Thursday, January 17, 2008

I'm not "Lovin' Later Motherhood"

I enjoyed this post found at this link on Heather Cabot's Do read the full post, but here are the choice excerpts that struck me, and my concerns at the bottom:
The number of women who've delayed first-time motherhood until their mid-thirties or beyond has grown tenfold over the past 30 years according to researcher Elizabeth Gregory, associate professor and director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Houston and the author of the new book titled, Ready: Why Women are Embracing The New Later Motherhood (Basic Books 2008).

"Women are choosing when they want to have children for the first time in history," she told me in an interview this week. She says their decisions, due in part to birth control, longer life expectancy and new fertility technologies are spurring societal changes including more participatory dads and more employers accommodating family-friendly schedules."

"Most consistently, I heard (from the women) that waiting offered them the chance to establish themselves, as individuals and in their work, to find the right partners...and to achieve a measure of financial stability. When they did have their kids, they felt ready to focus on their children's development rather than their own," Gregory says.

So maybe us Gen-X slackers had it right all along. We've been delaying marriage and parenthood to find ourselves and at the same time maturing so we could actually handle the responsibility of raising a child.

But somewhere along the way, I became aware of biological realities. Despite advances in fertility treatments, it's tough to ignore the ticking clock at some point. Gregory found that her research subjects were keenly aware of the timeline. I was, when I finally hit thirty. But the chance to live the life of a single working person, to pay my own bills, to bask in my own professional accomplishments, and most importantly, to know I can support myself and live independently were tremendously important lessons for me. And now at age 37, with two-year-old twins, I think I am a better mother for it.

If you are perfectly set up to have a family at 32, then fine. But if you are not, why add the burden of all this anxiety?" asks Gregory. She hopes her research will empower other women to feel confident in their decisions to choose motherhood when it feels right.

The false assumption in this article is that women who delayed motherhood are, in fact, still able to have kids in their mid to late 30s, and beyond. Some can, but not everyone. This blog is for those who can't.

So why does "delaying marriage and parenthood" seem so attractive in exchange for the chance to mature? It seems to be a trade off to me - or perhaps more of a time shift:

  1. If you have kids at age 21, they will turn 21 when you are 42. Tada! More free time and no more college payments! 20+ more years to build up for your retirement, enjoy grandkids, get the red sports car, start a second career (or marriage). Personal growth and expansion begins again at age 42.
  2. Versus, if you have kids at 41, they will turn 21 when you are 62. What? (Sound effect: car screeching and sliding to a halt). This scenario involves entering retirement after 20 years of investing in the children and their college funds. Personal growth time happened during your 20-30s (hope you enjoyed it, if you can remember it), and begins again in your 60s.

I'm not Gen-X - I'm a tail-end Baby Boomer - but I too had considerations that delayed motherhood: I wanted to get established in a career, then make sure my husband was on board (ah, but he wasn't. ever). Then I didn't start really worrying about this until my 30s. My concern is that women's arguments (rationalizations?) in favor of delaying motherhood are just as serious as the arguments against delaying motherhood:

  1. Very real potential biological impossibility. You really can't just go through infertility treatments and get a matched set of twins on the first try. Bravo to those who can, you won the lottery.
  2. Age-related infertility treatments are only available to those who can afford it
  3. Medical dangers related to infertility treatments. I know it seems that any celebrity can do this, but even they would say it wasn't easy and was very physically difficult, even life threatening. I'm amazed at how this is so minimized in the media.
  4. Entering a stage in life where you, too, want to enjoy more freedom but give it up for motherhood until you are in your late 50s or 60s
  5. Less ability to handle the physical limitations of keeping up with toddlers and odd sleeping hours at a later age
  6. Tapping into your retirement to pay for college when it could have been paid for 20 years earlier had kids been had earlier
  7. Losing that investment growth from age 40-60 as you were instead spending on the family/children (versus your spending time being from age 25-45)
  8. Career-interrupted syndrome or being Mommy-tracked, perhaps delaying all the hard work the mother made earlier in her career during her self-indulgent time. Or, her career continues but the trade off is compromised quality time with the kids due to the mother keeping up a senior level career in order to maintain the higher status of living expected when she is older.

The author said "When I turned 23, a year older than the age my mom had me, motherhood was the last thing on my mind...Looking back, I wouldn't trade that self-indulgent time in my life for anything."

I am sure in 20 years the author wouldn't change a thing about her choices, and it does sound like she got to have her cake and eat it too. I wish I could have taken that path. I don't think any mother would wish she timed her motherhood any differently (for those who did, in fact, get to become mothers).

But what about those who waited and did not get to become mothers after all? Oh, darn. Don't they wish they knew all the ramifications of delaying this decision when they were younger? No one, I mean no one, was talking about the urgency to have children when I was in my 20s. I don't remember any friend counseling me with, "You know, Carol, it will be a lot harder to have children in 20 years; don't you think you should get on the stick now?" Plus, I was too busy being self-indulgent to care at that time!

Is there any hope that this discussion would come up earlier in younger women's lives, so they can make informed decisions about when they choose to become a mother? Justifying delaying motherhood is pretty easy given all the hope provided with infertility treatments these days, the desire for self-indulgence at a younger age, and of course hindsight being 20/20. But do 20 year old women have any clue what they are in for? If they were warned in some way, would they choose to not delay motherhood, but to bring it on earlier?

I would say that I wish I had this discussion in my 20s, but that, too, would be 20/20 hindsight. I seriously doubt I would have listened (see my second post to attest to that fact). Instead, I got to live in Europe and travel the world! Spend 3 years dating my first husband before we got married! Gain progressive responsibility in my first company for 15 years! And where did that get me? I have just the memories of Europe now.

Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and this really wasn't a problem until the Pill was invented and the sexual revolution happened (I'll post more about this later). How are we supposed to counsel our daughters (or nieces if you didn't have kids) now, and when will society and the media encourage common sense instead of self-indulgence?

Clearly, I have no answers. I do feel sort of cheated. Like I got the cake, but did not get to eat it. Because, at the end of the day, what should be more important in life: enjoying self-indulgence in my 20s and building a career in my 30s...or enjoying the first laugh of a baby who has my husband's eyes?

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