The Week (US)
Having a baby at 25
Young women are delaying childbirth for valid professional and economic reasons, said Elizabeth Bruenig in The New York Times. But becoming a mother can be a way of finding yourself.
IF SOMEONE HAD asked on the day of my college graduation whether I imagined I would still be, in five years’ time, a reliable wallflower at any given party, I would have guessed so. Some things just don’t change. What I would not have predicted at the time is that five years hence I would be lurking along the fringes of a 3-year-old’s birthday party, a bewildered and bleary-eyed 27-year-old mom among a cordial flock of Tory Burch– bedecked mothers in their late 30s and early 40s who had a much better idea of what they were doing than I ever have.
Nobody was remotely rude to my husband and me, though our differences were fairly obvious; at most, they seemed a little surprised to find a pair of 20-somethings in a situation like ours. That much—and the dreamy gaze of one driven to distraction by love of their child—we had in common. When my husband and I compared notes after the shindig, he recounted a sly line of questioning spun by a curious partygoer that he thought was aimed at determining how, given our ages, we could afford the ritzy preschool that our daughter attended with theirs. “She was trying to figure out if it’s a welfare thing or a scholarship thing,” he chuckled. It was the former. Families living inside Washington, D.C., which we did at the time, are entitled to free preschool; those living in the suburbs outside the district have to pay tuition. The fact that our little girl could spend a few hours a day learning and playing on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s dime was the best part of living in the mildewy two-bedroom condo we owned, and it certainly made being young parents in a major city considerably easier. Which isn’t to say that it was easy. As a rule, having and raising children is never easy; this is especially true in the United States, where, compared with similarly developed countries, parents enjoy relatively little support. And while recent conservative caterwauling over the push for subsidized child care suggests America won’t be joining the ranks of the Nordic countries in terms of parental benefits any time soon, the loss may be as much theirs as anyone’s—it is, after all, the Right that frets most vocally about the nation’s declining birth rates. Most conservatives tend to argue that the financial concerns voiced by hesitant would-be parents are less salient than their cultural habits, like individualism. Millennials stand accused of immaturity and selfishness, of lacking the grit and commitment to bring up children—who, I gather, get in the way of avocado toast and grapefruit mimosas. The reality is more prosaic: Young people are hesitant to start their families because of legitimate worries about money and stability, along with a variety of cultural concerns that, were their Baby Boomer parents honest, they would admit issued from their own design.
There are good reasons to wait to have children and good reasons not to; it’s that latter notion that I often consider but rarely mention to friends of mine who are on the fence, knowing that they are typically inundated with unsolicited advice from older acquaintances and relatives who all seem to know precisely how to fix this putatively immature, allegedly selfish generation. That kind of scolding about growing up obscures the truest thing about having children, which is that it isn’t a chore but a pleasure, not the end of freedom as you know it but the beginning of a kind of liberty you can’t imagine.
But before considering the secret lives of young parents, it’s useful to establish precisely who they are, and by what measure we can call them young.
MILLENNIAL women in the United
States are waiting longer than any generation in recorded history to have children, a trend that’s raised the rate of births among 30-somethings to a 50-year high. Higher education also correlates with relatively delayed birth. A 2012 Pew survey found that while 62 percent of women with a high school diploma had given birth by the age of 25, only 18 percent of women with master’s degrees or higher had done the same. In fact, a solid 20 percent of master’s degree holders celebrated their first babies at 35 or older.
Unsurprisingly, these numbers track with household income. As of 2018, more than half of women living on less than $25,000 per year between the ages of 40 and 45 report having given birth by the age of 25; among women banking $100,000 or more, the share was a touch over 30 percent. Other factors can play a role, too, like race and country of origin: A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study noted that white mothers typically gave birth for the first time around age 27 and Black mothers did so at roughly 24.2. Asian and Pacific Islander moms were, on average, over 29, and Mexican-American moms just under 24.
And then there’s geography. Along the East and West Coasts, mothers tend to have their first children later than women in the middle of the country. In Washington, where I had both of my children, mothers on average welcome their firstborn around 28.9; in Tarrant County, Texas, where I was born and raised, the age is closer to 25.7—only a few months older than I was when my eldest daughter arrived on a dewy morning in June 2016.
Taken together, the trends listed above compose a portrait of Millennial delay: Highly educated professionals living in major urban centers—in other words, people like me, a lily-white full-time writer with a master’s degree living within rail distance of New York City—tend to postpone childbirth until their late 20s or early 30s. When surveyed, most young people report that they elected to put off having kids because they wanted to make more money first, because of the high cost of child care and the burden of student debt; others cite the price of housing, political instability, and fear of a changing climate. Millennials who had not yet had children and weren’t sure if they would told the Times in a 2018 survey that they didn’t want to sacrifice leisure time, that they hadn’t found the right partner, that they weren’t certain they would make good parents. On the money front, hesitant parentsto-be are exactly right. I would know: While my husband and I were never in abject poverty, we understood what it meant to be precariously employed and at the start of our careers. When I was 25 years old and 20 weeks pregnant, the magazine I wrote for was abruptly put up for sale—the attractive maternity leave policy listed in our contracts included. I wound up interviewing for a series of new jobs wearing an oversize blazer, hoping nobody would detect that I was applying for two. (Reader: Everyone knew.) No career comes without risk, but early career precarity and minimal savings certainly raise the stakes of having kids in one’s 20s.
Reasonable concern about having children before establishing oneself could theoretically be remedied with a generous policy approach. The Biden administration has rightly shown some interest in nudging a few such benefits forward. These proposals are nowhere near as luxurious as those on offer in Scandinavia, but they would still be an improvement upon the American situation.
UT WHAT OF having children—or getting married, for that matter— before establishing oneself? That is: What to say to the young person who might consider those kinds of commitments if not for the finality of it all, the sense that she may be making somebody else before knowing who she herself really is? The standard-issue airline safety warning comes to mind: In the event of an air pressure change inside the cabin, secure your oxygen mask in place before you attempt to assist other passengers you may be traveling with. They don’t say or you’ll both be screwed. But you know that’s what they mean.