Beating the Shame Game: On the Stigma of Early Marriage and Young Parenting

Beating the Shame Game: On the Stigma of Early Marriage and Young Parenting January 15, 2013

It seems that there is a very narrow time frame when it is acceptable to have children in our society. If you have children too early, you will be judged for it, and if you have children too late, well, you’ll be judged for that as well. And of course, exactly what age is acceptable for child bearing varies from region to region and subculture to subculture.

I grew up in a family and community where early marriage and early child rearing was seen as desirable. Perhaps not surprisingly, I married fairly young. Also not surprisingly, I had my first child young as well. But at the exact time I did those things I also moved out of my parents’ conservative evangelical homeschool subculture and moved on to graduate school, entering the culture of liberal academia. Suddenly my early marriage and early child bearing started to feel like a liability rather than an asset.

For the past several years I have avoided questions about the age I was when I had Sally, and about the age I was when Sean and I married. I have wanted to avoid shocking people, or seeming weird. As a consequence, I think everyone takes me for some years older than I actually am. When these subjects have come up, I have been quick to emphasize that Sally was not an “oops baby” and that mine was not a shotgun wedding. I suppose I haven’t wanted to be seen as “irresponsible.” And also, I have to say, the conservative evangelical patterns of thought imprinted in my youth have been hard to kick (“hard” is an understatement here – these things get into your brain!).

But I’m so done with all that. It’s not helpful, it’s not fun, and it’s not beneficial to either me or anyone else. Sean and I chose to get married when we did, and we chose to have Sally when we did, and we don’t need to be ashamed of those decisions. Would I make different decisions if I could go back and do things over again? Maybe, but I actually don’t think so. I wouldn’t give up Sean or Sally or my life now for anything. And besides, even if I would go back and change it if it could, what good would that do? Life is a series of forks in the road, and once you choose one you can’t go back and undo it, you can only move forward and make the best of what you have and of the forks in the road you still have coming. As Edna said in The Incredibles, “I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now.”

And there’s another thing, too. It doesn’t matter one whit whether Sean and I were married when Sally was conceived or whether I was pregnant at the alter, and going out of my way to make sure that people know I wasn’t an unwed mother or knocked up only plays into the social constructions that function to shame women who don’t behave in the “appropriate” manner. And just to state the obvious, that’s not a good thing.

With all that said, I think I’ve finally hit a turning point. Yesterday I was talking to a woman I’d just met about how much more involved and comfortable Sean is being with little Bobby than he was with Sally. Then came the question. How old were we when Sally was born, she wanted to know. And I set my chin and answered her honestly, and for the first time in years my voice wasn’t tinted with guilt or embarrassment.

And you know what? Life went on. Sure, this was just one conversation, and a conversation with someone I had just met so I knew that I didn’t need to worry about fallout. But it’s a step, and I’m grabbing onto whatever I can here. I’m tired of the second guessing, tired of trying to fudge details about when I married or why I began my family so early, tired of all of that. Sean and I chose to marry and have children early. It’s not like we can go back and do it over again now, and besides that, it’s not like we have to live our lives according to anyone’s line by line playbook. We are who we are, our lives are our own, and if someone doesn’t like that, too bad.

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