FAMILIES
12/11/2019 8:04 AM AEDT

I Never Imagined Being A Grandmother At 35. Here's How It Changed My Life.

I learned that it’s OK to not have my life revolve around my grandchildren.

Courtesy of Jill Dutton
The author and one of her grandchildren.

“She’s a baby with a baby!” my mum joked to the cashier when I was 18. We were shopping for maternity clothes for me, and looking back now, I guess I was a baby. But at the time I thought I had a plan.

I met Larry when I was 16, working my first job at Red Lobster. I was a hostess and he worked in the kitchen. He was 20, kind and living in an apartment with friends. We started dating and then decided to get married only a year later. My mum wanted us to live together first since we were so young. But my father was old-fashioned and insisted on a wedding. Larry and I wanted to get married, too. My dad came along to the courthouse to sign for me since I was still a minor at 17.

Everything happened so fast. Six months after getting married, I found out I was pregnant. Although it was unplanned, the pregnancy felt like a natural progression: Get married, have kids. When I told Larry, he was just as excited as I was. It’s what everyone was expected to do.

At 18, I had my daughter Chrissy, and then three years later, at 21, I had my second daughter Tara. I’d decided that if I had my children young, I would be young enough to enjoy them as they got older. So for my 21st birthday, instead of going out and getting drunk like most people, I sipped a virgin strawberry daiquiri at my surprise party.

Because we were young, I thought my kids, my husband and I would see and do more together. And we did. We took the girls camping and fishing and made craft projects together. Still, there were sacrifices. While my friends were dating, starting college, going to bars, staying up late and taking risks, I was alone in an apartment pacing with a colicky baby and sobbing with postpartum depression, while my husband worked 80 hours a week as a restaurant manager. 

While my friends were dating, starting college, going to bars, staying up late and taking risks, I was alone in an apartment pacing with a colicky baby and sobbing with postpartum depression.

But it was my choice and I really did relish motherhood. Even though it was hard to be on that path so early, I’ve never regretted having my children young. They are still the best thing to happen to me.

While Larry was ― and still is ― a great father, he was working hard and rarely home when we were married. We divorced when our younger daughter was 2 and have remained friends, spending holidays together, working out joint custody and making sure to do what was best for our girls. 

I was remarried for 10 years and then going through my second divorce when the girls hit their teens. So I was preparing for the empty nest in more ways than one. It was frightening at first: What would it be like to be single for the first time since I was a teenager myself?

Then I started looking forward to the freedom ahead of me. I had a wanderlust instilled by my mum. I was excited at the prospect of being able to travel the US by train, as I’d always wanted to do. I was ready for a period of self-indulgence. I wanted to explore. I wanted to cut loose a bit. I’d been so determined to be a good mother and wife when my children were growing up, but I was still waiting for the chance to figure out who I was.

In my late 20s when my girls were young, I earned my GED and started college. It was the first time I realized that I was smart. I’ve dealt with ADHD all my life but didn’t know it in high school, when I was skipping classes and getting into trouble. I didn’t realize my own potential until I started taking college courses. I fell in love with Early American literature, composition and any class that involved reading or writing. I began writing for local publications and decided to produce my own Evolving Woman Magazine while attending the University of Kansas as a journalism student.

I was looking forward to the time to immerse myself in self-exploration when my kids moved out on their own. ... What wasn’t in my plans was to be a grandma so soon.

So my girls’ teen years were a busy, yet growth-filled period for me too. I was looking forward to the time to immerse myself in self-exploration when my kids moved out on their own. I felt like I could make up for those missed years of independence while I was still young and healthy.

What wasn’t in my plans was to be a grandma so soon.

But when I was 35, my 16-year-old daughter Chrissy got pregnant. I was devastated for her ― I didn’t want her to put her life on hold like I had. “Drop out of high school, get your GED, and immediately start college,” I advised her.

Chrissy was gifted; she was in a special program studying Japanese. We’d had visions of her going to college and then getting a corporate job as a translator. All that changed with a baby on the way. Her high school allowed pregnant students to continue their education and later bring the baby with them to school. But she had to drop the language program to volunteer at the school’s daycare center. She had to give up her dream in order to have a child so young ― a sacrifice I knew all too well.

Chrissy chose not to take my advice and jumpstart her college education while she was pregnant because to her, it was important to graduate with her class. She spent her senior year carrying books, a baby and a diaper bag to school.

Her son Jason was born when I was 35. “I’m not old enough to be a grandmother!” I yelled in a fit to anyone who would listen.

My reluctance to be a grandmother created a lot of friction between Chrissy and myself. There was the obvious external conflict between us as she wanted me to play a more typical nurturing role, and that caused internal conflict for me as I dealt with the guilt I felt. I knew she wanted me there to help raise her son, counseling her on night feedings, potty training and how to raise a family. But that wasn’t me.

For years, I felt like a bad grandmother, pulled between what felt like an obligation to take care of my grandchildren and my own yearning to travel.

For years, I felt like a bad grandmother, pulled between what felt like an obligation to take care of my grandchildren and my own yearning to travel. I wasn’t what a grandma “should” be. I didn’t look like a grandma because of my age; I didn’t act like one because of the way I was raised.

I remember my mum was a reluctant grandmother too. She’d say, “I don’t want anything to do with them until they’re old enough to travel.” And she was true to her word. Although she never babysat my kids ― and I never thought to ask her because I knew it wasn’t in her character ― when they were old enough to travel, she took them along, loving their companionship. My daughters considered her more of a friend than a grandmother. 

I realised I had become my mother. 

Still, whereas Mum unabashedly owned her daring spirit, I felt guilt. I rehashed a particularly tough argument to the counsellor I was seeing, declaring that I must not be a good grandma since I didn’t have those natural yearnings. He said simply, “You’re just not that kind of grandma.” 

His words didn’t click at first, but then I started thinking about my mum. The only role model I had for how to be a grandma was not your typical doting grandma. (I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own grandmother growing up.) Why was it OK for my mum to break the mold but not for me? I did know that I loved my children and their children, so I had to figure out what worked for all of us.

Chrissy had two more children, Katelyn and Brooke, when she was 23 and 25. Tara had her two boys, Danny and Andrew, when she was 24 and 26. So at 47, in the blink of an eye, I was the grandmother to five kids. 

What I’ve come to realize is that it’s OK to not have my life revolve around my grandchildren.

What I’ve come to realize is that it’s OK to not have my life revolve around my grandchildren. Because of my counselor’s words, I took ownership of who and how I am and learned to believe that my grandkids and I would connect in a way that’s true to us. And I think other women can do the same.

I’m now in my 50s and I still don’t feel like a grandmother. Now that my grandchildren are older, we’re forging our own relationships. I still struggle to balance exploring and traveling for myself while staying connected with them. This month I have three trips scheduled in four weeks. Two of my grandchildren will have birthday celebrations during this time, probably while I’m away. I feel bad, but I also feel like choosing me sometimes doesn’t mean I love my grandchildren any less.

Like my mother before me, I’ve become my own type of grandma. Baking, crafting and other activities I enjoyed with my daughters are now spent with my grandkids. They’re past the age of needing a babysitter (for the most part) so we’re coming into our own togetherness.

I’m not the grandmother in the movies who puts her life on hold to help raise her grandchildren. I am this kind of grandma ― the one who is living her life to the fullest while also loving her grandchildren when she’s with them. I’m OK with that. I’m hoping my grandkids will look back on their childhood and remember me as more of a friend ― because I’m much too young to be a grandmother.

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