Growing Up With Their Children : Young Parents Face Some Very Adult Challenges; Family Support Can Be Crucial
When Margaret and Tony Nava are out, people often ask if 6-year-old Tony is Margaret’s little brother, and the boy quickly replies, “No, she’s my mom!”
As a young mother, Margaret, 23, is used to that question. She’s also used to playing soccer with Tony and his friends and dodging her son’s water balloons outside their Orange apartment.
“I find myself having a good time with Tony,” she says. “My parents were older, and they didn’t play with me like I play with Tony. Because I participate in a lot of activities with him, he and his friends think I’m cool. I think if I were older, I wouldn’t understand half the things he does or why he does them.”
Having the energy to play with your children is definitely a benefit of being a young parent, says Tustin individual and family psychologist Amy Stark.
“Young parents tend to have a sense of playfulness that sometimes disappears when you get older,” she says.
Starting a family early also means that you’ve completed your most intensive parenting responsibilities by the time you reach 40.
At the same time, young parenting can also be very stressful and challenging, says Stark. “Girls who have babies young find it difficult to raise a child and form this other identity when they don’t yet know who they are. In terms of life stages, the years from 18 to 22 represent a time when you learn about who you are and what you want out of life.”
A baby completely changes the lives of young parents, Stark says. And, “It’s even hard to find peers who are in the same boat and can relate.”
For young couples who have a baby then get married, statistics show that the marriage often doesn’t survive, Stark says.
“The challenge of supporting a family is hard enough for adults. It puts unusual strains on young people who have never had that kind of responsibility,” she says.
Economics also make it very difficult to properly care for children at a young age. “Depending on how much work experience or schooling a young parent has had, it can be very difficult to raise a child,” Stark says. “Many young people don’t yet have careers and find it impossible to survive on low-paying jobs.”
Those young parents who have the financial and emotional support of their family often have an easier time of adjusting to parenting, she says.
Margaret Nava has her family to thank for making raising Tony as a single parent much easier. Although she was originally living with her son’s father, who was 20 when the baby was born, he became overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising a child and left when Tony was 10 months old.
“My family lives close by and has been very supportive,” says Margaret. “If it wasn’t for the family support I’ve had, raising Tony would have been much more difficult. I would have missed out on a lot more things, like my senior prom.”
Margaret had Tony at 17, when she was in her senior year of high school. She and her son lived in her mother’s house and then with her father. Margaret and Tony moved out on their own when she was 20.
While Margaret is at work, her mother cares for Tony and Margaret pays her.
Margaret’s older brothers, Danny and Richard Serrano, also help immensely by serving as male role models for Tony.
“My brothers are there for Tony every step of the way,” Margaret says. “If he gets in trouble and I’m having a hard time dealing with him, they’ll talk to him. He really looks up to them. They also attend his soccer games when I can’t.”
Though she wouldn’t trade her situation, Margaret admits that it’s been a long, tough road all by herself. She finished high school the first year of Tony’s life doing homework in between feedings. After school she worked part time to earn enough money for such necessities as baby formula.
Once she graduated from high school, Margaret realized that she needed to learn a trade to support herself and her son, so she attended school to become a medical assistant.
Her schedule was grueling.
From 7 a.m. to noon she worked as an phone operator. Afterward, she would return home, eat lunch and go to school from 2:30 to 7 p.m. After school she would have dinner and play with her son for a few minutes before putting him to bed. Then she would tackle her homework until about midnight.
Perhaps the hardest part of the early years for Margaret was not having any time for herself.
“I found myself getting upset, stressed and impatient, because I’d see my friends going out on the weekends and buying new clothes, and there I was doing laundry and using my money for baby stuff. I do feel there are certain things I missed during that period of my life, such as going on my senior trip and traveling,” she says.
Now that Tony is older and Margaret has a full-time job as a medical assistant in Orange, her schedule is easier, and she does find a little time for herself.
Despite the struggles Margaret has been through, she feels that she is better off today with her son than she would be if she had not had him.
“Without Tony, I think I’d be off partying, and I wouldn’t be as serious as I am now about life,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have a career and I’d still be living at home. Tony and I live really comfortably, and we’re happy.”
Linda Dougherty had always planned on having kids young, so she was delighted to get pregnant when she was 20 and equally as thrilled to be expecting again when her first daughter was just 3 months old.
“I wanted to have my kids before I was 25, so that I could be a young parent,” says Dougherty, now 40 and living in Tustin. “I wanted to have fun with them, versus there being a big generation gap.”
When she got pregnant the first time, Dougherty had just gotten out of nursing school and was prepared to raise children.
“I didn’t feel like my youth was interrupted,” she says.
One thing Dougherty forgot to check on was how her 21-year-old husband felt about being a father. As it turned out, her husband, Walter, was not as pleased with having children that early. He had a much harder time adjusting to the rigors of parenthood.
“Walter was your typical 21-year-old guy,” says Linda. “He had no idea what to do with babies; they frightened him.”
Walter Dougherty, now 41, agrees.
“Initially, I didn’t take as much responsibility for the kids as I should have, but Linda was very responsible,” he says.
For Walter, the task of making enough money to support his family was challenging and somewhat overwhelming.
“Although Linda had been to nursing school, I hadn’t gotten any training and had no career to speak of,” he says.
“I never really had an opportunity to attend school, because I felt that I need a job to provide for the family. Financially, being a younger parent is probably harder than being an older parent,” says Walter, who is in sales and marketing, as is Linda now.
In Linda’s view, children of young parents tend to grow up more quickly because they are less sheltered and protected than kids born to older parents.
“Older parents tend to focus on the child’s welfare and look at the long-term picture and the potentials for disaster. When (parents are) young, a certain percentage of ignorance and lack of maturity makes (them) do things--like bring a 6-week-old to the beach--that you wouldn’t do if you were more mature.”
Abigail Dougherty, 18, who is a senior at Tustin High School, agrees that kids with younger parents tend to grow up more quickly.
“In my opinion, younger parents make their kids more street-smart than older parents,” she says. “If I fell down when I was younger and hurt my knee, my mom would say, ‘It’s going to happen.’ But if one of my friends who had an older parent scraped her knee, her mom would rush for a Band-Aid. Older parents tend to baby their children more.”
Abigail also feels that older parents seem to protect their children from unpleasant truths such as financial problems. “In my family we know everything--good or bad,” she says.
But knowing everything can take its toll at times, says Abigail. “My parents have gone through tough times, like all parents do, and it’s kind of hard sometimes when one of them asks me for advice about the other one,” she says.
“After talking to me, they’ll expect me to go on as if nothing has happened, but it’s very confusing for me. I wonder, is my mom or dad a mom or dad, or a friend? Sometimes I don’t want a buddy; I need a parent.”
For Abigail’s older sister, Breeanne, 19, having young parents has meant that she’s been able to get on-target advice.
“My parents know what I’m going through because it wasn’t so long ago that they were going through the same things,” she says. Breeanne says the advice her parents give her is accurate for this day and age because they are more in tune with the times.
“I can be totally honest with my parents and tell them what I’ll be doing when I go out,” she says. “Even my friends confide in my mom and dad. For my 18th birthday my family threw a big party for me. It was probably the best time of my life, and I got to spend it with my family.”
While some young parents unknowingly grow up with their children, Isidro, now 28, made a conscious decision to mature with his son, who is now 7.
“I always wanted a kid to grow up with,” says Isidro, who asked that his last name not be used.
Isidro, who is divorced and has custody of his son, feels growing up with his son has been everything he imagined. “I’ve spent a lot of time with my son,” he says. “I changed his diapers when he was small and bathed him.”
When he planned to have a child at a young age, Isidro, who lives in Anaheim, says he considered the responsibility and now realizes that he has grown up a lot more quickly than he probably would have without children.
Though he is happy with his decision to be a young parent, he does not recommend it to everyone.
“The best thing to do is have a kid when you’re ready,” he says. “You don’t want to have a baby before then, because you might resent your child. You want to be able to give your child all the attention he or she needs.”