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Young Parents Narrow the Generation Gap : Families: Early parenthood has its pluses--consider the energy it takes to keep up with kids. But the responsibility can seem overwhelming.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Margaret and Tony Nava are out in public, strangers often ask if the 6-year-old boy is her little brother. He always has a quick reply:

“No, she’s my mom.”

The 23-year-old Nava is used to that line of questioning. 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,” Nava 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.”

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Score one for younger parents.

"(They) tend to have a sense of playfulness that sometimes disappears when you get older,” says psychologist Amy Stark. What’s more, 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, the challenges of early parenthood can be very stressful. 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.”

For young couples who have a baby and 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.”

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“Physically, there is no question we are more ready in our teens for parenthood, but we are more psychologically ready at a later age,” says Arthur Kovacs, a Santa Monica psychologist who specializes in family life transitions. “Marriages seem to work best if there is an orderly progression that begins with dating and discovering the contours of (the partner’s) personality, decision-making rituals, and assignment of responsibilities, such as who takes out the trash.”

Adds Stark: “Depending on how much work experience or schooling a young parent has had, it can be very difficult to raise a child. Many young people don’t yet have careers and find it impossible to survive on low-paying jobs.”

Some young people view early parenthood in a negative light, according to two studies conducted in the late 1980s. In the 1987 National Survey of Children, four out of five youths aged 18 to 22 agreed that becoming a teen-age parent is “one of the worst things that could happen to a 16-year-old girl or to a 16-year-old boy,” according to the Los Angeles-based Children’s Action Network.

Only 15% of the births to school-age mothers (aged 17 and younger) were described by the teens as having been wanted at the time--although that percentage more than doubled for mothers ages 18 to 19, according to the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households.

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Those young parents who have the financial and emotional support of their family often have an easier time adjusting to parenting.

Nava has her family to thank for helping her survive single parenthood. For a time, she was living with her son’s father, who was 20 when the baby was born, but 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 Nava. “If it wasn’t for (them), raising Tony would have been much more difficult. I would have missed out on a lot more things, like my senior prom.”

Nava was 17 was Tony was born, a senior in high school. She and her son eventually moved in with her mother and then with her father. Mother and son went out on their own when Nava was 20.

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While Nava is at work, her mother cares for Tony (Nava pays her.) Her older brothers, Danny and Richard Serrano, also help by serving as male role models.

“My brothers are there for Tony every step of the way,” Nava 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.”

Nava 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, Nava realized that she needed to learn a trade to support herself and her son, so she attended school to become a medical assistant.

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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 Nava 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.

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Now that Tony is older and Nava 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 Nava lauds motherhood.

“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.”

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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.

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One thing Dougherty forgot to check on was how her 21-year-old husband felt about being a father. As it turned out, Walter Dougherty 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 Dougherty. “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.

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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 needed a job to provide for the family. Financially, being a younger parent is probably harder than being an older parent,” says Walter, who, like his wife, is now in sales and marketing.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”


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