Parenting on a Dare: My Decision to Accept Teen Motherhood

Looking Back

Every few years, I try to write an essay with the working title "Without You." It's supposed to be a piece that follows the imaginary person in my head, the version of myself who has lived a parallel life without taking that dare and deciding to raise a child at 16. I've never been able to write that story. Part of it must be that having a child shapes every part of a person's identity, so that it becomes impossible to imagine a self who has not been formed by taking care of that child. But the other reason I've never been able to write that story is that having a child didn't change me enough.

Mother, Graduate, Professional

This year, I will have been a mother for exactly half my life. I'll turn 30 in less than a month; my daughter will turn 14 this summer. If you had asked me at 15 what I saw myself doing at 30, I would probably have said that I would be a writer living in New York. And, at 30, I live in Brooklyn and have made my living as a writer for nearly seven years. At 18, I was an English major at a college I loved. At 23, I moved to San Francisco to be near my boyfriend, a brilliant novelist whom I loved. At 25, I had my dream job as an editor at Salon (which, yes, I also love). And at 29, I moved to New York, where I am still doing work that I love. I'm not going to pretend that I couldn't write another version of my life about all the ways I've failed to get and do what I want. But it's difficult to believe that the bare outline of my life for the past 15 years would look any different if I'd had the freedom to construct it without taking my daughter into consideration.

I kept the first part of my promise to myself: Being a parent didn't stop me from doing what I wanted to do. The second part, is, of course, my promise to my daughter. Fifteen years after she was conceived, do I think I did right by her?

What It Is

The worst part of being the parent of older children is that you see the effects of everything you have done. You know exactly how you have damaged your child, in the same way that you know exactly how your own parents have damaged you. It's a cost/benefit analysis. I don't always know what she thinks of me, but I know what kind of parent I am. I still have a nearly subhuman immunity to risk. After making the decision to raise a child at 16, few things compare. Nothing seems crazy to me. I am a warm parent. I love to talk to my daughter. But I'm also undisciplined. I'm messy. I'm selfish. We've never had enough money, enough space, enough time. When I fail -- to clean the apartment, to meet a deadline, to find a job, to keep a lover -- I have the same tendency to think f you. You try to raise a child on your own at 16 (at 22, 25, 29). It's an excuse. People let me use it more often than they should.

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