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Growing Up With Their Children : Young Parents Face Some Very Adult Challenges; Family Support Can Be Crucial


When Margaret and Tony Nava are out, people often ask if 6-year-old Tony is Margaret's little brother, and the boy quickly replies, "No, she's my mom!"

As a young mother, Margaret, 23, is used to that question. She's also used to playing soccer with Tony and his friends and dodging her son's water balloons outside their Orange apartment.

"I find myself having a good time with Tony," she says. "My parents were older, and they didn't play with me like I play with Tony. Because I participate in a lot of activities with him, he and his friends think I'm cool. I think if I were older, I wouldn't understand half the things he does or why he does them."

Having the energy to play with your children is definitely a benefit of being a young parent, says Tustin individual and family psychologist Amy Stark.

"Young parents tend to have a sense of playfulness that sometimes disappears when you get older," she says.

Starting a family early also means that you've completed your most intensive parenting responsibilities by the time you reach 40.

At the same time, young parenting can also be very stressful and challenging, says Stark. "Girls who have babies young find it difficult to raise a child and form this other identity when they don't yet know who they are. In terms of life stages, the years from 18 to 22 represent a time when you learn about who you are and what you want out of life."

A baby completely changes the lives of young parents, Stark says. And, "It's even hard to find peers who are in the same boat and can relate."

For young couples who have a baby then get married, statistics show that the marriage often doesn't survive, Stark says.

"The challenge of supporting a family is hard enough for adults. It puts unusual strains on young people who have never had that kind of responsibility," she says.

Economics also make it very difficult to properly care for children at a young age. "Depending on how much work experience or schooling a young parent has had, it can be very difficult to raise a child," Stark says. "Many young people don't yet have careers and find it impossible to survive on low-paying jobs."

Those young parents who have the financial and emotional support of their family often have an easier time of adjusting to parenting, she says.

Margaret Nava has her family to thank for making raising Tony as a single parent much easier. Although she was originally living with her son's father, who was 20 when the baby was born, he became overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising a child and left when Tony was 10 months old.

"My family lives close by and has been very supportive," says Margaret. "If it wasn't for the family support I've had, raising Tony would have been much more difficult. I would have missed out on a lot more things, like my senior prom."

Margaret had Tony at 17, when she was in her senior year of high school. She and her son lived in her mother's house and then with her father. Margaret and Tony moved out on their own when she was 20.

While Margaret is at work, her mother cares for Tony and Margaret pays her.

Margaret's older brothers, Danny and Richard Serrano, also help immensely by serving as male role models for Tony.

"My brothers are there for Tony every step of the way," Margaret says. "If he gets in trouble and I'm having a hard time dealing with him, they'll talk to him. He really looks up to them. They also attend his soccer games when I can't."

Though she wouldn't trade her situation, Margaret admits that it's been a long, tough road all by herself. She finished high school the first year of Tony's life doing homework in between feedings. After school she worked part time to earn enough money for such necessities as baby formula.

Once she graduated from high school, Margaret realized that she needed to learn a trade to support herself and her son, so she attended school to become a medical assistant.

Her schedule was grueling.

From 7 a.m. to noon she worked as an phone operator. Afterward, she would return home, eat lunch and go to school from 2:30 to 7 p.m. After school she would have dinner and play with her son for a few minutes before putting him to bed. Then she would tackle her homework until about midnight.

Perhaps the hardest part of the early years for Margaret was not having any time for herself.

"I found myself getting upset, stressed and impatient, because I'd see my friends going out on the weekends and buying new clothes, and there I was doing laundry and using my money for baby stuff. I do feel there are certain things I missed during that period of my life, such as going on my senior trip and traveling," she says.

Now that Tony is older and Margaret has a full-time job as a medical assistant in Orange, her schedule is easier, and she does find a little time for herself.

Despite the struggles Margaret has been through, she feels that she is better off today with her son than she would be if she had not had him.

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