Motherhood was a deeply, personal choice I made at a relatively young age. I say relative, because in my previous community (a low-income, historically and generationally under resourced community) motherhood happens at 16-22. That is in opposition and not in relationship to the community I became apart of (upwardly mobile, career-centered community) where motherhood happens after 30.
But I became a bit of a hybrid of the two. An upwardly mobile, college educated, first generation middle class Black woman and what is known in those circles as a “young mother”. Not a mother by force, or curse, or terrible misfortune, or out of some undeniable need for affection, but I volunteered my life to motherhood. Not in a heroic way by no means. But as a deeply personal and private choice.
The bravado of that agency, is something that still defines me to this day. The productivity of that choice. The joy of this child. The things she says. The places we go…together. It has been the single most important decision I have ever made. For. My. Self.
And this, like many choices in my life, was no walk in the park. I almost immediately after bringing her home thought Was this the right decision? Did I stunt my own growth? Did I just volunteer my 22 year old life to become a mother? Was this the right decision? Did I learn everything I needed to learn to prepare me? Was I financially sound enough? Did I do everything BEFORE I decided to become a mom?
I doubted my own abilities guided mostly by age, much less by the possibility of my own capacity. And the things society told me through the bat signals they sent me. The women they showed me who were amazing mothers, were never young. The women who talked to me about motherhood in positive ways, were almost never working. They were almost never black. They were almost never educated. They were almost never upwardly mobile. And they were never, ever at the intersection of all of those things.
I’ve shied away from talking about motherhood for years. And have only in the past 3 years have become more and more vocal about the standards, norms, responsibilities, pains, joys, and happiness surrounding it. Most of my peers can’t, by valid choice, relate specifically to the motherhood piece of my life as young professionals choosing to make parenthood a priority of their later 30s rather than their early 20s.
And so, for many people whom I knew in the workplace, they had no idea I was a mother. I never had any pictures of my daughter on my desk. I never ran to school when she fell. I never called to say my child was sick. I never talked about family vacations with her or the things she said to me that made me laugh.
I chose only to bury myself in the work. Leaving the personal, personal.
The circles I belonged to as an adult, didn’t support 20-somethingness with responsible motherhood. Many, self-described feminists who supported choice propagated this notion, to my face, that there was only one “good” way to be a mother. Only one safe, economically feasible way to be a “good” mother. And that way was always as a woman over 30, deeply invested in long work hours with a salary that connoted a certain level of savings, married to a cisgendered educated man who also had a career that was considered noteworthy in patriarchal circles, and someone who had presumably done some traveling prior to child-rearing. And even those mothers caught shade in the workplace. But the real shade was reserved for the mothers who were young.
Those were the mothers, who in the workplace, were considered to have had a lapse in judgment. Those were the mothers for whom we kept at the lower end of the workplace hierarchy, rolling our eyes because they had to call in because their mother couldn’t babysit. Those were the mothers with whom we saw always depicted as handicapped by parenthood. Those were the mothers with whom the women bosses would say “Well, we want to be sensitive to Susie” while all the while making suggestions about Susie’s work ethic, Susie’s commitment, and Susie’s talent.
And this isn't just make believe. We know, through countless studies (including The Motherhood Penalty), that mothers under 35 are stigmatized heavily in the workplace. That young mothers also make up the bulk of the gender pay gap. That young mothers are in essence, gravely discriminated against because of peoples' bias of what they believe motherhood should look like and at what age.
Standing at the intersection of motherhood, race, class, economic mobility, and heteronormativity came to bear for me in my 20s. It showed up for me in the form of a child. It exposed for me the many contradictions we place on women’s lives, often reinforced by other women. What I want for other 20-somethings, who chose motherhood, is the freedom to not have a complete erasure of their personal life for the sake of career mobility. And though I am, and have been for a while, in a space where being a mother is safe space in the workplace, I know that it is a privileged space because of my new economic status and my “perceived” age.
I want us, as a progressive society, to get to a place in our personal discourse where there are multiple ways to enter motherhood and that, that too is worthy of celebration. I share this space, I know, with very few, given the outcomes for women who enter motherhood young. I acknowledge that there are economic barriers to freedom and liberation. But what I know for sure is that my own young motherhood has been so personally liberating. So transformative to my existence that it almost reshaped every other aspect of my life.
While I can never quite stop the awkward silence of mothers on the playground who are floored when they hear that they graduated college in 1994 and I was in the 3rd grade, what I can do is advocate for the choices of all women, regardless of age and economic standing to have the room to tell their own story of how they came to motherhood.