I Was/Am a Teen Mom and That’s Fucking Okay

“I had some friends go to...uh...Cuyahoga Falls. What year did you say you graduated again?” I had gone to pick up my son from a play-date and was met with a lot of odd questions, this being one of them. “2006, but it was a year early. I really must go though, you two have a great evening.” I flashed them a smile just as insincere as theirs and walked towards the door leaving them to figure out the math. They weren’t interested in whether or not I knew any of their old friends, they were confused by how young I looked and rather than simply ask, they thought they were being clever.

It was two weeks shy of my 16th birthday, in 2005, that my son was born and ever since then people have been asking me odd questions, or making odd declarative statements about my life. “But you’re too young to have a ten year old!” Well, gee-whiz, I guess I better give him back then!

You see, in my experience, there wasn’t much to do in Cuyahoga Falls in the early 2000s aside from steal smokes from our parents and hang out underneath a bridge (this is not an exaggeration, we were labelled Bridge Kids by both our peers at school and the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department; we lived like, and had the social skills of, goat-hating trolls). I am here to set the record straight, did we dress in black? Yes. Did we smoke before 18? Yes. Did Brittany one time bring us a water bottle full of vodka and orange juice? Absolutely. However, I have it on good authority the theatre kids were drinking way more than we ever did (Mom!)! Point is, we weren’t bad kids, we were kids.

So how did it happen? Well, I mean, you guys KNOW how babies are made right? That was all pretty standard but the why it happened is even less a mystery but the one people like to make the most assumptions about. Cuyahoga Falls doesn’t teach strictly abstinence only education anymore, but the truth is, it hasn’t gotten much better.They told us about condoms (which we did use, however unsuccessfully) but they also told us about how terrible our lives would turn out should something happen (well, things happen). It was always a ditzy cheerleader type who just loved boys who ended up getting knocked up in those videos and when we saw her again she was morbidly obese, haggard, and depressed. If the boy who had fathered the children was ever featured at all, they were always screaming at each other. Their lives were over before it had ever begun. As if every young woman should post “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE” outside her panties. I shouldn’t blame just the sex ed. programs at school. The societal stereotypes of strippers as “single working moms” hasn’t made things easier for me either.

The truth is, I was not by any mean one of “THOSE” girls. Boys (and girls for that matter) scared me. I had often been mistaken for one. I used to cut my hair real short cause I hated taking care of it and I liked to wear my dad’s leather jacket. Then, one summer, I discovered skirts and let my hair grow out a little. Looking back, I guess I had gotten cute but I still felt pretty ugly. Milo’s dad was the first boy that I wrote me poetry. I was convinced it was love. I was a smart girl, but I was still a dumb teenager. It can happen to anyone. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA. I was into my history classes, my literature classes, and seeing my boyfriend naked. The only boyfriend I had ever really had.

Suddenly, once the word got out, I was a slut though, not just among my peers but the other adults whose sex ed. courses had been even less progressive than ours. That was also when the expectations for me shifted, and the expectation was that I would either wind up dropping out, stripping, or doing both as well as crack. If I’m completely honest, those were far more likely to happen if I had never had Milo. The DARE program had effectively aroused my curiosity about drugs and also supplied me with all the street names for them and who was most likely to have them, so I keeping my ear to the ground. Unfortunately, the only “D” I was offered in high school was… well, you know… Having Milo gave me perspective and motivation. Not only did I graduate early, I graduated with an above average GPA. Milo gave me goals.

Even now, at 26, I feel like many of my peers still don’t know what they want. I’m not here to make any sort of judgement calls on how anyone else is living their lives, but I do know from first hand experience, having a child in high school isn’t the only thing that can turn a person to a life of crime, booze, and drugs in their 20s. Even without the drugs and alcohol part, many of my friends didn’t go to college. Not that that is inherently a negative, but my son wasn’t inherently a negative either, is my point.

So that brings us to here. I am 26, I work as a caregiver to special needs adults, I have performed stand up as far was as Chicago and as far north as New York (it sounds more glamorous than it was, I assure you) and I am running late. “Oh my god, Milo, would you just look at this? Must be nice, SHE doesn’t have anywhere to be does she?” A woman has blocked the drop-off driveway at Milo’s school with her SUV. She lets it idle as she gets out, gets her kids’ bookbags out of the trunk, walks around to the other side of the vehicle and opens the door for her kids. She hands them their bookbags and gives them each lots of hugs and kisses, creating quite the display of American family perfection. My knuckles turn white on the steering wheel, I am gripping it so hard, trying not to honk. “Do you know what she’s doing, Milo? Those kids are going to grow up into the kind of adults that walk into traffic because they think it’s just gonna stop for them their whole lives!! Oh, oh! Look, traffic’s moving again, okay- I don’t have time to stop, you’re going to have to tuck and roll son, tuck and roll!”

It hasn’t been all breezy for Milo and I, but parenting never is. I’m sure many parents can tell you, devotion to your children is sometimes a luxury you just can’t afford. I would love to be that mom whose morning routine is so light and free I can physically get out of my car to hand off Milo his bookbag and give him lots of hugs and kisses. (Okay, I don’t, at all- that’s just gross- there’s no reason to make that big of a display of dropping your kids off school- that woman is probably very ill and someone should help her.) I can’t do that though, there’s work to be done and if I’m free, he has his dad, aunts & uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents that want to see him as well.

Those are a few of the unseen benefits of having a kid young though, it’s almost IMPOSSIBLE to spoil your kids or make them think they’re the center of the universe. Everything I do, I do for him, but it requires me to always be moving or doing something else. I spend as much time and attention to him as I can but at the some point I have to tell him “Honey, mommy is doing something else”. The added benefit is he does see how hard I work and in turn, I hope that one day he will appreciate the hard work I do as he can see the benefits of what that brings. My life wasn’t stable when I had him, but he gets to see the foundation of stability being built. It wasn’t something he was born into and he’ll remember the early days just as I will, and hopefully be able to appreciate that; also, GREAT-GRANDPARENTS. A whole extra set of grandparents to babysit and make Christmas go a little bit easier on the years you’re broke!!

You’re not allowed to ever talk about that though. Society (pfff, SOCIETY) doesn’t want to hear about how well life could go for a teen parent because it starts to sound like advocacy of teen pregnancy. Trust me, I have so many drugs I wish I could be doing right now that I can't because, well, responsibility. I will never advocate teen pregnancy. This is the real world, though, and it does happen, and I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be the end of everything. That attitude just makes mothers (and fathers) resent their children, make poor decisions based on fear, and encourages them to give up on life early.

I can take society’s blows though, but I worry about what it does to Milo. The parents from the opening of this story? They never contacted or called for another play-date, and they aren’t the only ones who have stopped calling once they find out how old I am. That is something I had to learn quickly, I could never talk about Milo first. No matter what I accomplished or what he accomplished, if I brought up the fact I was a young mother when meeting someone for the first time, it paints a portrait that puts a permanent filter on everything else I say and do after that. I could become the CEO of a major corporation and I feel like there would still be someone around going “Oh yes, but we didn’t go about getting this the right way, did we?”

I was at a party with friends and I’ll never forget, I just got done talking about something fantastic that had happened for me and someone said, “Yeah, you’re doing pretty alright for a teen mom.” Excuse me? I think I’m doing pretty alright for ANYONE, but that kind of sums everything up. That’s how most of the world likes to view things… and I say most of the world because, there is a special place, where I can wear my scarlet letter with pride.

The Cleveland Comedy scene. It did things for me therapy never could. One summer while Milo was visiting relatives, I got coffee with one comic, Jeremy Sheer, and my life changed forever. The stage was the one place I could say, “My name is Mandi Leigh and I was a teen mom, am a teen mom, will always be a teen mom…” and be met with thunderous applause. The best parts of my life could suddenly be just that, the best parts of my life, and not anything I had to be ashamed of or be carefully worded so no one got the wrong impression.

The wonderful thing about making friends with comics as well is the introductions and small talk can typically be skipped over. You make your introductions during your 5 minutes but it is also generally assumed you’re all there for a reason, and there’s a certain amount of relief in that. You don’t have to make apologies for who you are or explain yourself, you can simply be you. Whatever sins you committed in the past or trespasses you had made against you, they are what give you your edge here. They are what will make you a success.

And I wasn’t supposed to succeed.

None of the comics were and yet here we all were together. I found myself surrounded by people who weren’t just content to upload photographs of whatever dinner they had that night up to Facebook and call it a day. They were full of as much restless and anxiety as I was but they had somehow made it a super power. None of us were sleeping at night anyway, might as well go out and beg for love from strangers through a microphone! Or write a sketch, a script, or make plans for a festival, a benefit show, or put together an audition tape. They took all the wrongs in their lives and used that as a driving force to make a right.

So, if you get nothing else out of this article, know this: Don’t let anyone determine how your life is supposed to go for you, and don’t let anyone hold your past against you. No one wants to let me forget under what circumstances my son was conceived no matter what either of us accomplish, but we will never stop accomplishing things. There is a place or you in this world as long as you keep looking for it. Who knows, it might even be with us.