I forgot what it was like to push a double stroller with a diaper bag stuffed under the carriage, while having to prop the door open with my foot and swivel the stroller through a narrow door.
My kids are now young adults, ready to leave for college, and while I was waiting my turn to speak on the panel at the Embrace Her! Event by Generation Her, seeing young faces with toddlers hanging off their arms took me back to my early days of motherhood, surrounded by other teen moms while living near Fort Hood, Texas as we thought of what life would be like once the Army wifey days were over.
At the event, the young moms asked me the same questions I had when I was their age:
“Should I go to school when I can’t afford daycare?”
“How can I get approved for Medi-Cal when my boyfriend makes too much money?”
“How can I not compare myself to the other influencers on Instagram?” (in my day, it was a music video, or magazine)
Now that my kids are grown, I realized how much those questions kept me up at night, one rejection at daycare, food stamps or Medi-Cal felt like the end of the world, and now they didn’t seem to matter.
During those hard times, where I used to feed us on a pot of soup and homemade bread, babysit for extra money and go to food banks for extra groceries, I wanted them to know that there will be a day when survival mode would turn into fulfillment and happiness.
I had to apply for food stamps 7 times before I was approved. Each time it was some paperwork that I forgot to fill out correctly, or bring to the DPSS office. Then it was that they couldn’t find my ex-husband, as if I knew where he was either.
Food Stamps is NOT easy to receive or easy to get, it’s a common misconception that any young pregnant mother can get it and scam the system when really, you are checked every quarter and you cannot have any assets, not even a savings account. I had to turn in bank statements, pay stubs, kids immunization records, report cards, electric bills for residence status, at a moment’s notice or lose my benefits.
I was once rejected because I had two $50 savings bonds that were gifts for my kids and I foolishly cashed them out. I never opened a 401k until I was over 30 because I wouldn’t qualify for food stamps if I had it.
These foolish withdrawals became a bigger threat to me than living without food stamps. You have to keep earning low wages to keep your family fed, making you never want to reach for a better opportunity because you have become so dependent.
The cycle of dependence continued as I needed to be more dependent on my job, and when my job wasn’t enough, I was dependent on credit cards and payday loans because I never learned how to build assets and savings. Once I started saving and earning more money, I realized how much time I wasted, and that I would have to be very aggressive to make up for the time I wasted draining my assets for $423 of food stamps every month.
I was fortunate enough to lead a talk about pursuing a fulfilling career; and I was shocked that everyone thought that they had to go back to school to have that dream career.
I loved my time at UCLA. I was fortunate enough to live in family housing with other educated families where our kids played outside every day. I loved being able to study English (and Chicano) Literature because I can’t think of a better way to spend 4 years, (and $40k) than reading the world’s greatest books during the Recession when there was little to no work available.
But UCLA did not make my career fulfilling. My degree didn’t help me as much as I thought it would, other than saying, “you went to UCLA? Me too!” or “You went to UCLA? I went to USC” when I applied for jobs.
My career elevated because I brought results to the company and the skills I learned there. I was promoted because I wasn’t afraid to speak up in a meeting, throw out a new idea, do the jobs no one else wanted and outwork any competition.
So when one of the girls said, “I know I should go back to school so I could make more, but I like my job.”
Liking your current job is a good thing! If you like you’re job, the next level of success is not going to be from school, it’s going to be the next time you sit down for your evaluation.
I then told her how to negotiate her salary and know her worth; if she wanted to get ahead in her industry, to learn top trends, go to industry events and make connections. Then bring her new skills, connections and industry knowledge to the negotiating table for an extra $10k-20k per year, at least.
I left Fort Hood, Texas running from an abusive husband.
I never walked around with sunglasses that hid a black eye. That’s how abusive relationships happen in Hollywood.
I remember my ex-husband violently shaking me at 8 months pregnant, even choking me. I couldn’t escape his belittling words that broke my spirit, telling me I didn’t earn money, and that I would be nothing without him.
And after all these demeaning words, I would have to go and sleep in the same bed with him.
When your partner, the very person who promises to love you, says these things, it’s not like a bully where you have some boundaries. Because the relationship has a level of intimacy, there is no escape to the abuse.
After leaving him and Texas behind, I met the next man who I thought was the love of my life. But I was still so scared of being in this intimate partnership with him, in fear that I would get hurt again.
He soon stopped making the attempts to work out conflicts, and stopped planning a future with me because I foolishly pushed him away and left Los Angeles for D.C., moving onto marry a beautiful trophy wife without kids.
As a teen mom, I didn’t fear poverty, I knew it was inevitable. I didn’t fear the rough neighborhoods, the dead end jobs, or having to tell the kids why they are the only kids out of their friends who don’t know their father.
But I feared having a man love me because I was afraid of having him violently hurt me, or tell me that I wasn’t good enough for him, only to leave me behind again.
Since then I haven’t given my heart away to anyone. Looking back I realize the mistake because there was a possibility that I could have found a good father figure for my kids, even if they only had a step father for a few years, they could have seen what being in a loving relationship is like.
My kids had less toys. They didn’t have nice clothes or shoes, they had smaller lunches and hand-me-downs while all the other kids had more.
For a long time I felt guilty that I wasn’t a good enough provider.
But I didn’t have my career hanging over me yet since I was so young. I didn’t have to worry about late night emails, clients calling, customer emails or even social media. My mind was free to be present and enjoy being with my kids at the park, the pool and playing games together. We had spontaneous adventures together and my youth helped me be more playful with them.
But in the kids teen years, while they still didn’t have nice things as the other kids, the other parents and families wanted to be like me and my kids. We had a unique relationship and I had a unique freedom that other parents didn’t have, and still many years of my youth.
I didn’t have a mortgage, (because who can afford to buy a house in California?) and I no longer had a corporate job dragging me down while many other families were stuck in this trap, I was free.
All I wanted that afternoon was to ease that lingering sense of doom that used to hang over my head during my teen mom years. That doom that meant you couldn’t have the career, the relationship and the happy family you wanted because you got pregnant too young.
For every struggling mother out there, your worth as a mother is not determined by the age that you had your kids.
You are worthy of having a life of freedom, creativity and love. The sense of doom is only from the people that feel sorry for you or judge you.
But always know that there are former teen moms out there who have made it through and raised kind, thoughtful and successful humans, and you have the same opportunities as them.