People look at me and their eyes fill with judgement.
They immediately glance to my finger- assuming I won’t notice– and then their face shifts from “Oh look at that adorable baby” to, “Oh, that poor girl, battling motherhood on her own.” Just because I don’t have a ring on my finger, and my face looks immature, I get the weak assumption that I was a knocked up teenager forced to battle the struggles of parenthood on my own. Or maybe some of them don’t, maybe they just assume I am unmarried, but the comments I get about my age never fail.
I should be used to it, you’d think. My entire life people have assumed I al 3-5 years younger than what I actually am. “Did you get your schedule?” young high school freshman would ask me as I tumbled at the local cheer gym in my summer off before college. Then, thinking when I got to college I would suddenly fit in, at parties (the only two that I went to, both were during the first week) “Are you sure you’re 18? You could pass for thirteen!” I was so sick of it. I would laugh it off, pretending that it was okay but it was aggravating. Annoying. People treated me with little to no respect, overlooking me for my presumably older, more mature friends.
When I moved to Wisconsin, I was thrilled for a new start. I purged my wardrobe, getting rid of all immature brands like Hollister, Forever 21, etc. I only kept the garments I splurged to purchase or got for a deal at TJ Maxx- brands like Michael Kors, Ann Taylor Loft, Lou & Grey, Express. I made sure I looked polished, and avoided teenage style like crop tops and skanky shorts. For a while it seemed to work, until I applied for a head coaching position at a local high school and was essentially told they’d only hire me for assistant, since I was too young and couldn’t deal with the parents of the athletes. Again, I put a smile on my face and acted gracious for the opportunity.
When I got pregnant and we moved to Minnesota, I again was happy to try at another clean slate. I got another coaching job, and a full-time position at a bakery. Things were going well. No one at work asked my age, and it felt good to feel like I was an adult. I would get insecure with my pregnancy acne which made me once again look like a fourteen year old, but no one seemed to say anything.
Then one day one our work conversation shifted to alcohol. They knew I was pregnant, and so we joked about how I couldn’t wait for a bloody mary again. Before I knew it, I was faced with the question, “If you don’t mind me asking, how exactly old are you?” My face got hot and I tried to play it cool, “I’m 20, but i’ll be 21 in April.” I know 20 years old in the big scheme of things is young. I get it. But to me, when my boyfriend is 26 and I’m phased out of partying and staying up late, I don’t want to be 20. “Oh wow I thought you were like 23!” She laughed, and for the first time someone thought I was older! Wow! It was too bad after that conversation I immediately saw a shift in how I was treated by her. She would call me “Sweetie” and talk down to me in such a passive condescending tone that I felt the urge to bite my tongue and not tell her I am not your “sweetie”. I am not a child. I am about to have a child of my own. I do not need to be spoken too like I do not know what I am doing. but my face held that smile, pretending once again that I didn’t notice my maltreatment and that everything was fine.
Finally, Genevieve was born. I was excited to talk about “adult” things like parenting. It was refreshing and fun. So in that aspect, parenting has made me appear older. But in the majority, taking her to doctor’s appointments, or grocery shopping, or to the high school where I coach, anyone over the age of 30 looks down upon me and assumes the worst. I know it because they don’t even realize their faces they make when they look at me. I attempt to hold my head high, smiling at them when they glance over my diaper bag and stroller. I pretend I don’t hear the high school students I walk past on my way to the gym saying “No she’s the cheerleading coach…” as someone assumes I am a student they haven’t seen before. To the elder woman at the target checkout who asks me “Do you need a gift receipt?” when I purchase anything baby related while Genevieve is at home, and I shake my head and say “no thank you”, if you could only believe I am purchasing something for my own child. When I meet someone new and I casually bring up my daughter in conversation, and their eyes go wide and their mouths drop open as if it is the most surprising factor before blurting out: “I would have never thought you had daughter- you look like you’re twelve!” Thank you for making me feel embarrassed about my appearance.
You see, all of these things on their own are small. But day after day when you hear them, it gets harder to put that smile on your face and pretend the comments don’t bother you and that the judgmental looks don’t make you insecure. For the love that all is holy, I know I will appreciate it when I am older. But right now, when I want to be treated with respect and mutual equality, I do not take looking young as a compliment. One of these days someone who says something like that to me is going to get me to blow my cap, and I will say something rude and curt because it sucks. So to everyone in the world about to tell someone that they “need another form of ID” to purchase tobacco products or an R-rated movie, or “Did your mom say you could have this?” in the retail store, please think before you speak.