The Life and Leadership Lessons I learned as a Teen Mom
I’m taking a risk and getting vulnerable here today. I'm writing from the heart about a topic that I don’t often discuss in my professional life. Or, I should say, that I didn’t openly discuss in my professional life.
I would consider myself an external processor — I learn about myself and gain deeper insight into topics, issues, and decisions through talking it out with others and then often following that up with writing it out.
Earlier this year, I had great conversation with one of my favorite people about my personal story. Specifically, we discussed the parts of our lives that have shaped us into the humans we are today -- as well as what experiences we had that led us to develop passion around certain topics and hot button issues.
Our personal experiences powerfully shape our lives, but it can be quite difficult to figure out how we can own these experiences and then use them to our advantage.
As we started to chat, I realized that her perception of my story was quite different than what I saw in myself. She encouraged me to weave parts of my life into my professional story that I had often left out completely - not because they weren't important (to the contrary, they were the most important) - I simply hadn't taken the time to process how they played into my development.
I recently received similar feedback from my Mom who encouraged me to "loosen up" (her words) and allow more of my authenticity to shine through in my work endeavors and here on The Female Leader’s Edge. She said, in so many words: “I know you’re passionate and this topic is important to you, Stef, but you can have some fun too.”
Another friend often tells me to “calm down” (I'm often running a million miles an hour) and I, admittedly, care about almost everything. While I consider this a strength, if I don't manage it, it means that my brain rarely shuts down.
And, finally, yet another friend aptly reminds me that, in order to complete one of my top priorities (my dissertation), I have to protect my time - something which I preach often, but practice little.
I’m on a never-ending quest to learn to say no, set clearer boundaries, and prioritize myself. Some weeks and months are great, and other times, I slide back into old habits.
And finally, I received not one but two massage gift certificates for my most recent birthday.
Sure, I love massages, but I also think the universe is sending me a message — to slow down, spend more time processing and integrating my experiences, and give myself more grace.
You might be thinking that these pieces of feedback don’t immediately seem related, but they are.
You see: I’ve been trying to prove myself and my worth for over 16 years now. This has led me to overachieve, say yes too often, & constantly feel the need to take on MORE.
There are parts of my life that I’ve never really stopped to admire and reflect upon. I’ve always been an action-oriented go-getter (my childhood best friend and I started not 1, not 2, but 3 businesses in elementary school… one of which involved cold-calling people from the phone book to offer our detective services for haunted houses).
I’m forever reminding myself to stop, breath, and reflect. Being decisive and quick-to-take action is a double-edged sword.
I am who I am, in large part, because of genetics, environment, and upbringing — but I also owe a huge part of my attitude, mindset, and work ethic to becoming a Mom as a teenager. A teen Mom.
You know, this is the first time I’ve ever said the words “teen Mom” to describe myself. I avoid it. It’s fraught with stereotypes, assumptions, and biases. We think we KNOW what a “teen Mom” must be like. What her life must be, and why she ended up there. I staunchly refused to be a statistic. (And I strongly dislike the MTV show.)
When I talk about my son (which is very often), and someone inevitably asks how old he is, I tell them 16 and then look them directly in the eyes to wait for them to say: “ohh wow, I thought you were like 21.” Some people say it. Many don’t. But I almost always see the flash of realization slide across their face — it’s a quick moment, and I’ll admit that I’m looking for it, but it’s usually there.
My son Adam is the SINGLE BEST THING that has ever happened to me, by and far. For so, so many reasons. Sorry to my spouse, Sam, and sorry to my wonderful best friends, family, and colleagues — I love you all, but Adam, he’s it.
He just recently turned 16, and on his birthday, his Dad said: “you know, we were parents when we were your age.” Crazy to think — I look at him and can’t possibly imagine him being responsible for a human life at this stage... but, Sam and I were.
WE WERE PARENTS. At 16. Still kids with a whole lot of life to figure out (I mean, gosh, I'm in my 30s, and I'm still FIGURING IT OUT).
At 15, my priorities were: what outfit should I wear to school? And: should I try the low carb diet or just eat fruits and vegetables? What Tae Bo VHS tape (old school!) will get me fittest the fastest, and should I stick with basketball or do cheerleading? And ugh, my older sister took my favorite shirt AGAIN. What ever will I do?
Like many teens — it was all about ME.
And then, in a whirlwind, we had a beautiful little human being to care for. Talk about a complete and utter shift of priorities.
Assuming this role as Mother, caregiver, protector, coach, and mentor (to name a few) completely changed me (and activated some parts of my DNA that I didn't know existed... cue the opening of my recent TEDx talk) and accelerated the trajectory of my life. For the better.
I learned to manage my time, truly care for other people, and shift through the noise and bullshit to get to the heart of what truly matters: relationships, people, the big picture, and so much more.
I no longer cared most about the outfit I wore or the diet I was on (not that these things aren’t important), but I gained perspective.
Let me be crystal clear: in no way, shape, or form am I condoning teen pregnancy. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I have been incredibly privileged to have parents and friends who supported my decisions, pushed me to continue to better myself, and didn’t let me fail (even when failing seemed like the easy path).
In fact, when my parents found out about my pregnancy, they said something I'll NEVER forget: "as long as you continue with your education, we will support whatever decision you make" -- and, clearly I took that to heart, because here I am finishing up my Doctorate. Learning is so core to my life and my principles that I know I'll never stop chasing my hunger for more information, more education, more insight...
We should embrace every single part of this messy life journey as a part of our story. Part of our experience. And part of what shaped us into who and what we are now.
What’s the so what? Why am I telling you this on my blog about women and leadership?
Because the lessons that I learned as a young Mother (and I think every parent or caregiver learns in one way or another) have been invaluable.
In retrospect, while I may not have appreciated and realized these lessons along the way, as I look back, I realize they have helped me excel and grow in many areas of my life.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
(1) Friendships matter. Find your tribe, the select few, that stay with you through good and bad. Those are your people. When shit hits the fan, people quickly differentiate themselves and show you their true colors. As Maya Angelou said: "when someone shows you who they are, believe them."
(2) Your support system is everything. If you weren’t blessed with one and you’re feeling alone, do your best to find a community for yourself. Turn friends into family. Get engaged in your city/town and surround yourself with people who will support you, but also send you a tough message when you need it most. No one achieves their goals alone.
(3) Stereotypes and assumptions are more about other people than they are about you. You can internalize them and let them guide your behavior and actions or refute them, flip them, and break them down. I left many friends behind who told me that being a young Mom would ruin my life. Thank you, NEXT. The same goes for the stereotypes we have around leadership.
(4) Don’t be embarrassed of your story or where you came from. You wouldn’t be you without it. Own it, embrace it, reflect on it, and project it with confidence. You never know who you'll impact, inspire, or connect with as a result of sharing pieces of yourself.
(5) Cut those that shame you out of your life. IMMEDIATELY. There's a fine line between tough love and feedback grounded in true support and shaming behaviors. Shame is dangerous. Brene Brown is an expert on this topic, so I'll leave this to her.
(6) Organization and prioritization are life skills that will take you far. Do your best to cut through the overwhelming BS and minutia that clog our spaces every day and identify what is really, truly important to you. Then pay attention to that. Reflect and course correct, always with your broader priorities and values in mind.
(7) Be honest with people. Even when you know you’ll be judged. Operate with integrity, lead with courage, and lead in a way that allows you to lay your head down at night feeling proud of the decisions you've made. Don't dilute yourself to fit in.
(8) Resilience is not about ignoring challenges in order to move beyond them — it’s about leaning into them, addressing them, and learning from them.
(9) People are your very best asset — above all, be kind, generous, and supportive. While also upfront, honest, and direct. Pour energy into people and allow them to pour into you too. Find a true give and take.
(10) The ability to be open-minded and empathetic cannot be overlooked.
And lastly, if you're struggling to tell your story, find a trusted advisor or friend to help you out. I know I wouldn’t have been to this point - at least not yet - if I didn’t have another person to work through it with me.
What part of your story stands out as a pivotal moment? An instance that changed the trajectory of your life?
What experiences have you had that have shaped your beliefs and values? How does that play out in your interactions with others and your leadership?