By NASA MARIA ENTABAN
WHEN Nik Izyan Nik Mahmood had her first child three years ago, she was “only” 24 – at least that’s how many people today would put it.
Very few of her friends were even in serious relationships at that age, let alone breastfeeding and changing diapers. In fact, most of them were busy climbing the corporate ladder or pursuing higher education.
With more women choosing to further their careers before thinking of starting a family, having a child in your early 20s is viewed as a bit of an odd choice for the modern woman.
According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, Malaysian women marry at an average age of 26, meaning most of them will only have their first child in their late 20s or early 30s.
With so many urban women delaying motherhood to focus on their careers and studies, those who choose early motherhood find themselves at a disconnect – but many also have positive things to say about it.
Izyan, for one, has no regrets, and neither do the other young mothers we spoke to.
Having graduated with a masters degree in international management with finance and many career opportunities to choose from, the last thing anyone expected then-22-year-old Izyan to do was have a baby.
When Izyan and her husband found out she was pregnant, she was several months into a job as an associate analyst for an oil and gas company and he was just starting out work as a doctor.
“After I had Haris and took time off from work for maternity leave, I went back to work for four months,” says Izyan, now 27. “It turned out to be just too much for me. It wasn’t just taking care of the baby – it was everything else like taking care of the household, cooking and not just showing up for work on time but also trying to perform at work.”
Juggling the expectations that come with family life and work is one thing many mothers find challenging, even more so when they have only just started adulthood.
Single mother Regina (not her real name), who had her daughter a few months shy of her 21st birthday, says she saw her dreams go up in smoke when she found out she was pregnant.
“The first thing I thought of was all the dreams and things I had to let go of like going overseas for my final year, my plans of becoming an air stewardess after graduation so that I can travel before I settle with a permanent job and all the events I would miss out on,” says the college student, whose daughter is now 10 months old.
“I always thought I would be a career woman, but I’ve had to make some adjustments to my plans,” she adds.
Twenty-eight year old Pei Lee, who works in publishing, had her first child at 24.
“After I had my child, I found it hard to have a balance in life because my former job required me to work long hours,” she explains. “After a while I quit and looked for a job that had shorter and and more flexible hours. I still struggle to find the balance between family, friends and time for myself.”
For these mothers, it can be tough watching their friends get hold of their dream jobs, advance in their careers, and go on expensive trips and shopping sprees, while their main priority was providing for their child.
“Sometimes I do feel really left out and even a little inferior when my working friends talk about their careers and jobs,” says Izyan. “Having given up my career at such a young age I do feel like my peers have sort of left me behind.”
The disconnect isn’t just career-related for these young mums. Even though they eventually got used to it, missing out on social events was a definite downer.
“I’ve always been the girl that goes out attending events, and hangs out with friends a lot. But now, I’m just this 22-year-old that sits at home and catches up with work when I have the time,” says Regina.
“It wasn’t easy, adjusting from being the girl that goes out a lot to the girl that just locks herself up in the room. There were a lot of adjustments that I had to make, if not for myself, for the baby.”
Stephanie Prabaharan, 26, adds: “Sometimes the stress of going out wasn’t worth it, because I’d have to make all sorts of arrangements – packing Lucas’ things, sending him to my mother’s and coordinating with her.”
Stephanie had her son Lucas when she was 24.
“You just don’t feel the need to go out that much anymore,” she says. “But obviously a social life is important and as a mother you need to have that outlet.
“A lot of people, when they became mothers, they lose their sense of identity, they were mothers and that was it, I don’t want to look back and think I missed out on so much, so I try to live my full life, but include Lucas in whatever activities I can.”
Stephanie doesn’t think mothers should let children limit their mobility, and brings her son everywhere she goes – as long as the settings are child-friendly.
“Being a young mum makes you less fearful,” she says. “Live your life the way you would as a 22-year-old, but with your child around.”
One of the main issues our young mothers faced in their first few years was not knowing who to turn to.
Many have their parents to help them with health-related questions but most of the time not having a friend their age to turn to took a toll on them, and loneliness sunk in.
“I was pretty alone,” says Izyan. “What got me through some of the most difficult times were internet forums. Mums are very generous with information, and they become my support group.”
The Internet is a godsend to modern mums – almost all simple medical queries can be answered online.
Regina doesn’t know what she would have done without it.
“Almost everything I know I learnt from Google, from babies’ first solids, to when their first tooth will appear, to symptoms of flu and such,” says Regina.
“But if I’m really in doubt, I’d call my mom.”
Stephanie turned to her husband’s friends, who although older, were helpful.
“I had my mom nearby, and I would ask her first about anything and of course I would google as well,” says Stephanie. “My husband’s female friends are all 10 years older than me so even though I also have a child I always felt like a child to them, but none of them looked at me that way and were always very kind and helpful.”
Having children at a younger age also means there may be financial setbacks, as many mothers and young couples would not have had time to build their careers and earn bigger salaries.
While Izyan was working, her entire month’s salary went to the nursery fees for Haris, which made her realise she may be better off staying at home with him instead.
“It’s tough – you have to give up expensive dinners and unnecessary things like that,” she says.
Coping with financial issues has been tough for Regina, who is a year and a half away from graduating.
“I was also afraid of how I was going to be able to afford to take care of the baby.
But I knew, by hook or by crook, I had to find a way,” says Regina. “From my allowances, I’ve had to cut down on indulging in expensive food and drinks and impulsive shopping.
“Things are pretty tight, but most times, we’re doing alright. My parents help me out and buy clothes for my daughter. So basically, the only things I have to pay for are daycare, and monthly diapers, milk supply and doctor’s bills.”
Pei Lee and her husband began cutting down on expenses wherever they could.
“We were very prudent in spending and counted the pennies in every purchase.
We also opted for more affordable diapers and milk powder instead of the top-of-the-pine items. Also, I got a few bags of hand-me-down clothes which I was grateful for,” says Pei Lee. “Lastly, no more splurging on shoes, eating out and lepak sessions.”
At the end of the day, nothing else matters to these mothers apart from being with their little ones.
“I love that babies reach their milestones at their own pace and that not every milestone happens according to the book, and that’s something that I look forward to all the time,” says Regina. “I love that my princess now recognizes that I’m her mother and that she doesn’t want to be with anyone else but me. It makes me feel so loved by someone that I would do anything for.”
“When my son says “mummy I love you so much”, it makes me feel like no matter what I’ve already achieved in life I am now raising my son to be a respectful and loving individual and just hearing him say those words make me feel like I’m doing my job right,” says Stephanie.
For Pei Lee and Izyan, it’s just being with their children that brings them the greatest joy.
“It’s the cooing, smiles and laughs, and the fact that you’ll always be the most beautiful person in their eyes – those are the best parts about motherhood,” says Pei Lee.
“Watching them grow and learn new things that you teach them, being constantly amazed at the things they learn and the funny things they say, that’s my favourite part about motherhood,” says Izyan. “Also, the cuddles. They are very generous with cuddles.”
* To all mothers, young and old, R.AGE would like to wish you a Happy Mothers Day!