, I felt more and more like an imposter. 

No one in my social circle was even toying with the idea of having babies. If I hadn't gotten pregnant by accident, chances are it would've been a decade before I considered it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of a first birth among US women ages 35-39 rose by as much as 40 percent from 2000 to 2012. Last year, half a million US women in that age bracket gave birth. Having a baby later was no longer considered risky—in fact, most women around me considered it smart to take more time to plan their future. 

Hans-Peter Kohler, a professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania, says this cultural shift is happening across high-income countries due to increased education, higher female labor force participation and the decline of the traditional husband-as-breadwinner model. Delayed motherhood is even more common in Europe than in the US, where the average age of first birth is approaching 30 in some countries, he says. The state of the housing market could also be a potential cause, Kohler believes. 

Waiting to have kids can be especially financially advantageous now more than ever because finding a well-paying job isn't a given. Even those who earned a college degree may still have difficulty finding employment that pays enough to make ends meet. Today's 20-somethings change jobs more often than their parents' generation, too. But even those on a set career path don't often fall right into it right after college. Taking on internships or low-paying jobs to first gain experiences before coming into a higher paying positions down the road is often a necessity. 

Over the next eight months, I began to understand the physical and emotional toll of motherhood. The worst nausea of my life hit me like an unstoppable force that no home remedy could cure or even ease. I fell into an anti-social, self-loathing cocoon. Pregnancy, as far as I had ever imagined, wasn't supposed to be this way—torturous and isolating. 

My miserable state felt like a warning that I wasn't ready for motherhood and all the discomforts and shifts it brings. Older mothers assured me it was a joy unlike any I'd ever know, that it was worth the pain and suffering and sacrifice. I was desperate to believe it. So I imagined it to be some kind of mystical journey, or perhaps a heavenly bubble that would shield me from future discontentment. I told myself it must be if it was worth the hell I was going through to get there. 

But once my baby girl came roaring into my life, I still wasn't convinced. I learned that people are rarely downright honest about motherhood, and now I knew why. In fact, the idea that I should be overflowing with joy felt like the biggest white lie I'd ever been told. I loved my baby fiercely, but it seemed like I was the one mother in the world who was unsure of motherhood as a lifestyle. As a new parent, and one without community, I felt suffocated by my relentless duties. Waking constantly in the night to nurse my baby left me in a fog every day, with unfinished tasks that piled up like the stack of unwashed clothes that continuously took up residence in the hallway outside our bedroom.

I stayed home every day to be with my baby, then worked nights and weekends to supplement my partner's income. I had no time to myself. I rarely saw friends anymore and if I did, I felt I could no longer relate to them. Kohler says that many women crave a connection to peers who are also in the "new mom" phase of life, like I experienced in early motherhood. This sometimes encourages women to wait, he says.

I battled against my own forced transition into motherhood. I yearned for life to slow down and at the same time, for the hours to tick by faster, the seasons to change. I imagined what it would be like to have my old life back—my partial adulthood filled with Camel Lights, late nights, lazy Saturdays, and more importantly, the excitement of not knowing what my future held. When I laid my head down to rest each night, my heartbeat felt out of sync—anxiety had overtaken me and my body was wearing its manifestations, palpitations and knots in my shoulders, like accessories. The harder I fought against it, the more motherhood seemed to close in on me. It refused to let me off easy. And there came a point when I knew I had a choice: To keep getting dragged along, grieving what I'd lost, or let it break me down and reshape me with every crashing wave.

Regardless of age or experience, there is a conscious choice to be remade. This happens somewhere between the early days of postpartum, when you're leaking breastmilk down your ribs, and the first time you raise your voice and break your child's spirit just a tiny bit (and then hate yourself for it). No matter how you came into motherhood, unprepared, or drunk, or naive, you're all in. Perhaps that metamorphosis isn't overt for everyone. But for me, it was like learning to stand up tall with a boulder on my back, and start walking. 

Eight years later, you could never convince me that parenthood isn't worth every minute of pain, or anger, or guilt I've felt as a result of having children who challenged me and forced me to be better. It taught me grit—how to pick myself up when I failed, to love harder and be a version of myself I hadn't ever imagined wanting to be. 

When I talk to fellow mothers, most of whom became mothers much later than me, they express that parenthood is so "worth it." I nod in solidarity. I agree with them without a shadow of a doubt that it is. But I often find myself silently wondering at them: Did you want to change? Because the unfolding I experienced, when thrown into this incredible task, didn't happen readily, or overnight. There is seldom a day that I don't feel it happening still. But motherhood has a way of breaking us apart and putting us back together, stronger and more capable—even if we weren't ready to be changed.