My mom found out she was pregnant with me at 21 years old and gave birth to me at 22; when I asked her about the experience, my mother candidly informed me that when she found out, she wasn’t exactly thrilled. She recalled:
“I was devastated. I was scared –scratch that – terrified, and felt completely unprepared. I wasn’t even finished with school. What would my parents say? What would people think? What could I possibly provide or offer this kid?”
13 months later, my brother came along. And three years after that, she had my youngest brother. At 26 years old, she had three babies under the age of four. To this day, I really don’t know how she did it; I’m currently 22 myself, and I could not imagine having a child right now, but I do know that community was essential to her journey as a young mom.
Along the same vein, my family friend Malloree has recently welcomed a child into the world at 17 years old. When I asked her about the thoughts and feelings she had when she found out she was pregnant, I received a very similar response to the one my mother gave. She noted:
“When I first found out, I instantly thought: I can’t do this, my life is over [and it’s] going to change forever. I was most concerned about telling my parents. [I was worried about] how they would react and how everyone around me would react, especially at school because I still had 7 months [until] I graduated.”
It goes without saying that regardless of age, no mother should ever feel like they are unsupported. Motherhood is difficult enough as is, and people in one’s community should be flocking to aid mothers, particularly young mothers. For young moms, the risks surrounding mother and child welfare are much higher: adolescent pregnancy specifically has been associated with an increase in maternal and child health issues, greater risk of domestic abuse and child neglect, increased risk of poverty, as well as inadequate family support. Not only is community support significantly important for young moms because of the risks that come with young parenthood, but also because the benefits are largely impactful and can truly make a difference.
Having a stronger community can improve a mother’s stress levels and a child’s overall development. Parental stress tends to be higher amongst young mothers due to common factors such as balancing school and work, as well as affordability of childcare. Additionally, if stress isn’t handled in a healthy way, it can lead to negative bodily symptoms, such as muscle pain, fatigue, tension, and anxiety. These symptoms have been shown to lead to restlessness, angry outbursts, anxiety, and over or under-eating. Studies have found that mothers surrounded by community often have reduced levels of stress and an improved outlook on parenting. Lower stress in moms allows them to better understand infant cues, and allows for strong infant attachment early on. With young moms being more susceptible to high stress levels, surrounding them with a supportive community that aids in reducing their high levels of stress by being present and helping out when they are able can positively impact the parenting of the mom and therefore improve a child’s overall development. Let’s call that a win-win!
Social support can decrease mental health issues amongst mothers. Social support for moms has been said to reduce depression and anxiety because social support provides a buffer for stressors. With young moms having shown an increased association with mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, and post traumatic stress, social support is especially important in order to reduce the probability of such issues occurring. Providing social support can be done in a variety of ways, but the best way is providing “functional support”, which can be offered through knowledge and guidance, encouragement, acts of service, and companionship with those around you. Some examples include giving advice, doing laundry, or going out for dinner to give mom a break. Providing functional support is important especially now because according to a study, 25% of women under the age of 24 in the 2010s generation are reporting anxiety and depression, in comparison to their mothers in the 1990s who reported at 17%. This indicates that the mental health of mothers is declining over time, and with young mothers being more inclined to have mental health issues, it is crucial to provide them with social support.
Then, the question comes down to this: “how can I support the young mother in my life?” There are a couple of ways, which apply to mothers of any age but are especially beneficial to young mothers.
Listen and love without judgment. The negative stigma surrounding young motherhood is very much prevalent, especially because the definition of “young” has changed over time. In the current climate, people are becoming mothers later in life. The median age at which women become mothers is now 26 in comparison to 23 in 1994! On top of that, many teen moms are often characterized as “unmotivated, irresponsible, and incompetent,” which can lead to damaging social, mental, behavioral and medical effects. With this in mind, one of the best things you can do to provide support for the young mom in your life? Listen and love without judgment. The more you are able to lend a non-critical ear or hand, the better things can be. Malloree says that her mother saying that she loved her really made her feel supported: “She just kept telling me she loved me and we [would] get through it. She was pretty much the only supportive person in the beginning.”
Help out with food. Making time to cook nutritious meals during the early postpartum period can be quite challenging. Moreover, most meals that are on the healthier side (and are recommended for postpartum) take longer to prepare in comparison to meals someone can quickly throw into the microwave. My mom says, “Not having to cook is HUGE! Grandma always cooked when we visited,” which took a huge weight off her shoulders when my brothers and I were young. Similarly, Malloree recounts: “It does help a lot if someone makes me food because it’s hard to make yourself food unless the baby is sleeping.” To put simply, help the young mom in your life by organizing a meal train or consider popping over and helping cook occasionally. It provides great support (and fuel) that mama needs to get through those initial late nights.
Assist with networking. According to my mom, being a young mom is different than being an older mom because it can be difficult to relate to other moms. To feel supported and encouraged, it is crucial that young moms find community with people who have shared similar experiences. Malloree has found some other young moms in the area, saying that she has “talked to a couple [of] younger moms that [she] used to go to school with, and [they’ve] all kind of helped each other out.” For many, it may not be as simple as talking to some school friends, so finding a way to help the young mom in your life to network and find 'their people’ can be a big help. This could be anything from guiding them to a site like BabyCenter, which can help moms find “mommy groups” based on where they live and has articles and information on certain topics such as breastfeeding support. Alongside Baby Center, working with a mom to create their own support group based on her needs can encourage her to get out there and organize a collective that many others may not realize they need.
My mom and Malloree were, and are, fortunate to have communities surrounding them that loved and supported them. My grandparents were often over making food and bringing diapers to help out; Malloree’s mom helps wherever she can and tells her that she loves her, no matter what. Unfortunately, not all young moms are as lucky - but through small gestures, we can be a part of the change and a part to the necessary village that young moms need.