The other day I decided to leave work just a bit early and to pick my son up from his babysitter just a little bit late so I could get my nails done. It’s not something I do often – usually my nails are chipped and bare and I couldn’t care less – but it’d been a long week and I needed to take a little time for myself.

I walked in, hurried but trying to relax, and sat down with the nail technician. As she started to work we began to talk, the simple kind of small talk you make with friendly people you’ll never see again, when one of her questions completely and totally caught me off guard.

As she looked down at the screen of my phone and noticed the picture of my son staring back she asked, “Your nephew?” I stuttered, “No, my son, he’s two-and-a-half,” and then the conversation moved on as she asked about my job and which neighborhood I live in and whether I had any plans for the weekend.

Her questions, as innocent as it was, left me bothered long after my nails had dried and my son had been picked up and dinner was made and eaten. It was only later, as I rocked my son through a tantrum and then kissed his eyelids as he finally fell asleep that I had the time to reflect on why her question had stung.

It’s because no matter how many lunches I pack or boo-boos I kiss or preschool forms I fill out, the world doesn’t read me as a wife and mother because, I guess, “women like me” don’t get married and have kids young.

One average, women in the United States have their first baby at 26. For “women like me” though, women with graduate degrees and a desire to build a career, the average age is sometime just after their 30th birthday. My son was born just a few weeks after my 24th birthday, two-and-a-half years after my wedding and nine months after finishing my masters degree.

By the time my friends start having kids (if they decide that’s what they want to do) my son will be hitting the books in second grade. As they document their bumps and learn how to swaddle, I’ll be sending my guy to summer camp for the first time, marveling at how tall he is and (probably, with the way things seem to be going) telling him I’m sorry that he’s the only one of his friends without an iPhone.

My second will be born just before or, (depending on his timeliness) just after I turn 27. If life goes according to plan, I’ll have one more when I’m 29 and, by 30, my husband and I will be selling car seats, hitting the tail end of diapers and settling into life as a minivan family.    

In the past almost three years, I’ve done all the things that mothers do. I’ve worried over kicks and cramps during pregnancy, I’ve counted minutes between contractions, I’ve pushed and wailed and willed my son into the world with a power and fierceness I never knew I possessed. I’ve stared down at my sleeping baby, fresh and new, and wondered how to I’d be able to keep him safe and help him grow and leave the world a better place for him.

I’ve learned to nurse and I’ve split my life into three-hour segments for a year-and-a-half – always attached to a baby or a pump. I’ve gained weight, I’ve lost weight. I’ve watched stretch marks spread across my belly, I’ve hated them, I’ve tried to love them, I’ve stopped noticing them. I’ve been shocked over and over at how happy a roll or a smile or a coo could make me.

I’ve wondered if I was doing everything wrong when my son wouldn’t sleep through the night. I’ve felt proud and smug and sure I was doing everything right when he started talking earlier than the books said he would. I’ve been overcome with both worry and joy deeper than I even knew before. I’ve grown as a person. I’ve changed. I’ve felt like I lost and then found myself over and over again. In short – I’ve become a mother. 

There have been times when other moms, all 10 years my senior, assumed I was the nanny as I sang and danced with my son at music class. Or that I was an aunt. Or, once I share that he is indeed mine, that he was an accident. Though the misconceptions stung at first, when I was already raw with new motherhood, they don’t bother me as much now.

Humans make assumptions, we like categories and we have a hard time when people don’t fit within the picture of something we have in our mind. What does bother me, though, is when people assume that, because of my age, I’m somehow less of a mother or that, because I had my boy young, I’ve somehow ruined my chance to live life to the fullest, enjoy my 20s and build a great career.

First and foremost, my motherhood is no less valid because it came earlier in my life than it did for others. Though life, and motherhood, look different for women across the world, there are some things that are universal. The love, joy, and pride. The sacrifice and the worry. No matter if you’re 16 or 36 when your baby is born, you’re a mother.

Second, having my son early has absolutely not ruined neither my 20s nor my career. True, I’ve spent my 20s abstaining from alcohol, cleaning up Cheerios, and learning about ducks at the nature museum rather than cliff-diving in Mexico, partying at a rooftop bar, or making friends with people across the city and the globe as movies and middle-class culture seem to assume you should. But this is what I want.

My family is a little bit different because I’m a younger mother than many are accustomed to seeing but, in all the ways that matter, we’re just like anyone else. As my boy grows and I age, I’m sure most people will begin to read me as more of a mother. They’ll begin to view my experiences as valid and to trust that I made decisions for my family and myself that made sense to me. Until then, I’ll keep on living this life, loving my son, and answer, “yes,” proudly and with joy, anytime someone asks if my son is my own.