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When You’re Tangled in Your Safety Net

May15

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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.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “When You’re Tangled in Your Safety Net”

  1. laura g May 15 at 10:40 am Reply Reply

    Sort of off topic but, THIS: “childcare,” even full-time childcare, does not equal “raising” a child.

    TIMES ONE MILLION. Thank you, Amy. A little piece of me dies every time I hear someone say this (generally with regards to working moms)

    to the OP, best wishes. You sound like you’ve got a really strong family, but more importantly a really strong sense of who you are. Your son is a lucky kid.

  2. Jenn May 15 at 11:44 am Reply Reply

    It seems like OP is an excellent writer; she did a great job of presenting her wishes without seeming ungrateful here. How about trying to write the same letter to her parents? Letters are great for this kind of communication. She can say her peace and her parents can take time to process the message without interruption or snap reactions.

  3. MR May 15 at 11:52 am Reply Reply

    Amy, you are always so spot on, but I think this is your best response EVER.
    OP, definitely look into all your options. And then you need to address this whole “let you live your life while you are young” attitude. You sound incredibly mature and you have thought this out well. I think what you are dealing with is your family’s grief over the loss of the life they envisioned for you. But that is their issue to deal with. You can though bring this up. Start a conversation with your parents. Something along the lines of “Mom, Dad, I know that being pregnant at 17 is not what you envisioned for me, and that it must be so difficult because you had such dreams for me. But while I understand this is not how you hoped to get grandchildren, nor is this how I expected to become a mother, I am doing my best to face reality and move forward in this new role as a mother. So and so suggested I become an “aunt” and xyz raise my child instead. I am not ok with that. I understand life is going to be different and I will be missing out on a lot of things I would have been able to do otherwise. But this is my child. With your support, I know I can finish high school and go to college, all while raising my child. I know it will be difficult, but I am not afraid of hard work, and I know that with your support, I can make a good life for me and my child, and that one day you are going to look back and think, ‘it wasn’t how we wanted it to happen, but I am so proud of the woman and mother our daughter has become!'”
    Best wishes!

  4. Sarah May 15 at 11:58 am Reply Reply

    Once your child is born you should go to your local courthouse and file for child support. If your baby’s father is a minor (dependent) than in most jurisdictions whoever is his legal guardian will be obligated to cover financial support until he is independent and earning money.

    Most states will not allow you to receive state funds until you’ve demonstrated that you attempted to get support from the biological father.

    Just FYI, bringing social services into your life will subject you to additional scrutiny as well as additional support. Good luck!

    • Marissa May 19 at 7:23 pm Reply Reply

      Excellent points, all of them.

  5. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel May 15 at 12:18 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments.

    I agree that Amy’s response is amazing.

    Let me share that I was at first glance hesitant to publish a letter from a 17-year old. But then, I read her letter and realized how thoughtful it was and then Amy’s response to it was so brilliant that it needed to be published since many women could benefit from Amy’s advice and from yours, our smart and caring commenters.

    Thank you all!

    • Suzy Q May 15 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

      Thanks for publishing it, Isabel.  I agree that Amy’s response is spot-on.  The only thing left out was the father’s legal/financial responsibilities, which another commenter covered.

      I also know that if the letter writer has been reading Amy’s columns and blog for any length of time, she will glean even more support and courage from the information Amy has shared over her years of motherhood.

  6. Rachel May 15 at 1:02 pm Reply Reply

    I second the commentator who suggested writing your parents a letter explaining your thoughts. That way you can think through what to write and not get tongue tied or talked over by other relatives, and your parents/family can read and process on their time. It’s definitely important to establish the “I am the mom” boundaries NOW because it’ll just get harder after the baby’s born and as he/she grows. You sound like an incredibly mature 17 year old to tackle this on your own, without the father, and please keep us updated on how it turns out for you.

  7. Karen May 15 at 1:04 pm Reply Reply

    WIC has awesome benefits in my area. Also if you are committed to nursing your baby, then this will be a lovely “excuse” for you to be your child’s sole caregiver – especially in the first few months. Can’t recommend enough how helpful it will be if you are able to establish strong relationships with older women as mentors. All women benefit from this, not just moms, young moms, etc. Your aunt is a good start, but also a trusted teacher or neighbor too. Someone who is outside of your friend circle who is unlikely to be socializing with your family. These women will be invaluable as you grow as an adult and as a new mom. Good luck!

  8. Jeannie May 15 at 1:40 pm Reply Reply

    My circumstances are very different from the OP, so take what I say with that in mind. I did make some parenting choices that my parents and sister thought were CRAZY (nothing weird — co-sleeping was the most “out there”) and the things that helped me most were:

    1 reading about it. That way, when someone said “why are you / why don’t you …” I had a good, well reasoned answer. (Because as much as I would like otherwise, no one accepts “because I want to” from a hormonal woman.) The more I was able to say “well, actually, according to this article …” And quoting reasonable sources, the more they backed off.

    2 doing it, living it, and having things be ok. Once I made it clear I was making my own decisions, based on facts I had researched and clearly thought through, people did back off. And when my kids (shocker!) became normal humans without psychological issues, the issue was dropped. (Case in point: no comments were made when I didn’t bother with even a bassinet with my second.)

    Best of luck — you sound like you’re already on a great start based on your letter. 

    • Lotus May 15 at 6:08 pm Reply Reply

      I totally agree about reading about it!! I think that will absolutely help when you want to assert an opinion that differs from your family’s. Also, when your family sees you reading parenting books while still pregnant, it might help them to “get it” that you, in fact, intend to be your son’s actual parent!

  9. Sassy Apple May 15 at 1:42 pm Reply Reply

    Maturity does not have a chronological age attached to it, and this mother-to-be proves it. Sounds like you’re going to be a great mom.

    Amy, your response was thoughtful and a magnificent piece of writing. So many lives will be impacted by your words. Well done!

  10. SarahB May 15 at 4:19 pm Reply Reply

    I’d like to second that your local WIC office would be a great place to start with social services.  Since their sole focus is on pregnant and new moms, they should also know about where you might get second-hand baby items, what other programs you might qualify for like SNAP (food stamps), how to use Head Start preschool down the road, etc.

    Best of luck to you!

  11. Leslie May 15 at 5:47 pm Reply Reply

    One suggestion I would add–find a new moms’ support group. Many hospitals sponsor them, and they can be a great way to find a network of women who are going through the process of adjusting to motherhood. I found the first months of motherhood overwhelming and a little isolating. I would have had a much MUCH harder time without the mama friends I met through an area new moms’ group. Build a circle for yourself outside if your family so that you have a safe place to talk about the ups and downs of parenthood. Some times you just want to vent, or laugh, or cry with friends without looking like you are asking for help, you know? If you are having trouble finding a group, ask your OB.

  12. Christina May 15 at 6:00 pm Reply Reply

    As a person nearly twice the OP’s age who is 33 weeks pregnant let me just say that I could not be more impressed. I mean I am struggling with these questions myself and she appears to have more poise than I do where this is concerned. My reaction to boundary setting challenges has been relatively screechy in comparison.

    I hope someday our kids are friends because I suspect my kid and I could learn a lot from her!

  13. Lauren May 15 at 6:43 pm Reply Reply

    I think you will find that once the baby is born you will have a whole different sense of boundaries and you will be able to tap into some magic mom strength that will help you enforce those boundaries.  I think that at any age pregnancy is filled with fear and doubt and there is a temptation to say “I don’t know what I’m doing and all these other people know that so I’ll just do what they say” but once you give birth and hold your little baby, (at least in my experience) all those cloudy thoughts disappear and you just KNOW what needs to happen.  Your inner mama bear comes out, and if someone crosses a line, you’ll know it.  Honestly, the same may be true of your family: they may have fears and doubts that can be eased by you being the amazing mom you are clearly cut out to be.  I think if you act and feel and think like the one and only mom, they will treat you like the one and only mom.

  14. Lerin May 15 at 11:51 pm Reply Reply

    I was in your shoes once. I now have an eight year old son and almost two year old daughter. I also have a wonderful husband, bachelors degree, part time RN job, own a house and 2 cars. I’m still friends with many girls I went to highschool with and had kids young and I am literally the only one with a college degree and decent job. My advice is accept help but definitly set bounderies. It seems like a far way off right now, but before you know it you’ll be ready financially and emotionally to be on your own and raise your son the way you want. I set bounderies as best I could, but my mom still spoiled the hell out of my son and it wasnt till I moved out when I was 20 that his behavior improved and we were both happy. And he doesnt even remember those years. Now he and my mom have a normal grandma grandchild relationship. Looking back, my moms support, though annoying at times, was THE BEST thing she could have done for me. She gave me the opportunity to finish high school early and go to college and raise my son without the added burden of doing it on my own with a full time job. I wouldnt have done it on my own with a full time job. I still thank her for the opportunities she gave me. She didnt allow me to be a normal teenager while she watches my kid (nor did I want that), but she supported me in raising my son and going to school so that I wouldn’t have to be dependent on ANYONE. Good luck! Your son will always know who his momma is, you just need to concentrate on the long run and get through the next few years sane.

  15. Lisa McP May 16 at 12:12 am Reply Reply

    GREAT advice, and other commenters have also given great advice. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned though:

    The first couple weeks with a newborn, your first especially, is like living in a black hole. Time flies and you won’t know where the day went. I don’t think I could’ve done it on my own, purely logistics-wise, as in food shopping, meal preparations, all the care for the baby, laundry, dishes, emptying the dirty diaper pail, washing breast pump pieces– so although you are asserting your God given right to be your child’s mumma, I do think you’ll need someone to help the first few weeks. Maybe just your Mum. Or just that one single Aunt. It is exhausting, and emotional, and even if your labor and delivery goes perfectly, your body will still be in recovery mode for awhile. 
    Best wishes, I can already tell you’re going to be a great Mum!

  16. Melissa May 16 at 12:39 am Reply Reply

    I just want to tell you that you are going to be an amazing mother. Absolutely wonderful and beautiful and a great mom. Perfect mom? Nope. Great mom? Definitely. This little one is already lucky.

    I got pregnant at 17. That son is now 18 years old. We’ve done well. From this letter, I know you will too!

  17. Anonymous concerned May 16 at 7:36 am Reply Reply

    Oh honey.

    You mention the dad being out of the picture. You write a letter that I could have written when I was 21 and pregnant with my first baby. Let me tell you a little something I wish I’d known back then—-

    My son is the product of incest, incest that had started with child molestation so many years earlier that I had long since been blocking it out as soon as it happened.

    There is a clear line in my head now between those who genuinely wanted to help me, and those who just wanted to cover up a crime— and it was whether they told me to file for child support from the man I assumed was the father, my boyfriend at the time of conception. Anybody who encourages you not to file—– don’t listen, don’t listen, don’t listen. You have nothing to lose by filing.

    My (close knit, ‘supportive’) family convinced me not to file. Now, ten years later, as the memories resurface and I know the truth, it is likely too late for me to get justice for me and my precious son. Justice that could very easily have started with a standard paternity test revealing that my boyfriend wasn’t the father.

    You can do this, you are strong and awesome, and please file for the support that is your legal right.

  18. autumn May 16 at 11:21 pm Reply Reply

    To the OP :  You will be a great mom!  How can we tell?  The thoughtful way you posed your questions, and that you care enough to write to an (awesome) internet person to help you thorough this.  Your letter was very well thought through and well phrased; your learning and intelligence shows.  College and a great career should be in your future, just taking the long way with baby along.

    The only other suggestion I would add is looking into a doula for labor support.  I’m guessing you want Somebody with you in the hospital, but family is a tough choice.  A doula is basically a professional labor support person.  No medical advice (that’s what the nurses are for) but they help with emotional support, trying new positions, a calming presence etc.  As I’m guessing funding might be limited, you could look into to finding a student doula.  They need to be involved in so many births before they can be certified.  not affiliated with but dona.org  Our doula was a wonderful calming presence in the storm that is birthing. Won’t have another kid without her

  19. Kimber May 18 at 6:17 pm Reply Reply

    Check and see if there is an Early Head Start program in your area. EHS is a great program for young mothers going to school, working or both. Not only would it be free childcare, but the staff should provide you support in locating other resources and overall “you’ve got this” support for those times when you need someone else on your side, whether it’s your family being overwhelmingly helpful or things are just stressful.  They also have a prenatal program that can help you now, before the baby even arrives. Lots of positive thoughts headed your way!

  20. Meg May 27 at 1:05 pm Reply Reply

    This is your best response ever. I REQUEST A FOLLOW UP! (After baby comes of course.)

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