Recently, I discovered a website that would change my life. Feministe.us is “one of the oldest feminist blogs online designed by and run by women from the ground up.” This site is a platform for young woman to gather, read, and speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures.
Lauren Bruce, founder and contributor, discovered she was pregnant at seventeen and gave birth to her son Ethan by eighteen. She graduated high school by attending an alternative school and enrolled into a community college immediately. After a total of six years and a small mountain of debt, Lauren graduated from a Big Ten University in 2005. Soon after, Lauren married her high school sweetheart and today… she is 30 years old with a three month old daughter.
Upon discovering the site, I was intrigued by her strength, wisdom, and ability to share her innermost concerns with complete strangers. I can relate. There is something miraculous about the power of the web and how our experiences can change the lives of others. But I wanted to know more and instead of doing the typical Q&A, Lauren and I engaged in a conversation where we got to know each other and spoke about the challenges in our lives in the past and present.
LB: I founded Feministe sometime in late 2000 or 2001. When my son Ethan was a toddler, I felt pretty isolated socially and intellectually so I started a blog to have a healthy outlet for that energy. I had no idea that the blog would end up being such a monster. Today it’s one of the most widely trafficked feminist blogs online and is a well-respected political blog among both the self-published and the institutionally published. This is all thanks to the work of Jill Filipovic and a slew of other writers and commenters who help the community thrive, as I haven’t been involved on a daily basis for some years.
At the time I started the blog, I had recently discovered feminist theory and was trying to sift through some of the more complicated applications, especially the ones that applied to my own life. My parenthood, especially the social implications around being a teen mom, a poor mom, and a single, unmarried mom, were issues I explored at length. There were several fellow bloggers who were also feminist mothers who helped me come to terms with some of the more difficult aspects of being a teen mom, especially the social stigmas and stereotypes about teen mothers and their children: that we’re all dumb and uneducated, leaching off of the system, and unwilling to work hard or put our children’s interests at the top of our priorities. It’s stereotypes like these, I believe, that work against teen mothers. Not only are these stereotypes the fuel for a low self-concept, which is dangerous for any mother regardless of her age, but it also provides a handy excuse for people and institutions to resist giving access to money, information, and other resources to teen mothers and their kids.
NV: Congrats on the baby girl!! How do you feel about the age range between your two children?
LB: I honestly didn’t think I’d have another child. Starting over when my firstborn was a preteen seemed nuts, but then as I neared thirty I decided that I’d stop not-trying and see what happened. I’m thrilled with having the baby. One of the starkest realizations I had when she was born was the difference between being a parent at 30 versus being a parent at 18. But surpringly, the pros and cons don’t all lean in one direction. Sure, I have more money and social legitimacy today, but I had a lot more energy and imagination, and could get by on much, much, MUCH less sleep as an eighteen-year-old. Nevertheless, this was a more relaxed and enjoyable pregnancy than it was as a teenager. It really opened my eyes to how much we privilege marriage, age, and wealth when it comes to parenting in the U.S.
NV: I am in love with Feministe. It has become a place I go to every morning to start catching up on what I have been missing. Aside from the empowering women who write about the issues we deal with today, it feels like a close community of supporters and I really love that. Did you imagine the site becoming what it is today?
LB: No, I never imagined the blog would be anything remotely what it’s like today. Feministe at its inception just a personal blog. I told stories about my life, posted poems and quizzes, half-baked political opinions, anything that caught my fancy. At the time it started, nobody but a handful of nerds knew what a blog was or how they worked. Blogs were considered overblown Livejournals — no legitimacy, no credibility. At the time there were few women online at all, only a handful of feminists, and no other teen mothers that I could find. After 9/11, the ball really started rolling because a lot of Americans were suddenly very engaged and had an easy outlet for that energy, and by 2004-2005, women were represented online in record numbers.
That said, one of the problems with the online community, and a subject that has been very pronounced in the feminist online community, is the relative lack of minorities represented, and a lack of attention and weight given to the minority voices that are represented. Frankly, the vast majority of people with the time and energy to devote to writing in the Western world have always been white and middle-class. Now that we’re in an era of professional bloggers, you’ll note that the majority of people who make any money off of blogging are young, white, urban, middle- or upper-class, and without kids. The “mommy blogging” phenomenon is an exception to the no-kids rule, but again, you’ll see an overwhelming number of women who are white, middle-class, and those who haven’t been able to parlay this hobby into a full-time paying gig are typically wealthy enough to stay at home with their kids. This was a bitter pill to swallow at times, because I had to pass up writing jobs because they were freelance or didn’t offer insurance, or just weren’t enough to pay the bills. Minority populations are underrepresented, and the system is set up in a way to make it that much more difficult to participate in these spheres.
In any case, what this means is that our viewpoints and insights are often missing from conversations about us. Every few years, something sets off the media about single parenthood — see Murphy Brown, Fantasia Barrino’s “Baby Mama”, “16 and Pregnant”, or “Teen Mom” — which starts a conversation about teen and single parenthood that largely does not include our voices. So, can the media set aside the stereotypes about teen motherhood and talk to us about what is it actually like to be a teen mom? What are the tangible sacrifices that we made? How can we be more successful? What do we need to succeed? No, those conversations rarely happen. Instead they want to talk about how absent fathers are the biggest tragedy in a child’s life, or how it’s so hard to succeed as a teen mother that our society shouldn’t waste time and money trying to save our families.
I remember being seventeen or eighteen, pregnant or just starting out on my own with a new baby, and feeling this teensy-tiny bit of hope for myself that even though I had a baby that I still might be able to live the life I imagines for myself. It was like having a lit candle in a dank, dark room, and doing everything I could to shield it from wet and wind. I wasn’t sure whether I could do everything I wanted for myself, but there was no way in hell I could let that light go out.
And this is where it’s important that we — ahem — push back. How important is it to keep a reluctant father in the picture, especially if he’s, say, chronically unemployed, disinterested in child development, much less the actual child, or emotionally or physically abusive? It’s not. Or, the paradox that says the state shouldn’t invest time and money in populations, like under-served families, who need time and money to succeed? Let’s smash that misconception. People seemed surprised that I finished high school or went to college. Why? Higher education ought to be available to anyone who wants it, even young mothers. I found a lot of discouragement in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and the constant refrain of, “I don’t know how you do it!” or “It must be so hard for you.” What I don’t think a lot of people realize is that parenthood is the teen mother’s normal. It’s not necessarily an easy or painless normal, but it’s normal. We only know adulthood as parents, and in my experience having that added responsibility in our lives at that age can end up being one of our strengths. I can tie my pragmatism, work ethic, and commitment to education directly to my experience of becoming a mother at the time in my life that I did, for example. I’m sure you have your own examples.
…which reminds me of something I wanted to ask you about. In your first message to me, you referred to yourself as a “former teen mom”. Do you think of yourself as a “former” teen mom? Even at my age now, I still feel pressured to answer questions about my son’s parentage, the timing of his birth, and so forth. I guess I don’t think of myself as a “teen mom” anymore but some of the special circumstances that affected me twelve years ago are still very much with me today.
NV: Firstly, I want to say I’m blown by what I’ve just learned about in the blogging world, feminism, and how women were rarely represented online. It makes me even prouder of the accomplishments young mothers are making online (and offline) these days.
Today, I consider myself a former teen mother but I identify myself as a young mother. I relate to people as a woman and as a mother but I usually hold back my “teen parent” status until people know a little bit about me. It gives people the opportunity to get to know me, build their “first impression”, make their assumptions. Then I get to shock them with my age. It’s almost always a funny and definitely predictable reaction I get back. I’ve taken this opportunity to talk to people about being a young mother that normally would never have the chance. There was actually a time when I was in a cab and the driver started talking about his kids. Eventually, he looked back and said, one day when you decide to have kids, you’ll have to deal with all these things. I smiled and told him I had a daughter and that I deal with those things today. He looked back and said I looked like a college student. I told him I was. He was shocked and we continued to talk about being parents. In the end, I told him I was 17 when I had my child. He admitted he had a negative image of teen parents in his mind - only because it’s what he’s learned from his peers and that he was so glad to have met me. I told him I was so happy that I could change the opinion of one person in this world. It was probably the nicest cab ride ever.
During the Mass Alliance’s Teen Pregnancy Institute, I was asked what kind of judgment I face today as a 23 year old mom. I told them it doesn’t end, and probably won’t end for a long time… (which is part of what inspired my #ThingsAYoungMomDoesntWantToHear trend on twitter). Young moms are constantly put down and encouraged to accept failure. Like you mentioned, everyone is talking about us but we are never included in the conversation so I’m glad we were heard through twitter. And thank you for participating!!!
For the young moms who feel they are destined to this path society has paved for us, what would you tell them?
LB: There’s an old blog post out there that I always think of when someone asks me about my experiences as a teen mom. The way the author phrased her thoughts really helped me understand the context in which this stigma happens. She said, “The only reason having kids young is ‘bad’ is because the social stigma and economic disadvantages are quite strong, and mutually reinforcing.” And more broadly, she points out that people can’t “get past the idea that… any proposal to benefit kids and/or their caregivers is somehow unfair”, or that when it comes to teen parents, that doing anything to benefit our families will somehow encourage our peers to get pregnant. These were criticisms that I heard a lot, that it was always going to be harder for me, that I’d never be successful, and that whenever I got a leg up my benefactors were just encouraging my sinful ways.
Which is why I like how you put that — that “young moms are encouraged to accept failure.” To many, pregnancy and parenthood is the punishment teen moms should bear for becoming parents before it’s socially acceptable. We’re set up to fail, and when some of us do fail, we are used as object lessons to scare our peers into not getting pregnant.
To me, that’s a terrible way of looking at a parent-child relationship. A child is NEVER a punishment. Parenthood is NOT punitive. Our relationship with our children is one of the most important and sacred relationships we will ever have. To mar that relationship with a wish for emotional trauma or psychological punishment because the mom in this equation violated some social contract is really, truly messed up.
What helped me when I was down and I felt like the world was on my shoulders was understanding that all of this was happening in a particular context, where not only young mothers face judgement and derision, but mothers in general do as well. In other words, it wasn’t about me. This wasn’t *my* failure, or a failure at all. Women have children in less than ideal circumstances ALL THE TIME and everything turns out fine for all involved. ALL THE TIME. All the time.
You know, in Western cultures, we give a lot of lip service to motherhood. We call motherhood special, we valorize our own mothers, we say it the most important job on earth, but in practice there’s very little out there that supports mothers as a class of people. As a culture, we can barely come to an agreement on whether children, the most vulnerable population among us, have the right to food, clean water, safe homes, and access to health care. As teenage parents, we are on the receiving end of some particularly nasty judgement because we happen to hit a lot of these buttons: we’re young, we tend to have less wealth, we tend to have less education. And because the system is set up against us, a lot of folks as satisfied just shaking their heads and telling us we should have kept our legs closed.
That’s not good enough. You do have rights. You have the right to work, to attend college, to live in safe neighborhoods, to access quality health care and nutrition for your children. Some jerk’s false perception of you as a promiscuous loser — whether this jerk be your parent, your uncle, your freshman English teacher, or some stranger — is not a valid reason to prevent you from accessing these resources. In cases like this, knowledge is power. Know what your rights are and how exactly to exercise them when someone is putting up roadblocks to keep you from reaching your goals. What someone else thinks about you is none of your business. Forget their judgement.
Or to be a nerd about it: Haters gonna hate. Keep your nose clean, do the best you can, be willing to admit your mistakes, and do what’s best for you and your kids. Be as happy, successful, and fulfilled as you can be.