I was intrigued by Fresh Air host Terry Gross’ January 16th interview with Judith Shulevitz, who wrote The New Republic article, “The Grayest Generation: How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” As someone lucky enough to meet my future husband in college at the age of 20, I realize I’m one of the privileged few: a woman who has been able to have a fulfilling career while raising three children. My husband and I dated for five years before marrying. Then we had the luxury of enjoying each other for four more years before embarking on a family. Starting parenthood when I was 29, I was able to realize my dream of having three children, spaced over a six year time frame. I recall my husband not wanting to wait past 30 to have his first child, fearful at the prospect of being an old father. How quaint that sounds now, when so many of my peers didn’t become parents until they were in their late thirties and older. One of my closest friends just gave birth to her first child at age 49! Like Shulevitz, many of these people weren’t fortunate enough to meet their mate until they were older. Uninterested in embarking on solo parenting, their hands were tied. But I also agree with her that the pressures in the workplace are also to blame. As a freelance journalist, I was able to taper back my hours as my family grew. I knew their precious childhood would be fleeting and I wanted to be there to cherish it. Now that they’re in high school and college, I work an insane number of hours. But the difference is that it’s my choice. I don’t have a boss I need to answer to and I control my own hours.
So many women of my generation, pressed by themselves, society, and in some cases, their own mothers, as my book, Making Up With Mom, indicates, felt the need to put parenthood on the back burner. The result was, in many instances, that having children of their own became nearly impossible or involved costly and heroic man-made interventions. As Shulevitz says, embarking upon assisted reproductive technologies carries its own health risks, an issue I’ve explored in an in-depth article. But just as significant are the emotional issues: realizing you may not live to see your grandchildren, or that your own children may not have the chance to know theirs. I think my generation, until recently, devalued that aspect. And I’m finding that the next generation of mothers is realizing this and charting a different course. I meet many young women today who are looking for their mate in college, marrying younger and starting a family in their twenties, knowing that they can either put their career on hold or work part-time. In an interview I conducted with her, Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, says young graduate students she works with are starting families before earning their PhD — something she wouldn’t have seen in the past. “My impression is that most educated women continue to postpone childbearing but that there is a small group — not enough to pull down the average — who feel entitled to build their work around family in a way my generation didn’t,” she said. “I have certainly noticed that among a layer of professional women who 30 years ago would all have been terrified to have a child before their mid-30s, for fear of derailing their career, there are some who do feel free to start sooner.” A recent survey of the wedding announcements in The New York Times finds more couples ages 30-years-old and younger. It sounds like a very old-fashioned notion, but I think they’re forging a better balance and I’m hopeful, if this happens in larger numbers, employers will be supportive.
A young woman I know, age 23, recently married her high school sweetheart this past summer. She transferred to his college after attending a separate university as a freshman and dated him all through college. Marriage seemed like the next logical step. “John and I have shared our big life adventures: studying abroad in Mexico and moving out of our home town. Getting married young allows us to continue those adventures, which we would rather spend together than apart, before starting our family,” she said. They hope to have children within the next three years. Some of those at her wedding were her age and recently married as well. One of them, married at 24 and hoping to start a family soon, said “Living on your own is scary. It’s more fun to do it with someone. We can be scared together, be broke together and go through life changes together. There’s no point in waiting when you are the happiest you’ve been.” It will be interesting to see if more young women feel like this woman and, in marrying young, end up striking a balance that their own mothers found elusive.