Tara Jefferson was in the back seat of her car with her 1-month-old daughter when she suddenly spotted two old women doubling back as they walked past, squinting at her through the windshield. She said she had never seen these women before, and couldn't understand what she had done to attract their attention. But for some reason, they couldn't stop staring at her.
"It was like I was at a zoo or something," Jefferson, 29, told Mic. "They came back and, like, stuck their noses against the window and gave me this look of disgust. As they turned to go back toward the store, I heard one of them say, 'Ugh, babies having babies.'" She was 21 at the time.
For the first few months of her daughter's life, Jefferson said she dealt with postpartum depression and struggled to adjust to her new role as mommy. The way the women looked at Jefferson shattered her. By the time her husband got back with the groceries, she was bawling over her daughter's car seat.
"Why would you be so rude?" Jefferson, now a mother of two and the founder of The Young Mommy Life, said of the women. "You see the baby is very young, and I was obviously a very new mother. Why would you do something like that at such a delicate time?"
We don't trust young moms. As the average age at which women start to have kids has climbed steadily from 26 in 1990 to 27 in 2008, the threshold for when someone is "too young" to be a mom has gotten larger. And as women are increasingly delaying motherhood, mothers under the age of 25 directly contradict the (relatively recent) idea that women should prioritize careers over starting families.
Society's message to women who want to become mothers is mixed: Women are supposed to get married, but not too young; they're supposed to have children, but not too early. Like many life choices our culture forces women to make, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Often when women become young mothers, people assume their pregnancies were unplanned, which leads them to draw conclusions about their home lives. "My husband and I had a 'traditional' family lifestyle, but I still felt like people were going to look at me and assume the worst," Jefferson said. "They assumed I'm not responsible."
To a certain extent, this stigma is rooted in the stereotypes surrounding young motherhood that are propagated by shows like Teen Mom. Unfortunately, many of these stereotypes — that young mothers are poor, uneducated, deeply religious or from rural areas — are rooted, at least in part, in reality: According to a Pew Research Center survey, women who become parents at an early age are often unmarried, and therefore their children are more likely to live in poverty.
But that doesn't mean all young mothers are irresponsible, or that their pregnancies were all accidental. "It is unbelievable how entitled people feel to ask if my son was planned or if I'm married," Michelle Horton, 29, who launched her blog Early Mama after having her first son at 22, told Mic. "People feel that because I look young, they can tell me about how I should live my life."
An unfair stigma: The assumption that all young mothers' pregnancies are unplanned, particularly if the mothers are unmarried, has to do partly with the stigma of being sexually active at a fairly early age. "A lot of the shame around being a mother also goes along with the shame of sexuality," Jefferson said. "A pregnant belly is a walking symbol that you have sex, and when you're younger, I think that is very scary for a lot of people."
Gemma Hartley, a 27-year-old mother of three, said she planned her first pregnancy when she was a 21-year-old junior in college, but that hasn't stopped strangers from assuming each of her babies was an accident. "I got a lot of judgement [from strangers] when I had two kids and was picking up pregnancy tests for my third that I was planning," Hartley told Mic. "One woman asked me if I knew how pregnancy happened. Of course I do; I'm a grown woman with three kids. Sometimes it makes me want to shout, 'I'm doing this on purpose!'"
But even when young women actively choose to become parents, they're still blamed and shamed for starting families and adulthood at the same time. As Stephanie Dyer, a 26-year-old mother of two, told Mic, the valid complaints any parent might have about the difficulties of raising children are treated as consequences of poor decision-making for younger moms.
"I never asked [my parents] for help, but they felt so compelled to tell me I was raising my child on my own without their support," Dyer said. "Parenthood, no matter your age, is exhausting. But when I would say things like, 'I'm so tired and the baby won't sleep,' the immediate reaction was commonly, 'Well, you made this choice.' I don't think that would ever come out of anyone's mouth if I were in my 30s."
Taking a different path to the same destination: It's true that having children at an early age can present many obstacles to building a career and financial stability. But having kids doesn't preclude the possibility that millennial mothers will achieve success or self-actualization.
For many millennial moms, having kids early provided an alternative path to clarity and fulfillment they wouldn't have found if they'd followed society's expectations. They were also able to have the careers they wanted before they had kids, anyway — albeit different versions of them. Before having kids, Jefferson and Horton said they both planned to move to New York and become magazine writers. After having kids, they were able to build successful blogging careers based on their early motherhood experiences.
Dyer, who is an accountant, said having kids led her to opt out of a high-powered corporate career that she is confident would not have made her happy. She told Mic she might have accepted a lucrative but demanding offer and stuck with the job for two or three years, but having children has made not wasting time a top priority.
"I would have taken that route, but I think it would have been because I felt like I had to," Dyer said. "I think that having children young has given me the confidence to take a different path, because I already didn't take the path that was expected for me, and it's worked out well."
Closing the gap: As young millennial moms get older, their peers are starting to catch up and have children as well. Jefferson said the decade she started so differently from her friends is ending more similarly than she expected. She'll turn 30 next month, and many of her peers have started having kids within the past three years. While their children might be younger, their paths to parenthood didn't vary too wildly from hers.
"By our mid-20s, our lives didn't look all that different," Jefferson said of her non-mom millennial friends. "For a lot of millennials, we're all in that same period of trying to launch ourselves, trying to figure out who we are. I feel like my childless counterparts might have a little more disposable income to help with that, but I feel like we're all kind of doing this at the same pace."
Most young mothers Mic spoke with were wary of explicitly endorsing having children at an early age. "The perks are something that aren't really talked about much because you don't want to glamorize or encourage young parenthood," Horton said. "I understand that. It's not glamorous. It's difficult."
That said, they all admitted there are certain upsides to having a child earlier in life. For instance, Horton relishes the fact that she'll be an empty nester by 40, allowing her plenty of time to pursue other hobbies and interests. She also said that as an early 20-something, she had more energy to chase after a toddler than she does at 29.
But the biggest benefit she cited was that having children helped her become a full-fledged grown-up. "I didn't really have an adult life established before I had my son," Horton said. "This was my next step. It's not like I had to do without this disposable income or leisure time that I was used to. I graduated, I got a job, I was a mom. This is what being an adult means to me ... having a child just didn't affect my life that drastically. It was a seamless transition into motherhood."