Stephanie Epps, 22, received a life-changing gift on Dec. 25, 2011: Her daughter, Emilia.
“It was scary at first but I knew deep down inside I was meant to be pregnant because it forced me to stop doing things that I thought were OK,” Epps said.
At 19, Epps, who grew up in Portland, moved to Tampa and partied. She also worked as an entertainer at The Penthouse, a gentlemen’s club. Five months later, she found out she was pregnant.
Epps’ mother left Stephanie and her sisters when she was 13, explaining she was going on vacation to Turkey. She returned to the U.S. two years later, in 2006.
“My relationship with my mother is very complicated,” said Epps.
She was abandoned at a delicate age. Moving from group and foster homes, Epps didn’t have anyone paying attention to who she was hanging out with and what she was doing.
By her freshman year in high school, she was smoking marijuana, drinking and sneaking out.
At 16, she had already gotten her first tattoo. At 17, she dropped out of high school and continued to party. She ended up homeless, staying at Portland shelters and couch surfing because family and friends disapproved of her lifestyle.
A month later, she tried amateur night at PT’s Show Club. She didn’t win the $1,000 prize, but was offered a job.
“Within two weeks of dancing, I got my own apartment and car,” Epps said.
While on a road trip, a friend from the club contacted her on Facebook and told her about how great the money was dancing in Tampa. Thinking she would visit for only two weeks, she fell in love with the city and got her own place.
“Dancing is what I did to make it,” said Epps.
She continued day and night until she was 20 weeks pregnant. She wanted to make money to save for the end of her pregnancy. She amassed $4,000.
“I definitely think dancing was a huge mistake in my past, but it helped me get on track and take care of my bills and responsibilities,” said Epps.
She worked as a housekeeper for a cleaning company until she was 8 months pregnant and the work was too much for her body. She grew bored at home. When going online for pregnancy resources, she was unable to find groups for moms without an agenda or bias. Topics like breastfeeding and natural births were judged.
“I decided to create a page for my own fun and for friends who were expecting the same time I was,” Epps said.
The Inked Up Mommy Facebook group was born and now has almost 3,000 fans.
“I wanted moms to have resources on all types of parenting styles and choices.”
She also maintains a blog of the same name, but finds more people respond to the Facebook group.
She usually spends a few hours a day on the two, working by herself on the blog, while she and three other moms contribute to the Facebook group. All four women have had different experiences with motherhood: While Epps breastfed, co-slept and used cloth diapers, the other Inked Up Mommy contributors dealt with adoption, custody issues, formula-feeding, multiples and being a single mother. The fans of the Facebook page can choose which administrator to speak to based on their question.
Epps’ first tattoo was a pair of sparrows on her hip. While many of her tattoos don’t have meaning, they represent a phase in her life. Her favorite is an open pocket watch she had done after she gave birth – the clock is set to the time Emilia was born and the other side has her name engraved.
[Tattoos] “make me feel unique and I hope one day for Emilia to say she’s proud I’m her mom,” Epps said.
For Epps, being a young mother isn’t as bad as it is perceived. She says the best thing is seeing Emilia discover and learn.
“Enjoy time with your children – it goes by too fast and you can easily miss those small things,” Epps said.
As an African-American, tattooed young mother, Epps deals with judgments.
“I thrive on standing out and showing everyone I’m an awesome mom, regardless of appearance,” Epps said.
She says she gets judged more on her race than tattoos. When her boyfriend (and Emilia’s father, who is white) is not with her and her daughter, she is often asked if Emilia was adopted.
Today, Epps has a relationship with her mother. She wants Emilia’s relationship with her grandmother to be different from the one she had with her mother. They Skype or FaceTime a few times a week and Epps has returned home to Maine with her 16-month-old four times since giving birth.
It wasn’t easy getting back to that place before Epps’ mother left. While blaming her for a lot of trust, insecurity and relationship problems, Epps didn’t speak to her, not even telling her of her pregnancy and moving out of state. Epps’ mother heard, through her sisters, how well she was doing and slowly, the two began exchanging Facebook messages and phone calls. Epps appreciates her mom’s advice, but takes it with a grain of salt.
She hopes to take the Inked Up Mommy further, possibly creating a website for her posts and offer giveaways.
She’s bettering things off line, too. After putting it off for four years, she just took her GED and passed on the first try. She is starting cosmetology school part time June 10 and anticipates finishing in about a year.
“My drive comes from Emilia,” she said. “Every decision and choice I make is for her. I know it should be about me, but everything I do is for Emilia.”
A passionate proponent of breastfeeding, in October she will be attending a conference workshop in hopes of becoming a certified lactation consultant.
Epps hopes to have a career she is passionate about and also offers her the flexibility to raise a family. While able to stay at home now with her boyfriend, John, providing for their family, she wants to work, go to school and be a homemaker. She would like to go to college for social work, perhaps working with the WIC (Women Infant Children) program to educate women on the benefits of breastfeeding.
“I want Emilia to have a better relationship than I had with my own mother. I want her to have opportunities I never got to have. My mother was a young, single mother to three kids, while working two jobs and going to school. I want [Emilia] to have the time to spend with me,” Epps said.