In her book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now, Dr. Meg Jay writes that she believes twenty-somethings have been misled about how critical this period is. She believes it is not just an extended adolescence but also a time to explore and learn about work, love, and self. One of the last chapters of the book discusses fertility and how important it is for twenty-somethings, especially women, to remember that fertility peaks during the twenties, slowly declines in the thirties, and then falls tremendously in the forties.
Statistics show that men and women today are postponing marriage and parenthood. By being direct about fertility, Dr. Jay is telling women and men in their twenties who know they want to have children to make sure they plan and think through how difficult it might be to conceive a child in their late thirties or early forties.
Dr. Jay references a 2010 study that shows that “simply postponing marriage and children leads to more stressful lives for families.” For couples who choose to get married later, babies need to come sooner rather than later. This compels couples to have children shortly after getting married even though these years often are the most strained years of marriage. If a couple wants multiple children, they might have to space them much closer together than desired. This puts a lot of pressure on parents to balance raising two or three young children while working.
I agree with Dr. Jay that the twenties are a time of exploration, but what you do during this time matters and the choices you make at 25 affect you at 35. My husband and I had our only child when I was 34 and he was 39. I heard about all of the things that I would be gaining by having a child later in life, and I made some assumptions but no one told me about what I would be losing in the process.
I am beginning to wonder if being an older parent really is better. The pressure to raise “perfect” children can make parents feel overwhelmed, guilty, and emotionally and physically exhausted. In 2003, psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge conducted a meta-analysis of marital satisfaction. They looked at the data of 97 families from the 1970s to 2003. The study discovered two interesting findings.
The first is that marital satisfaction went down when couples had children. The second was that parents’ dissatisfaction “only grew the more money they had.” Campbell and Twenge concluded that parents who have children later in life tend to have more money and resources. Twenge states that “there’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you are giving up.”
Does having more money and life experience really make you a better parent? Trying to answer this question brings me back to where I started with Dr. Jay’s book. While your twenties may be your time to shine and “find yourself,” the choices you make about parenthood need to consider fertility.
There are some advantages to being an “older parent.” Sitting at home on a Friday night is my idea of heaven these days; I don’t long to be in a crowded bar or nightclub. I am not resentful that I am missing the latest concert or the newest restaurant. My husband and I have more money and earning power than we did in our twenties, and we have gained enough life experiences to make good choices—not only for ourselves, but also for our son.
When I had my son, my husband and I had been married for four years. During this time we had established routines and freedoms that we didn’t even recognize as freedoms. We could sleep until 10 a.m. on Sundays, and our discretionary income was spent on the things we wanted. I left for college at 18, and after 16 years of doing what I wanted when I wanted, it is hard to let go of those freedoms.
My son loves baseball and could toss the ball for hours, but his old parents cannot. It is hard for me and my husband to play any sport all day with a 5-year-old. When my son wants to wrestle, I have to beg off because of my back problems. Running after baseballs, footballs, and soccer balls is a young person’s activity.
My personal choices about marriage and parenthood were in direct relationship to the choices my parents and my friends’ parents made. I am a generation Xer, raised by parents who got married and had children in their twenties. At my college graduation, the idea of marriage and children were a far-off thought, if that. I did not want to be tied down like my parents by children and responsibility at a young age. I believed I had all the time in the world to have children. There seemed to be news reports every day about women in their late forties having babies with the aid of medical science.
I thought that choosing to have a child when I was ready, after I had accomplished what I wanted to and when I was in a solid relationship, was the right choice. While it was the right choice for me and a choice I don’t regret for a single day, I wonder what kind of parent I would be if I were 10 years younger. Would I have more patience? Would I be able to throw the ball hour after hour, pitch after pitch? Would I have more energy at the end of the day to play all the games my son begs me to play?
When I look around at all of my friends who are parents, I realize we all waited a long time to get married and have children and I wonder how our choices will affect this current generation of twenty-somethings. Will they react to the gray-haired dad at the park and decide that this will not be their fate?
- Jay, Meg, PhD. The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter-and how to make the most of them now. Twelve, New York, NY, 2013.
- Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting. New York Magazine, Published July 4, 2010.
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