When I became pregnant at 15, it was very clear from that moment on people were going to treat me differently. I got very little support and respect because most people believed the stereotype that all teenage mothers are failures and will never amount to much.
The huge focus on preventing teenage pregnancy has turned teen moms into cautionary tales and scapegoats when in reality we are women and mothers who need support and encouragement. We are often spoken about and condescended to, but we are rarely given the chance to speak for ourselves.
So I spoke with American and British women who had children in their teenage years, and here’s what they want you to know:
What is the biggest misconception about teenage parents?
"One of the most common misconceptions is that teen parents are irresponsible. We are very responsible. We often have jobs, we might be going to school, and we're taking care of our children all while dealing with daycare."
– Kenya Golden, 26, a Florida mom of a 7-year-old
"That we don't know how to care for the baby and that we are just babies ourselves."
– Krystal Cisneros, 22, a mom of four who lives in Orlando, Florida, and became a mother at 17
What do you wish society understood about teen parenting?
"Teen parents want to be acknowledged as contributing members of society, not as society's ailment. Not only are we leaders, activists, business owners, educators and so much more, but we are also raising intelligent and curious children who go on to do great things!"
– Mariely Moronta-Santos, 27, a mom of three who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and became a mother at 16
"I wish society would look at us as mothers."
– Caitlin Shay, 26, mother of two who lives in Apopka, Florida, and became a mother at 17
Are you different than mothers who have children later in life?
"I had kids in my teens, 20s, and 30s and can tell you there's NO magic time in your life when you suddenly 'get' parenting. It's a seat-of-your-pants ride, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar."
– Lucy V. Hay, 34, mother of three in Devon, UK
"Teen mothers and adult mothers have the same anxiety and nervousness all mothers do."
– Krystal Cisneros
What do people say to you that you wish they didn't?
"You're too young to have a baby. You should get an abortion or give it up for adoption."
– Caitlin Shay
"Condescending comments like, 'It's not as fun as it looked, huh?' Or 'I bet you wish you hadn't done this.' That didn't help or empower me to be a better woman or mother. It just made me feel insecure and lonely." – Yumi, 23, mom of a 5-year-old in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
What do you wish people would say to you?
"Don't give up. You're doing fine. To know you have someone in your corner and that they are supportive of you." – Kenya Golden
"As a pregnant teen, I wish I had more people say, 'Teen pregnancy is NOT the end of the world. There is life, happiness, love, and success after becoming a teenage mother.'" – Yumi
What do you think society can do to help teen mothers?
"Stop shaming us. All the blame is on [women]. Shaming us does not help anybody. It makes us more depressed and makes us less likely to talk to people about how we feel." – Kenya Golden
"Stop doubting them. Help them instead of bashing them. We just need a support system."
– Krystal Cisneros
What would a support system for teen moms look like?
"Support comes in all forms: nonjudgment and empathy from teachers and caretakers. Babysitting and encouragement is a form of support."
– Yasmine McMorrin, 26, mother of a 7-year-old daughter in New Jersey
"I would like to see more support within the community of teen moms – groups for teen moms so you know you're not alone and don't feel weird about your parenthood." – Kenya Golden
"Access to quality affordable housing. This means homeless shelters need to be high quality and accessible to teen parents. It also means ending the practice of age discrimination in the housing market and, finally, this means our city setting funding aside for teen parents who are in school or on their way. Teen parents also want access to higher education. We need institutions to create spaces for us to access tutoring and childcare without judgment." – Mariely Moronta-Santos
What do families of pregnant or parenting teens need to know?
"Don't wait to show us love until our kids are born. [We] need love now." – Kenya Golden
"We are proud. Proud of our children, proud of our motherhood, and proud of our ability to turn something society deems a tragedy into our own personal triumph."
– Christina Martinez, 35, a California mother of four
What do you want to tell other teen moms?
"You got this! Don't listen to naysayers. Respect your kids as human beings too." – Kenya Golden
"You're going to feel pressured to be the super mom and do everything 'the best' to prove to people you can do it all. But you can be yourself and be wonderful too."
– Charlie, 27, a Minnesota mom of a 10-year-old
"For a long time, I thought because I was having a baby young I wasn't going to be able to do anything that my peers would. That was [and still is untrue]. With hard work, planning, support, and a great schedule, you can do and achieve all the same things as your peers."
– Danetta Mahoney, 25, mother of two children in Mount Dora, Florida
"Patience is key when things get tough. Take a deep breath and look at your child. Realize you are everything to that child and you mean something.”
– Victoria Porto, 24, mother of a 5-year-old and a 9-month-old in Orlando, Florida
"The [shaming and stigmatizing] anti-teen pregnancy campaigns will make you feel like you need to not be happy and hide the joy you feel as a teen mom. You don't have to do that. Your story is your story, and it's ok to be proud of your story and the decisions you've made. You don't have to apologize." – Charlie
"Be selfish. Make sure you are getting what you need, not only to survive but also to thrive. Don't be ashamed to ask for help. Take care of yourself. If you are happy and healthy, you will be a better mom. I was so consumed with surviving that I neglected my mental health and well-being.”
– Ylla Palenque, 43, mother of two children who lives in Orlando Florida, and became a mother at 19
"Being a mom is such a transformative experience. With support, you're going to figure it out, and you're going to thrive. You are not a cautionary tale. You are the head of a beautiful family." – Charlie
Do you regret your choice to become a parent?
"Having Cae is one of the best decisions of my life. He is the reason I'm in med school today."
"I love having [my daughter] Madi along as my teammate because she is literally seeing me make and reach my goals big and small!" –Yasmine McMorrin
"I can do all the things people said I would never be able to do, and I get to do it all with my son by my side. I have no regrets." –Yumi
Note: some mothers in this story asked that we only share their first names.
The photo featured with this piece is a part of the Young Motherhood project which addresses the myths and misconceptions projected on young parents women through portraits and interviews with women who chose to become mothers at time when society at large believes they shouldn't. You can follow the project on Twitter @YMotherhood_UK.