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Why the stigma around young parenthood is on the rise

The average age of first-time moms is now 26.

Why the stigma around young parenthood is on the rise

There's been a notable shift in lamaze classes, playgroups and preschool orientations: Moms who had a child before 25 are in the minority for the first time.


According to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth rates fell by 4% among women in their 20s during 2017. During the same period, only women in their 40s saw a rise in birth rates. As a result, the average age of first-time mothers is now older than 26, which is up from 24 in 2000 and way up from 21 in 1970.

This is largely credited to the options women have in planning their families—whether through birth control when they aren't ready for children or through fertility assistance options that give them more confidence in waiting.

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But as some women who had children earlier than average tell Motherly, the flipside seems to be a stigma against younger moms, even if the women themselves felt prepared for motherhood. "The most hurtful stereotype I endured was the assumption that young mothers are uneducated and live unstable, directionless lives," says QuaVaundra Perry, who had her first child during her junior year of college. "Nothing was further from the truth."

'People make assumptions about me'

Perhaps contributing to the stigma against young mothers is the fact that the rate of unmarried, first-time parents stood at 39% in 2016, according to the CDC—and many people automatically associate young parents with unmarried parents. "If 30 is the new 20, today's unmarried 20-somethings are the new teen moms," asserted the authors of the Knot Yet report in a 2013 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. "And the tragic consequences are much the same: Children raised in homes that often put them at enormous disadvantage from the start of life."

But children born to young mothers aren't necessarily born into single-parent or disadvantaged households. In fact, CDC data shows fewer women under the age of 35 are having non-marital births than in years past while non-marital birth rates are at an all-time high for women aged 35 and older.

Either way, the relationship status of a mother, regardless of her age, should not be a concern to others. Yet probing questions are just one way in which there seems to be less respect shown toward younger mothers.

"I can remember being asked some of the craziest things, like, 'Did you plan that? Are you still with his dad?'" says Sara Goldstein, who had her first child at 23. "Things that none of my older friends with kids were ever asked."

Of course, getting unsolicited advice is a nearly universal experience for expectant or new mothers, regardless of their age. But among young mothers, there seems to be even less of a filter. "I've gotten every rude question from being outright asked if we had a shotgun wedding, if my boys were planned, if I wanted to be a mom so young, if I wish we'd waited," says Morgan Wieboldt, who had her first child shortly after graduating from college and getting married. "People make assumptions about me that I don't believe they wouldn't make with an older mom. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if I was their nanny."

The positives get lost in the conversation

With so much focus on the perceived shortfalls of young motherhood, there isn't enough attention paid to the benefits that many parents say they experienced by having babies earlier than average.

"I often received unwarranted advice about raising my son or underhanded compliments like, 'Oh, you're a good mom compared to most moms your age,'" says Perry, who obtained a doctorate degree and established a successful counseling practice after having her son during college.

Despite what people seemed to think, Perry says this is largely because of her son. "Becoming a parent was the most precious gift ever," she tells Motherly. "Being a mother provided me with increased motivation to not only achieve, but to excel academically and occupationally."

Wiebolt also says young motherhood has positively shaped the way she parents and prioritizes. "I think that in some ways, not having it all together really forced me to be a better mom," she says. "We value family time and making memories over getting our kids 'all the things.'"

As the first of her friends to become a mother, Wiebolt says the experience led her to connect women she may otherwise not have known. By opening up in this way, there is a lot young mothers can learn from others.

But it's just as important to recognize how much there is for others to learn from young mothers, too.

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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