When Margaret and Tony Nava are out in public, strangers often ask if the 6-year-old boy is her little brother. He always has a quick reply:
"No, she's my mom."
The 23-year-old Nava is used to that line of questioning. 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," Nava 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."
Score one for younger parents.
"(They) tend to have a sense of playfulness that sometimes disappears when you get older," says psychologist Amy Stark. What's more, 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, the challenges of early parenthood can be very stressful. 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."
For young couples who have a baby and 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."
"Physically, there is no question we are more ready in our teens for parenthood, but we are more psychologically ready at a later age," says Arthur Kovacs, a Santa Monica psychologist who specializes in family life transitions. "Marriages seem to work best if there is an orderly progression that begins with dating and discovering the contours of (the partner's) personality, decision-making rituals, and assignment of responsibilities, such as who takes out the trash."
Adds Stark: "Depending on how much work experience or schooling a young parent has had, it can be very difficult to raise a child. Many young people don't yet have careers and find it impossible to survive on low-paying jobs."
Some young people view early parenthood in a negative light, according to two studies conducted in the late 1980s. In the 1987 National Survey of Children, four out of five youths aged 18 to 22 agreed that becoming a teen-age parent is "one of the worst things that could happen to a 16-year-old girl or to a 16-year-old boy," according to the Los Angeles-based Children's Action Network.
Only 15% of the births to school-age mothers (aged 17 and younger) were described by the teens as having been wanted at the time--although that percentage more than doubled for mothers ages 18 to 19, according to the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households.
Those young parents who have the financial and emotional support of their family often have an easier time adjusting to parenting.
Nava has her family to thank for helping her survive single parenthood. For a time, she was living with her son's father, who was 20 when the baby was born, but 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 Nava. "If it wasn't for (them), raising Tony would have been much more difficult. I would have missed out on a lot more things, like my senior prom."
Nava was 17 was Tony was born, a senior in high school. She and her son eventually moved in with her mother and then with her father. Mother and son went out on their own when Nava was 20.
While Nava is at work, her mother cares for Tony (Nava pays her.) Her older brothers, Danny and Richard Serrano, also help by serving as male role models.
"My brothers are there for Tony every step of the way," Nava 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."
Nava 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, Nava 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 Nava was not having any time for herself.