Maria with her daughter

Maria with her daughter

“Abortion” was the first word that came to mind when Maria Carreras found out she was pregnant. She wasn’t ready for a baby, and neither was her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Her nursing degree was almost finished, and marriage was out of the question. Yet her family’s culture prevented her from seeking an abortion. Fast-forward one year, and Maria now has a four-month-old daughter.

The media often portrays millennials as being on a fixed path where career takes priority over marriage and kids, often ignoring those who opt to have children while unmarried. And when they do get coverage, it’s often in a negative light. A recent New York Post article called it the phenomenon of Generation Screwed raising the really screwed one. A large portion of society seem to agree as a Pew report from 2011 found that one-third of millennials think that unmarried parents are bad for society, and almost half of those over 30 feel the same way. The same report found that single mothers fare even worse and that the majority of each generation believes that unwed moms contribute nothing good to society at large. As Early Mama founder Michelle Horton wrote, “Are 20-something unwed moms the new teen moms? If referring to how both groups of mothers are treated and shamed, then yes: we are the new teen moms.”

Yet for those millennials with children, Maria’s situation is a common one. A 2014 Pew report found that almost half of births to millennial women were out-of-wedlock: 47 percent, to be precise. For those like Maria with college experience, 77 percent of pregnancies were unplanned.

While many mothers are still determined to give their children the best life possible, the odds are often against them in terms of financial and emotional well-being. ”Knot Yet”, a report sponsored by The National Campaign to Avoid Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, outlines the challenges unwed young mothers face. These women report significantly less life satisfaction than their married peers. Cohabiting couples in their twenties with kids are also three times more likely to break up than married twenty-something parents are.

These discouraging statistics are unsurprising given some of the everyday challenges young mothers face, which Early Mama Michelle Horton identifies as the big task of balancing responsibilities while simultaneously lacking the support system and confidence to do so.

Michelle Horton knows from experience, as she became a mother right out of college at the age of 21. She says that her pregnancy came at the “absolute worst time ever in the history of time” and transformed her life in completely unexpected ways. She had just completed a yearlong unpaid internship at SELF magazine and had four job interviews lined up in New York City. One job offer was revoked once she told them she was pregnant. “The biggest change to my ‘life plan’ was realizing how silly and arrogant life plans are,” Michelle says. “I had my plans ripped from my hands, while the universe seemed to giggle.”

Given the life changes, it’s not surprising that single and unmarried mothers report less life satisfaction. “Knot Yet” found that while 47 percent of married women classify themselves as “highly satisfied,” only 33 percent of single women and 29 percent of cohabiting women do the same.

Ruthie with her two children

Ruthie with her two children

When the father no longer is in the picture, being a young mother becomes even harder. This is what happened to Ruthie White, a 24-year-old mother of two girls from Weatherford, Texas. Her kids have two different fathers, and Ruthie has lived with both of the dads at some point. White the dads both popped the question, in each case the engagements deteriorated quickly. The father of her youngest daughter broke up with her when she was six months pregnant, and their separation put a lot of pressure on Ruthie. “I’m not only a mom now. I’m a dad too and it’s much more emotionally, mentally and physically complicated and tiring than people give us credit for,” she says.

Each morning, Ruthie wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to walk to her job as a butcher, so she can spend the afternoon and evening with her children. Before she had her babies, her big dream was to pursue a degree in criminology. But while she has taken a few college courses, she does not want to go back full-time yet in fear of missing out on what little time she has left with her children while they are still young.

Maria, on the other hand, had time to complete her nursing degree before she gave birth. But she never finished the unpaid, demanding internships necessary for a job. Now, at age 27, she works full-time at a small French café in New York to make ends meet while allowing her time and energy for her daughter. Both Ruthie and Maria have had to sacrifice potentially well-paying careers, at least for now.

Also, many single moms don’t have a stable support system or any friends to lean on when they have trouble balancing their responsibilities. Maria can no longer work double-shifts at the café because her sister, who babysits, says she can’t handle the baby crying all day anymore. Mother-of-two Ruthie often feels lonely and isolated because almost none of her friends have children. Similarly, Stephanie Pinta, a single 21-year-old mother from Chicago feels misunderstood by both older people and by those her age. Stephanie had been together with the father of her baby for only two months before she got pregnant, and has faced negativity from both friends and family in the 16 months that have passed since her daughter was born. “Older people think that I’ve just made my life harder and that I’m going to struggle for a while to be able to support myself,” she says. “People my age think I’ve missed out on my ‘party’ years and that I don’t get to have fun just because I have a kid.”

When a young mother lacks a support system, her confidence often wanes. Early Mama Michelle believes that their low self-confidence comes from societal stereotypes, pounding negativity, and comparing their lives to childless twentysomethings. Although Michelle’s family was very supportive when she got pregnant at 21, society was less pardoning: “The worst I had was insensitivity. People saying out of shock, ‘Oh wow! You look too young to have a baby!’ or saying things like, ‘I would never get pregnant so young, I don’t want to ruin my life’ within my ear-shot.” Each time something like this happens, her confidence takes a blow.

Stephanie, the 21-year-old mother of a 16-month-old baby, explains that it is hard to ignore hurtful comments. “The natural negativity that young moms get only makes it harder because you don’t necessarily have that love, support, and happiness that people typically give when they think you’re ‘ready’ for a baby,” she says.

And yet, with all that is stocked against them, not a single one of these women regrets having their children. They unanimously feel that their children have made them into better individuals and would not have it any other way. Maria, the almost-nurse-turned barista, concludes her interview with a message to women like her out there: “Just take it one day at a time. Because it does get better. And you have your little blessing to motivate you to do better.”

Early Mama Michelle echoes her: “As far as being a mother, there’s nothing quite as introspective as having a tiny human mirror your flaws and short-comings, and nothing as motivating to make positive changes and tackle big goals.”