My mother and I are twins, in the fraternal sense. Ignoring the impossibility of the premise, one out of two strangers assume us to be siblings. When she’d come to pick me up early from school for an appointment or spontaneous thrifting trip, the administrator would say, “Oh I’m sorry, we need a parent to sign her out,” to which my mom would initiate her thoroughly rehearsed compliment-acceptance speech, “Well, I know I look good, but I’m actually her mom (insert fake laugh).” The ensuing scene of shock and awe at my mother’s youthful skin and the accompanying inflation of her head would then invoke my most supreme eye-roll as a knee-jerk response.
In hindsight, this was the least of my concerns for having a teenage mother, but for a shallow middle schooler who just wanted a “normal” mother, it was a horrendous affair. I had always known my mother was younger than most, but I didn’t understand how that manifested until I reached high school, and her physical youthfulness bled into her parenting style. She talked openly about sex, drugs, and other vices teens find intriguing. Not in the frame of “the birds and bees” or “drugs kill,” but like a hippie parent (or “realist,” as she says) urging me to come to her with questions and advice. It was never “Don’t do those things,” but always “Please tell me when you do.” Her relatable parenting came from a place of love, but its latent effect was an exercise in reverse psychology. Underage drinking and parked-car hookups lose their allure when they can’t be used to stick it to the man.
Many didn’t agree with my mother’s strategy, but she decided early on that she knew best. Like most teen moms, her first-born was unexpected. She left her California hometown for college in Virginia, happily putting thousands of miles between her and her own teen mom. Some odd years later, she returned home with her luggage and a live, crying carry-on tacked on to her hip. If anyone knew what teens would get into during their formative years, it was my mother. She had gotten into all of it, and while of course her unexpected daughter was “a gift, not a mistake,” she’d still see it as a failure if I followed in her footsteps.
All I remember is being raised by the young mom who stepped up when needed, placing her growth on the back burner to foster mine.
No matter how euphemistically she likes to put it, I was in fact the result of a mistake. There’s a genre of reality shows led by the likes of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom designed to explore (and wildly dramatize) how my mother and others reckon with this. But in watching the screaming matches between grandmother and mother or dead-beat boyfriend and ashamed father, I struggled to recognize my own upbringing. While I’m certain those arguments did indeed happen, they were well hidden from me. All I remember is being raised by the young mom who stepped up when needed, placing her growth on the back burner to foster mine.
Until my stepfather came around when I was 5 and we were joined by my brother two years later, it was just my mom and me. We were two kids growing alongside each other, me muddling through times tables while she labored over college courses and office politics. I was a precocious child, and unfortunately for my mother, my wit and recognition of her juvenility had me convinced that I lived on the precipice of sovereignty, just one argument away from shifting the authoritative scales in my favor. Though we weren’t ones to play music in the house, our constant power struggle emanated a lingering air of jazz, the two of us spastically shifting and reinventing our roles in response to the other’s attempt at the same.
I waved the white flag as the majority of my life shifted outside of my mother’s domain, and slowly settled into a life that didn’t hinge on her approval. But as I’ve come into my own, we’ve grown exponentially closer, comfortable enough to gossip about family members or the failings of men. I once despised being mistaken for siblings, but now that term seems to best summarize our relationship. It’s as though the older I’ve become, the closer we’ve grown in age, reaching the point where I feel (and still look) only a few years younger.
Presently, I am 20 years old, and alongside the end of my teen years came the death of my favorite running joke. My mother had me when she was 19, and I’d always believed my grandmother had my mother at 19 as well (I’ve since been corrected that my grandmother was 18). To amuse myself at the expense of my mother’s sanity, I swore that it was my duty to honor the family tradition. Whenever my mother opposed my proclamation, I reminded her of how much of a gift I was, and how I would be delighted to experience that same gift myself. The discussion usually ended with me taunting her to admit I was a mistake, which she never did.
I laughed about it for years, but now that I’ve passed up my window of opportunity, I’m unexpectedly disappointed that my children will miss out on being raised by a teen. My children will be raised by adults, and though they’ll gain a stability and maturity I wasn’t offered, they’ll also miss out on the things I treasure most from my childhood. During a casual conversation with another daughter of a teenager, we laughed over how hectic and comical our childhoods were, exchanging stories of our mothers divulging too much of their sex lives or offering us drinks just a little too early. If I do things how I planned, my children won’t have these taboo stories of their parents to share at parties. They won’t be asked to make dentist appointments before learning about insurance or encouraged to illegally watch three movies for the price of one. Surmise it to say, they won’t grow up like I did. Even if I didn’t grow up “correctly” by some standards, I grew up memorably, and I’m better for it.
Image Source: Kennedy Hill