In less than ten years I’ve done a complete 180 regarding my interest in and plans for children. Through high school, college, and early marriage, I planned to do things the way everyone now says you should. Finish college. Get a job. Get comfortable in finances, career path, and marriage. Then, and only then—around age 35 or so—grudgingly allow a baby or two to inhabit my body. Expel them as quickly as possible. Then tie my tubes. Seriously, that was my plan.
Well, besides being horrifically naïve and narcissistic, it was a stupid plan. Luckily life knocked me off the stupid train, but meanwhile everyone else was hopping aboard. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the U.S. fertility rate has fallen to match its record low.
Women have also been delaying childbearing into their mid-thirties en masse:
Our Current Life Script Hurts Young People
The reasons for this are obvious. The modern life script for a woman is that she basically do everything else in life before she begins having children. The problem with this life script is that is makes childbearing less likely and more difficult. Millennials themselves blame this messed-up life script for the huge gap between their overwhelming desire (just 6 percent of childbearing-age Americans don’t want children) to become parents and their overwhelming lack of child production. They’re scared to start having kids because they started their adult lives financially behind, both with college debt and inside a weak job market that is making it difficult for them to pay that debt off.
In other words, they’ve been getting bad advice about what to do with their lives, coupled with bad government policies (such as Obamacare) making it even more difficult for them to overcome the effects of that bad advice. This means our cultural script for women hurts both women and society at large.
So we need to change it. Instead of doing school and career before marriage and children, society should encourage women to have children at the optimal biological time, both for women and children’s health and for their happiness. That’s in a woman’s twenties. We need a new life script for women that helps them achieve the vast majority’s goals of becoming mothers and working part-time or not at all to help sustain family life rather than making it seem impossible that they ever can do so, and compensating for this societal failure by telling them they should feel bad for having those goals in the first place.
We need to not only encourage young people to get married and have kids in their twenties—as a generality, of course, not in every single specific case—and make it possible for them to do so in myriad ways such as helping them get through college with less debt (which doesn’t require more social welfare programs) and making space for alternate ways to get started in life besides an expensive four-year degree. Fixing our snooze level of economic growth wouldn’t hurt, either, and neither would women deciding to reduce men’s access to “free” extramarital sex.
In short, if you want to have children at all (and, in general, you should), you should aim to start having them before you are 30 years old. Here are some reasons why.
1. Your Twenties Are Your Physical and Reproductive Peak
Many of the reasons to have children in one’s twenties stem from the plain biological reality that having a baby is a big job for a mother’s body. Therefore, it’s just sensible that a woman would want to do that—if she can—when her body is at its peak development and strength. That’s in her twenties. Athletes hit their physical peak at an average age of 26. A woman’s fertility also peaks in her early twenties, making it biologically “the best decade for conceiving and carrying a baby.” In her twenties a woman’s eggs are at the best quality they will ever be, and her risk of miscarriage is the lowest.
A woman’s twenties are the lowest-risk time for her to physically bear a baby, heal after birth, and continue to physically sustain a baby through nursing. That’s just a plain fact. Why wouldn’t we tell women this truth in an effort to spare them needless physical and emotional suffering from increased rates of miscarriage, inability to conceive, probabilities of birth defects, and so on that happen as a direct result of older childbearing?
2. Reduced Risk of Birth Defects
Speaking of that. Noting that a woman’s eggs are the best quality when she’s in her twenties implies the truth that, as she ages, the eggs degrade. This is also true for a man’s sperm, by the way. Unhealthy eggs and sperm make unhealthy babies. This is why risks for birth defects and conditions such as autism increase markedly as mothers and fathers age.
For example, a recent study of more than 5.7 million children in five countries confirmed previous research that has found older parents’ age dramatically increases rates of autism:
The results, published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that autism rates were 66 percent higher among children born to dads over 50 years old, as compared to dads in their 20s. Autism rates were 15 percent higher when moms had children in their 40s and 18 percent higher for children of teen moms, when compared to those born to women in their 20s.
Mothers who are age 35 and older are at significantly higher risk for, among other maladies, giving birth prematurely, which gives rise to more health problems for the child, and for having babies with Downs Syndrome. Father age is also a crucial risk factor: “By starting families in their thirties, forties and beyond, men could be increasing the chances that their children will develop autism, schizophrenia and other diseases often linked to new [genetic] mutations.”
Then, of course, there’s miscarriage and infertility, which are sky-high among older mothers and fathers and directly correlated with the rise of the fertility industry. If you think kids are expensive now, wait until you see your IVF bill, not to mention the emotional trauma involved in this whole process. More on that later.
So by setting up a structure in which couples are more likely to have children when they are older, we are also setting up a society in which more children are sick and deformed. Now, every single human being is valuable and precious no matter his physical defects. Older married folks should not be barred from or looked down on for having children merely because of greater risks to their and their children’s health. More life is always good despite its level of imperfections.
But I also believe it’s cruel to foster social arrangements that increase the rates of physical defects, especially when there are alternative social arrangements to be had. Just as we counsel people to not text and drive because of the increased risks, so we should counsel people to have children earlier whenever possible.
3. Kids Make You More Efficient With Time and Money
One of my great shocks moving into adulthood has been to see my single peers remain in debt longer than we have. I’d expected our kids to, as they all say, drain family finances and parent time. Well, they do that, but the pressure kids put on family time and finances has forced us to manage both better.
If you’re single, you are less likely to think about the annual cost of your daily latte or the fact that a spring trip to Costa Rica with your college buds (or frequent cheaper weekend getaways) now may mean you’re eating dog food during retirement later. If you’re married with kids, you’re more likely to think about those things because your little responsibilities are staring you in the face every day.
This isn’t just our personal experience, it’s borne out in the data. Fathers in particular are more likely to achieve more in their careers and earn more money than their childless peers: “Men without children earned 40% less than their counterparts with children in 2010, according to a new study by The Graduate Center, City University of New York.” That study also found that mothers earned more than childless peers, and that men are more likely to work full-time if they have children.
Also, both fathers and mothers are more productive at work than their childless peers. You would think it’d be the opposite, since parents spend less time in the office. But it seems that parents are more efficient than childless peers, on average—they work more and water-cooler chat less. In fact, a good deal of research shows motherhood expands women’s mental capacity and ability to multitask efficiently.
4. Way Faster Post-Birth Recovery
A woman’s thirties are when her skin starts to noticeably age, but even in her twenties her elastin and collagen begin to decline inexorably towards old age. This has obvious relevance to a discussion of pregnancy because in pregnancy a woman’s overall weight and, of course, belly shape changes drastically. In short, your skin will recover postpartum way faster and better in general if you have kids while your body still has the greatest amount of skin recovery agents available to it naturally. If you want to get back your body after baby—and yes, it’s possible for many ladies—you should have your babies young.
Internally, as well, a woman’s greater overall health in her twenties sets her up to recover from pregnancy much faster than she is likely to in her thirties, and definitely in her forties. A woman in her thirties is more likely to have complications during delivery than a woman in her twenties, a set of risk factors that increase after a woman hits 35. These include a greater likelihood of C-section, infant distress, lengthy labor, and poor fetal positioning for birth. All of these increase the likelihood that a woman will take longer to physically recover after having a child.
I only know about this phenomena in reverse, having had all my four children so far before age 30. I was shocked by how quickly I recovered, especially compared to older friends, and it’s not because I’m a health or fitness freak. My main forms of exercise have been small doses of Pilates and gentle pregnancy fitness routines—we’re talking 10 minutes a day—besides lifestyle activities like gardening and chasing and hauling toddlers. It’s not my exercise or eating habits, it’s my age. Trust me, ladies, you want this.
5. You’ll Have More Energy for Playing
When I first broke the news to my boss that I’d be having my first child, he congratulated me, and surprised me by telling me how lucky I was to be having kids young (first baby arrived two months before my twenty-fourth birthday). See, he had begun his family in his mid-thirties, and by the time his third child, a son, rolled around, it was getting uncomfortable to wrassle on the floor with his little critter. I don’t normally think of folks in their mid-thirties as creaky or even old, but another mid-thirties friend recently confided in me how much her body has changed as she moved past 35. She gets tired faster, and is more uncomfortable doing things like sitting on the floor.
Again, these are not just anecdotes. People’s bodies get creaky starting in their mid-thirties. If it’s uncomfortable to sit on the floor at 38, just think what that suggests about ejecting a baby from your body at 38. Again, I’m not saying don’t do it; but I am saying plan ahead if you can.
6. Protect Your Kids from Being a Sandwich Generation
As Americans have delayed marriage and kids, they’ve created the sandwich generation: a hapless generation of productive-aged adults who have to care for their aging parents at the same time as they care for their young kids. This is a simple product of generational math. If you have kids when you’re 35 and their kids have your grandkids at 35, then the people in the middle will have 70-year-old parents and toddlers simultaneously.
Not surprisingly, this sucks. As a mom with young kids myself, lemme tell you that it’s far better culturally and personally to have the kids’ grandparents young and spry enough to help me so that we have two older generations bringing up the youngest. Then, when my own kids are into teens and young adulthood, together we can care for deteriorating grandmas and grandpas. Again, simple math makes this possible: If people have kids in their twenties, and their kids have their grandkids in their twenties, then grandparenthood hits in one’s fifties. Fifty-year-old people do not need the same amount of support as 70-year-old people. In fact, they’re still spry enough to help support others rather than have to be supported.
There’s also a public spending component to this. Because we live in a social welfare state, the sandwich generation not only personally sponsors and supports their kids and parents simultaneously, they bear the economic burden of having their taxes siphoned off to pay for the young and old who together consume the lion’s share of government spending (and create the lion’s share of government debt) at all levels. And the elderly and young are expanding in this country, squeezing the people paying taxes for them. That means: “In 2010, the age dependency ratio of the United States stood at 59 people in the cart for every 100 pushing the cart. In 2030, the Census Bureau projects that 76 people will be riding in the cart for every 100 pushing it.”
7. Our Society Really Needs People to Have More Kids
Let’s do some simple math. If you start having kids at age 35 and space them out by two to three years, you pretty much will only be able to fit two in by the time you’re done. Two kids is both not what women want—the average “ideal family size” rounds up to three kids—and it’s not enough to keep our economy and government overpromises stable.
Merely keeping the number of Americans stable at the present number, replacement rate, requires approximately 2.1 kids per woman. To fill in for all the women who are not going to be having kids because of all the factors I’ve described above, women who do will need to have more to keep our country from massive social and economic pain of the kind Japan and Europe are experiencing due to plummeting birthrates. (Or we can drastically increase immigration, as Europe has done, but there has been presenting huge cultural conflicts that are increasingly spilling over into violence, as Europe’s experience also shows. Also, there’s a limit to what immigration can do.) Some further details about the effects of declining population rates:
Cities and towns begin to empty, while the cost of caring for retirees and elderly sick people skyrockets. Old people spend less and invest less, shrinking capital pools for the new businesses that create new jobs. Entrepreneurs do not come from among the aged: countries with a higher median age have a lower percentage of entrepreneurs. Most important, a shrinking labor force means fewer workers contributing the payroll taxes that finance old-age care.
Having three or four kids—unless you’re a crazy person like me—will take a good decade. If you want to be done by the time your fertility starts to drop, you need to start that decade around age 25. It’s just math, people.
8. It’s the Best Positioning For Your Career
The life sequence feminists prefer—of extended credentialing followed by work followed by years of “finding yourself” followed by maybe and suspiciously regarded marriage and kids—is fine if you never want to have children at all. In fact, it’s just about the only thing to do if you never want to have kids.
But for the majority of women who do want marriage and children, it’s a terrible sequence that guarantees they will a) never get what they want or b) put them through needless suffering to get what they want. So you get out of college at age 22 or 24 (grad school, baby). Then you have to spend five years paying off college debt, and you’re 27. Then you have to get married and get a down payment for a house, and you’re 32.
So by your thirties you’re saying okay, let’s try for some kids. If being on chemical birth control this whole time hasn’t screwed you over physically, you do generate a baby…right as your career is starting to take off. After all, it takes a decade to get specialized and experienced enough in a field to get to the salary, around 30, that will be the baseline for the rest of your career—unless you stop right as you’re reaching it to pop out a few babies.
Consider instead if one had started having babies in one’s twenties, and largely postponed a career and any advanced training. Your career isn’t established yet, so you’re losing less financially. If you have your two, three, four kids by thirty or so, then you can go back to school or work when the kids do. You then have an unbroken stretch of thirty years to pursue a career while not recovering from childbirth, nursing, or leaving sobbing toddlers behind with another caregiver every morning. This is called sequencing. It’s a sane way for women to get real about their biology, and sync their life ambitions with their life cycles.
9. Your Biological Clock Is A Bitch
I will never forget being on the phone with a radio host who, after our segment, said, “You have four children? You are so lucky. I want children so badly but I did what everyone told me to do and put my career first. I didn’t know I would want kids someday. And now that I’m forty and I want kids I can’t have them. I’m not even married.” She always comes up in my mind when I hear women of a certain age—that being late thirties and early forties—opening up about their struggles with infertility, with their sudden and sharp desires for children right about the time their ability to bear a child has decreased drastically.
We young women underestimate our future selves. The ease of fertility when young combined with our modern (but false) idea that we can control procreation gives us a foolish overconfidence about things like “I don’t think I really want kids at all” or “Once I’m ready I’ll just go off the pill and we’ll start a family.”
But the job market can be highly disillusioning. We can start out life ready to take on the world and climb the corporate ladder only to find, sometimes when it’s too late, that the global twenty-first-century economy can be a really unfulfilling, lonely place. That climbing the corporate ladder can feel really empty. That being CEO isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This doesn’t always happen. But it does often enough that young women need to hear that a career is not one long unending upward flight of inspiration, recognition, and promotions. It’s full of a lot of drudgery, just like taking care of kids. I think this contributes to the famed employer trouble with millennial employees who need to be coddled and patted on the head and told what to do. Their dreams of professional life have come from glammed-up TV shows and movies, and expectations from schools that cater to their desire for entertainment rather than instilling in them a strong work ethic, when in reality professional work really can be a lot like “Office Space.” Almost no one is going to get the corner office or even a prominent position in a major company, and doing what it takes to get there (marrying the office) can feel dehumanizing. Take that reality into consideration.
You can be a big fish in a small pond of your family and community, or a small fish in the Great Lakes of professional life. A boss can almost always pretty easily replace you. Your children cannot. If you want to be a hero, leader, or celebrity, the number-one way to get there is by having children. You are their world—truly. Almost none of us will be able to say the same professionally.
10. Fertility Treatments Suck
Companies and media act as if freezing one’s eggs or getting fertility treatments are no big deal. They even offer it as an employee benefit in some cases. But that’s crazy talk. Egg freezing and fertility treatments have huge side-effects. Further, fertility treatments are expensive, ethically dubious, and not always effective. Lastly, babies conceived through IVF are prone to birth defects at horrifying rates.
Look, your biological clock starts ticking at age 27. You can avoid all of this by getting it on by then. You want to do it anyway. So just go with your body and not against it. It’s really not that complicated.
I will say one last thing. I do realize that responsible women and men need to find a husband or wife in order to make all this work. You owe your children married parents. I also know the sexual revolution, besides our anti-fertility cultural life script, is just crushing our ability to make that happen. Men are far less interested in putting a ring on it a) if they can get sex without commitment and b) because no-fault divorce is a horrible deal for them.
I get these realities because all my lady friends talk about them constantly. If you can’t start a family before age 30, don’t panic and do start one whenever you can! Life isn’t perfect, and that includes fertility. Further, we need to realize that we are not entirely at the mercy of our culture. We are our culture. What we do and what we expect from each other is a culture-creating process. So stop being defeatist and start being a culture entrepreneur.
Instead, I’m arguing that this is the target to shoot for. If you’re not even aiming at the target, you’re almost sure not to hit it at all. If you at least aim, your chances go way up. So aim.