By Jessica Benson
My 19-year-old daughter grinned, her eyes sparkling, when she heard the news: she passed her test and was now a licensed cosmetologist — her dream come true.
I had just served as Leanne's model, so she could demonstrate her hair and makeup skills for the examiner. While she worked, I stole glances at her, just bowled over by how poised and confident she was, by what a beautiful young woman my baby had become.
"So this is how she turns out," I thought to myself.
There was a time when I wasn't so sure she would turn out this way. I thought without a doubt that my little girl was doomed.
She was, after all, the daughter of a teenage mother.
I was only 16 when I got pregnant with my daughter. I had barely turned 17 when I gave birth to her.
People still look at me in shock when I talk about Leanne. The ensuing exchange is almost always the same:
"You don't look old enough to have a daughter that age," they say.
My answer? "I wasn't."
From the time she was born, I wondered what would become of my cute, mischievous little baby. She was adorable, always carrying her "blankie," and sucking her thumb as she walked around on her tippy toes. But the odds were against her, and I knew it.
I was raising her alone — her father was almost completely out of the picture, though his family, and my own parents, remained involved in her upbringing. As such a young, single mother, I thought that the most I could hope for was to get her to the age of 18 without getting hooked on drugs, killed in a car wreck or "knocked up."
She could have so easily ended up on the wrong path. Sometimes it looked like she was headed that way — like when she dropped out of high school or came home with a tattoo before she was legally old enough to get one.
Ironically, the one thing I didn't worry about — much — was her getting pregnant. Whenever I gave her "The Lecture," the one about using condoms, she always assured me of one thing:
"Mom, don't worry, I'm not as dumb as you were."
I guess I was pretty dumb. I can't tell you for sure, because I really don't remember what I was thinking way back then, only that I wasn't thinking at all.
I do know I didn't get pregnant on purpose, but I always heard rumors of girls who had. It was appalling to me, even then, and is no less so now, this idea that a young girl would want to have a baby.
Because my daughter is right: it's a dumb idea. If you do it, be prepared to struggle every step of the way.
It goes far beyond just missing the prom and changing poopy diapers.
You must be prepared for endless debt, for many years to come (I'm still 20 grand in the hole for my defaulted student loans). You will likely go without a car for long periods of time, due to a lack of money for the car payments, the insurance, and the gas. If you do drive a car, it'll be a beater.
Be prepared to say goodbye to cable and the Internet, maybe even a phone, because there won't be any money left over for such frivolities after you pay for rent and food.
Be ready to put on a smile for your child and make a game out of the electricity being shut off — again.
Be prepared for your baby's father to owe you $30,000 in back child support, while he dines on steak with his new family and leaves you to feed your child generic macaroni and cheese.
Be prepared for the depression. When you have such a hard time making ends meet, it's almost impossible to avoid getting depressed once in a while.
And be ready for your critics, the ones who don't think you have any business raising a child at all.
You will also find supporters, however. There are many people, like the ones at the high school's teen parenting center, who will believe in you, sometimes even more than you believe in yourself.
But most of all, you must be prepared for your No. 1 harshest critic. There will come a day when your child will grow up, look you in the eye and accuse you of making a huge mistake by trying to raise her when you were still just a child yourself.
The other day, I asked my daughter what she thought about being the child of a teen mom. She called it "pretty cool."
"You understood me better in my teen years," she said.
But she hasn't always been so charitable. She's wondered, out loud, if she would have been better off if I put her up for adoption or let a relative raise her instead.
She resents that I never had the time or energy or emotional stability to devote myself fully to her. She hates that we never had any money.
And it's hard to win an argument with her, when she repeats her favorite mantra: "It's not my fault you decided to have a baby when you were a teenager!"
She's right. It wasn't her fault. But she's the one who ultimately suffered from that decision I made so long ago. She's the one who had to fight all the odds against her in order to make a success out of herself.
Last weekend, I watched her, in awe, at the examiner's office as she leaned over the counter and signed her name on her new cosmetology license. That was the face of a successful, hopeful young lady, not the doomed spawn of a teenage mother.
I gave her a hug and told her how proud I was of her.
Today's teen moms need to be prepared for some hard times. But they also need to be prepared for their children to rise above all that and grow up just fine, after all.
My daughter is proof that it's possible.
Jessica Benson is a staff writer at the Times. She grew up in Salem, where she graduated from the high school's Teen Parent Program. She also graduated from Endicott College in Beverly with the help of that school's Single Parent Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.