SMASHING STIGMAS AND GETTING DEGREES
By Alex Burt
Photo of Burt and Daughter courtesy of Brook Christensen at Camera Shy
I had my daughter at twenty-one. When most of my friends were just starting to explore the bar scene, I was exploring mommy-and-me classes and trying to navigate the hierarchy of the Bay Area mom scene. I didn’t have a brand-name pregnancy; I wasn’t pushing a top-of-the-line stroller, and wasn’t privy to the status symbol a handwoven, organic, sustainable baby-wearing sling would provide. But, I would soon learn that even with the material trappings, finding support and friendship as a younger mother is difficult to achieve.
There is a stigma around young motherhood in the Bay, one that paints us as less capable, as reckless, as irresponsible, as kids having kids, as not having goals. It’s not always said, but heavily implied with a raised eyebrow, a pointed glance, and a slew of inappropriate comments.
For me, it often comes in the form of offhanded comments or questions asked as casually as one would talk about the weather. She can’t be mine; I must be the nanny. Had I considered abortion? Did I use protection? Why would I willingly throw my life away?
I can’t imagine people asking these questions of a first-time mother in her late twenties, or early thirties, the “respectable” ages to have a child in today’s society. These types of questions are invasive, and while I’m proud to be a mom and I’m proud of my daughter, I can’t help but feel my hands clam up, and my face get hot with shame over my age, every time strangers seek to sate their curiosity.
This behavior diminishes me, and other young moms, who are actively smashing this stigma by balancing work, school, and motherhood. Being a young mom isn’t easy, but being a mom isn’t easy, period.
Ask Vanessa Cruz, a BCC employee and student bound for transfer to San Francisco State University in the fall, who’s raising an energetic four-year-old, and balancing a demanding AFROTC Cadet training schedule to boot. Cruz had her son at sixteen, and experiences her fair share of snap judgments and probing questions surrounding her parenting style. People ask whether her son is her little brother, or how she’s able to do it all, and do it well. But that didn’t stop her and her husband from moving from LA to the Bay on their own to carve out the best life for their family. Her husband is on a full ride scholarship at UC Berkeley, which Cruz says is “extremely family friendly, with a parent center where [she] spent most of her time when [they] first moved here, and found [she] was able to build a support system of other student parents.”
She explains that often she and the other moms would take turns watching each other’s kids between classes, and occasionally exchange babysitting, which led her to feel like she wasn’t alone. This type of community is essential to young parents seeking to finish their education and circumvent the stereotype of being uneducated or unable to support their families. Cruz says it isn’t as easy to find this type of assistance at BCC where the breastfeeding room is “a storage closet covered in boxes, tucked away on the top floor, which isn’t easily accessible at all.”
Furthermore, she says that there is no type of mother’s room or any way for moms at BCC to connect. She went so far as to put together an entire presentation on how BCC could benefit from the same type of designated space for student parents to take their kids and better be able to manage the demands of raising a child and pursuing a degree. Not a babysitting center, simply a kid-friendly space for moms and dads to converge, study, and occasionally look out for one another when times get tough.
Lily Milián is a single parent of four children, who had her first baby at age nineteen. She has been told by family, friends, and even strangers that she’s not going to become anything, that everything was wasted for her, and that she’d amount to nothing outside of being a mom.
Milián hasn’t let discouragement derail her. Instead, it’s a motivator. “I’m showing people that even with four kids, and all by myself, I’m able to finish this goal,” she says. Though, at times it’s difficult. She often stays up “until three in the morning doing homework and helping with the kids’ homework.” On top of that, she’s “making dinner, doing all of the laundry and working.”
Milian has also experienced backlash at having a mixed family, and for not being married. Especially in the Latino community she has older women ask her if all of her kids are her own, and if she’s married, and when she says no, they want to know why not. At times she’s felt like a burden when she’s sought aid and been made to feel like she’s taking services away from more deserving people.
Her children are of different ethnicities, so she also experiences hostility from strangers looking at her with contempt or making comments that she has to tell her kids “not to listen to” because of their hurtful nature. She explains that she’s “learned to just ignore people and do what [she’s] going to do” rather than constantly defend herself and her family.
Milian is transferring to Cal State East Bay in the fall, but she agrees with Cruz that a student center would have been invaluable to her during her time at BCC. It stands to say it would also benefit the twenty-five plus single moms Milian knows personally through her work-study role with EOPS and the CalWorks programs. These moms often have to miss class or beneficial workshops when they have no place for their child to go. Times like these are when a parent center would give these student-moms access to a support system and the resources they need to succeed and keep pushing towards a brighter future.
If you aren’t a parent and have made these types of judgments before, give it a second thought and offer a smile or wave instead, a little kindness goes a long way. For the fellow mamas and dads out there doing their best not to raise assholes, get your degrees, and juggle a job too—you’re not alone.