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I never talk about this.

I let people wonder.

I let them look at me and look at her, then look again when she calls me “Mom.”

Are you the mother? You must be sisters. You don’t look old enough to be her mother.

I should be flattered, but I’m not. The small window between my age and my daughter’s has left me with a pang of self-consciousness over my mothering abilities I have never been able to shake.

I found out I was pregnant for the first time when I was 17. I was scared out of my mind, devastated by the disappointment I saw in the faces of my parents, whom I had just been begging days before to let me stay out past my curfew. Those two pink lines threw my teenage life completely off-balance.

Now that I am decades away from that teenage brain, I look back and wonder how I had the confidence to think I could raise a baby at 17. I have come to the conclusion that it was simply because I had no idea what raising a baby involved — and was stubborn enough to not listen to anyone who told me otherwise.

I remember the moment they placed my beautiful first born in my arms. “A baby girl at 11:20.” The words of my doctor christening my entry into motherhood.

Of course I remember her birth and the tears of joy running down my cheeks and those beautiful moments after, seeing our life together unfolding in her deep blue eyes. But there is another moment etched in my mind as well, the moment we were free to go home. I remember the panic rising up in my chest when the nurse told me our discharge papers were ready.

Me? I am actually going home with a baby?

Didn’t I need a class or a certificate or some sort of degree for this?

Could I talk to my mom first?

Who said I could do this? Are these people really going to let me leave here with a child?

No one came running in to reclaim our discharge papers, and I already loved my child with an intensity I had never before experienced, so I had no choice but to claim my future at that moment and walk the walk.

I slowly swung my legs over the side of my hospital bed, clutching for the new life I was about to slip into. I turned it around in my mind while my baby girl was gently placed in her secondhand car seat, and I slowly embraced it during sleepless nights and homework and the juggling of being a mother while still being mothered, and I kept holding up this new self until she felt comfortable and familiar and more like myself than the young girl who walked into that hospital weeks before.

By the grace of my parents, I went to college, and my daughter and I moved out on our own. I grew up as she grew up and got very comfortable in my role as her mother, as long as we were at home. When we were out in public, I felt the opposite. Some people simply assumed my parents were raising my daughter. Others stared, their looks reminding me that I was too young for such an important job.

The funny thing is, I thought the second time around, things would be different.

In a million ways they were. I was married, my husband and I wanted kids, no one stormed out of the house in tears when I told them I was pregnant, and I certainly was not squeezing my belly into a desk in first-period English class. The list of differences goes on and on, but there was one thing that was unexpectedly the same.

The tears streamed down my face the moment we placed our new son and daughter in their car seats for the first time but, just like the last time, I was still swallowing down fear.

I could not wait to do things the “right” way this time, catch approving smiles rather than questioning stares. But I found myself looking down at those expectant little faces and wondering, once again, what on earth I was supposed to do with them once we got home.

I dreamed and planned to have children this time, and then suddenly they’re blinking at me wide-eyed, waiting for my next move. Their gurgles and cooing noises could be happiness, or they could be gas from whatever I fed them last. I remember wanting so badly to consult an expert during my daughter’s long evening cry that repeated itself daily, but completing a phone call or sacrificing a moment of sleep to read a book was out of the question.

Having a baby placed in your arms, no matter what your age, is a crazy, wonderful, terrifying experience. I wish I could tell my teenage self that she would be just as scared over 10 years later when her life was in order and pushing a stroller didn’t get her the side-eye. Early motherhood with its big jobs and menial tasks is so important to get right but so easy to smooth over if you get it a little bit wrong. Your child doesn’t know you’re terrified of screwing things up and won’t figure that out until they become a parent themselves. That sweet baby will think you do no wrong until they’ve turned into a teen themselves and have perfected their own side-eye.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer and mom to five (four in her arms and one in her heart). She is the author of the children’s book “Soon.” Find her at FourPlusanAngel.com.

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