When You’re Tangled in Your Safety Net
I’m 17 and pregnant. My family is wonderfully helpful…to the point that I’m afraid I won’t be allowed to raise my own baby! How can I ask them to back off without alienating my support system?
So first let me say that your blog has been absolutely wonderful and instrumental in my pregnancy so far, and I honestly don’t know what I would do without it. But I’m currently having a dilemma, and I just don’t know how to go about solving it.
I’m seventeen and pregnant, still in high school, and the father isn’t in the picture at all. I know I hurt my family deeply by getting pregnant, and I do regret the circumstances, but I love them dearly for how supportive they’ve been. But the thing is, I have a very large, close knit, tactile family. And I think I’m being fairly realistic about the whole situation, because I know I will most definitely look towards my family for help at certain points, but…I also want to raise my baby. I’m not demanding total independence, nor am I expecting my parents to do all the work. But I would like to be a mother to my child, despite my age, and my family is under the assumption that raising my baby is going to be a rather communal effort, and to be honest, the idea is not appealing in the slightest.
I’m sure I sound like a spoiled brat when I write it out, but I really don’t want my family raising my child. I love their support, and I love that they have really made conscious efforts to help me, but they’re already making plans for as soon as my baby is born, and quite literally plucking him or her out of my hands and taking care of him themselves. One of my relatives even suggested me being an ‘aunt’ to my baby so I could go off to college and still ‘enjoy life while I’m young’. And while I’m appreciative of her desire for my happiness, the idea was downright offensive, even though I did my best not to react.
Thankfully I do have one aunt, a single mom, who completely understands me, and offered to let me stay with her the first week my baby is born, without any other immediate family or relatives, and I have to say the offer is tempting. I want to be a mother, but I know I can’t do it without my family’s guidance and wisdom. I’m grateful for their support, but how do I ask them to back off without hurting their feelings, especially after I’ve put them in this position?
For the record, I don’t think you sound like a spoiled brat at all. Not even a tiny bit. I can’t tell you the number of letters I’ve gotten over the years from fully grown-up married ladies who are struggling to build up some boundaries between their parenting and some judgey/controlling/overstepping relative. And while you are very wise to understand how fortunate you are to have your family’s help and support, you are also very wise to recognize that there might be some not-so-awesome strings attached. (There’s no such thing as a free lunch OR free babysitting, etc.) And while you don’t necessarily want to cut those strings away completely and risk alienating your support system, you’re not being unreasonable at all to want to RAISE YOUR OWN CHILD.
First of all, let’s remember that “childcare,” even full-time childcare, does not equal “raising” a child. This is one of those things working (or full-time student) moms hear all the time and it’s just not true. “Oh, daycare! Why even have a baby just to let strangers raise it!” Blahhhhhh shut up. YOU will be your baby’s mother, have no fear. YOU will have a bond and a sphere of influence that will naturally go beyond anything even the nosiest, most take-over-y relative will ever experience. You will always be the mama. Trust me. Babies know.
But that vague mushy emotional stuff probably isn’t going to be enough, at least in a family where someone would cluelessly suggest that a young mother masquerade as her own baby’s “aunt.” (SO OFFENSIVE OMG.)
So here’s some things I think you should do:
1) Research any and all forms of public assistance you and your baby could qualify for. Talk to your guidance counselor at school and look into programs and grants for food, housing, educational or childcare grants, scholarships, etc. I know you’re not looking for total independence, but it certainly won’t hurt to be able to exercise SOME autonomy and be aware of options that exist OUTSIDE your family’s sphere of control. Don’t let your family (or anyone) “shame” you over accepting government help. “You don’t need that, you have us!” “Well, now I have both, and my baby and I deserve to have every opportunity and safety net possible to get us through the next few years.”
2) Talk to your OB/GYN or midwife (alone!) about a birth plan. Share your fears about family members grabbing the baby away from you and refusing to recognize you as the mother, rather than just a kid who is giving birth to the family’s next group project. Those fears should also be communicated to your nurses when you are in labor — don’t hesitate to insist on a private convo where you make it clear that the baby is to be given to YOU, and only you, and is not to be taken away by anyone, and that you want to spend as much time holding/nursing/bonding as possible. You can also tour the hospital or birthing center ahead of time and get your wishes in writing then as well. Do not feel guilty or pressured into turning your birthing suite into a family block party. The mother-to-be is in charge, whether she’s 17 or 37. People can sit in the waiting room and come see you when YOU are ready. Your nurses can also work as crowd control in your room after the birth.
3) Your single-mother aunt sounds like a wonderful oasis in a sea of grabby-clueless-types, and I’d encourage you to lean on her for emotional support as much as possible. Maybe even get her to run interference for you when other family members overstep. Her offer to let you stay there is definitely a thoughtful one, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you took her up on it. Especially if she is okay playing guard dog for you and keeping other relatives at bay for awhile. If you DON’T stay with her, however, I’d suggest getting a lock installed on your door, wherever you end up staying. Install a lock and use it, so you can have privacy to nurse, rest, study, whatever. Get a bassinet or bedside co-sleeper and make it clear that the baby will be staying with you during the night at first, for as long as you want. (If that’s what you want, of course!) If you get crazy overtired and need a break, you know where to find another set of arms to pass the baby to. But it’s going to happen on your terms.
Number two and three are really only going to address your short-term fears, though I hope that if you exert your place as The Mother from the start and set the rules that you will ASK for help when you NEED it, people might follow those rules and drop the whole communal child-raising approach that demotes your role and wishes. I want you to do number one in case they don’t, frankly. Staying with your aunt might give you a temporary respite from your extended family, but if all your worst fears come true and your family refuses to respect your boundaries, I want you to have a path to eventual independence in place.
But really, your family’s guidance and support CAN be part of that path. That should be the common goal here: To help you juggle motherhood and school and college and work so you can one day stand on your own two feet and support yourself and your child. Motherhood IS hard. Being single and 17 obviously doesn’t make it any easier. It could be that everybody is just coming on super-strong with their own post-baby plans because they THINK it’s what you want to hear: They want to assure you that you are loved and will be taken care of and that you aren’t going to miss out on anything in life, even though “this” happened. They don’t understand yet that you aren’t some stereotypical disinterested teen-in-trouble; you’re a mature and well-spoken young woman who wants to be a good mom. And to be a good daughter/niece/cousin/etc. I really have no doubt that you are all of the above.
Your letter has a lot of “how can I ask for this [completely reasonable, understandable] thing, even though I did this [other, not-so-perfect] thing?” Try to remove your guilt from the situation. (I know, I know, easier said than done.) You got pregnant. It happens. Sure, your family doesn’t “owe” you their emotional or financial support — they are offering it because they love you, even if they can be a little ham-fisted about it. Likewise, you don’t “owe” them access to or control over your child just because you’re 17 and the circumstances are less than ideal. You can accept their support because you love your baby more than your own pride, and hopefully because you love them too and can see all the positives that can come of your family’s involvement.
Once your family sees you actually take to motherhood in a real, hands-on way and display confidence in your instincts (BECAUSE YOU DO HAVE THEM; don’t let anyone suggest otherwise)…they might back off. They might rally around you in a truly supportive way without demanding control over your baby’s name, diet, sleep schedule, religion, school, etc. It takes a village, yes. Please don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help or support if you need it. You can be accepting and grateful for all their help without ceding your place as the village Grand Kahuna Mama Bear.
The best of luck to you, and I hope you’ll send us an update on your story someday.