I confess, I was lucky. My husband and I did not need to use skills for communication in marriage in order to find the best time to have our first child. Within days of getting married, my husband and I realized that we were on our way to raising a family. I was pregnant. That was the best decision we never made.
Recently, my husband and I attended our 50th high school and 45th college reunions. At all four events, we were stunned. We had assumed that our classmates would be in a similar life stage to ours. Not quite. That decision we never made, getting us pregnant at age 25, put us into an accelerated class.
One of my high school friends and one from my husband’s high school class each had six grandkids. These two classmates, however, were the vast exceptions. While most of our classmates did have at least some grandkids, many had none and the others had at most two or three. Their sense of the best time for a first baby had been up in their mid to late 30s, and their grown children were proceeding toward parenthood at a similarly leisurely pace.
Our colleges, alas, seemed to have trained their graduates even more explicitly in how not to create a significant extended family. My husband observed that many of his classmates seemed to have had more wives than grandchildren. My college classmates considered themselves blessed (and I agree) if they had been gifted with at least one or two grandchildren. Most, while they enjoyed successful careers, had raised adult children who as yet, mainly in their late 30s, had not married.
Our grandkids make our life so joyful. Our many classmates with no grandchildren were missing out. And most of our classmates had not achieved replacement, which means a declining population.
What conventional wisdoms have been pushing back the age of first pregnancies?
Romeo Vitelli's post—Do People Who Marry Late in Life Find Happiness?—shares research evidence that marriages in the late 20s or in the 30s lead to more happiness than marriages when couples are both younger. What, however, is the impact of later age of marriage on the ability to have children? Hmm.
I recently asked a thoughtful Stanford psychology student what he and his friends considered as a good marriage and having-kids timeline. The young man answered without hesitation, "Play around in your 20s. In your 30s, when you're old enough to have a steady paying job and are comfortable enough to support a family, then pursue a longer-term relationship."
"Well-put," I thought, "and sadly unrealistic in terms of human biology if you want to be sure to be able to enjoy a happy and healthy family." For an excellent summary of the biological reasons why mid-20s is the best time to start conceiving children, see this post from BabyCenter.com (note: I loved the post well before I came to the part where it turned out that the article quotes me).
Here are sociological factors that seem to be impacting the choices young people now are making about committed relationships and conception.
1. Stop At Two
I recall the beginnings of the “stop at two” movement. It was when I was in my 20s. Children became regarded as a luxury that you should limit instead of life’s ultimate gift.
Now even China has found that limiting births, in their case to one per family, sets up for the death of a society once there are not enough workers to support the elders.
Let's face it. Like the Chinese, many of those of us who are elders in America will not succeed in saving enough financially to sustain us, even with Social Security, through our many years of post-retirement senior living. The government's having forced us to save via social security may have lulled us into a false sense of security. It will help some but not provide enough for comfortable senior living.
Ultimately, a couple's traditional and perhaps best insurance for old age comes from investment in having raised a loving family who can then, if need be, help to take care of its elders. "Primitive" societies all do this. Our advanced technological society fractures families instead of expecting them to be strong and expecting family members to help each other.
2. New post-college life stages
In part, I blame TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld. These programs popularized the idea of a very extended young-adulthood. College used to lead to marriage, especially for women. Now women, like men, seek to make their way in the economic world before marriage and family concerns rise to the top of the priority list.
I also blame the academic world that provides few examples among the faculty that living and learning can co-exist. Few young faculty members have children, and graduate school students tend to believe that their education has to end before grown-up life can begin. How fortunate my husband and I were to have become pregnant in the midst of our grad school years. My daughter who is now a psychologist started attending her first graduate school psychology courses at age one month.
3. A new timeline
Add those two factors together, an extended young-adult singles life stage of cavorting when folks used to do courting plus grad school, and suddenly young men and women are likely to find themselves in their late 20s.
Add now several years of trying to find a suitable partner. Woops. Now the 30s already are stealthily creeping by.
Then comes the conventional wisdom that couples should be engaged for a year or more before their wedding, and then another conventional wisdom suggesting that couples wait a year or more after marriage before starting to try to conceive children.
While there is a grain of truth in each of these conventions, there are faster ways than just waiting for the passage of time to get that data. See the bottom of this article for at least one better alternative.
Beyond concerns about consolidating a marriage, many young women hold a belief (a questionable conventional wisdom) that they should wait until their career has been well-established before starting a family. By then, couples are likely to be well into their 30s.
The realities found in studies in the '70s, in fact, said that the happiest women worked part-time and were with their children part-time, in this way advancing both their careers and their family simultaneously. Full-time work made for overload at home. No working outside of the home tended to invite maternal depression, especially for women with a prior gratifying career. The combo of part and part generally was ideal.
What are the downsides of launching a family after 35?
A couple in their mid to late 30s aiming for a first pregnancy has significantly lower odds of being successful in getting pregnant. Conception is likely to take longer to accomplish. The pregnancy is likely to be more uncomfortable, with more morning sickness. The rates of birth defects, mental retardation and autism begin to zoom upward. Not a pretty picture.
The bottom line is that women’s bodies are ideally suited to having babies when they are in their mid-20s. They can stretch that some into their early 30s, especially for second and third pregnancies. Past age 35, however, conceiving babies enters a danger zone, for men as well as women. Sperm and eggs do not increase with vitality as they age. Conception as late as early 40s certainly does occur for many women. It's just more iffy and more likely to be problematic.
The bottom line is that many couples treat pregnancy via the paradigm of handing in a college paper: wait to start the project until the last moment; work at it then feverishly; and hope you can get an extension. That strategy may work in college. It's less than ideal for launching a family.
Living organisms’ first priority is survival. Their second is reproduction. How have we become so out of synch with these basic life goals?
If you are concerned about population explosion, the math looks good. Few of my high school or college-age cohort managed by their late 60s to accomplish replacement rate. Two parents plus two parents of your son or daughter-in-law need four grandchildren total for the population to stay even. So our society is doing well in terms of curtailing population growth. European countries, as well as China, have begun, however, to ask how much reduction in population growth is too much reduction.
What does age of reproduction mean for you personally?
Time taken for extended young adulthood is time taken away from grandparenthood.
Is the extended family becoming an endangered species?
When the Beatles sang, “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” they were singing about “… when I’m 64.” If college-educated young adults now are having their children mainly between ages 35 and 40, and their children do the same, they will enjoy no grandchildren until they are in their 70s or 80s. That's maybe young enough to play with young grandchildren, but by the time the grandkids get to be elementary school-aged and the most fun to do activities with, the grandparents are likely to be pretty far gone.
What else holds folks back so long from marrying and launching their family?
One factor can be wanting to finish their education first. That's sad, because studying and raising children can be a great combo, provided one spouse can support the necessary babysitting help, or maybe the grandparents.
A second factor may be how long it is taking to feel secure that you can earn a living, especially in this iffy economy. Still, while two may not be able to live as cheaply as one, when it comes to adding children, I'm a believer that where there's a will, there's a way.
Third, it's hard to go against trends. Human beings tend to be herd animals. If your friends are waiting until their mid to late 30s to have babies, that age is likely to "feel right," even if biologically it is mistaken.
Researchers who claim to have found that moms who have their babies later are happier don't help. The reality most likely is that older moms score happier because older moms are more likely to be more affluent, educated, physically healthy, and married. These factors, rather than age of conception, probably account for higher happiness scores for older moms, scores which may correlate with age at first birth but do not indicate causation.
A potential subconscious blockage
This last barrier to birthing kids, fortunately, is something you can do something about. Offspring of parents who were unhappy or divorced grow up wary of choosing a mate for fear that they may end up on the wrong side of the 50-50 divorce statistics. They are especially at risk for waiting to get married, cohabitating instead of committing. They then may wait again after the wedding for a gong to go off that will assure them that the marriage will last before feeling ready for conception to begin.
The good news here is that couples can stop wondering and instead do something to put themselves on the right side of the 50-50. Learn the skills for successful marital partnering. A couple's odds of sustaining a loving life-long marriage partnership then zoom upwards, setting the stage for inner readiness to conceive and launch a family.
At the same time, I'm a big fan of family life. Any time is better than never for having that first baby.
Let the good times roll, and save space on your knee for grandkids!
P.S.: Tah dah! Look what a recent study is saying: "... a shift seems to be afoot: A new study from the London School of Economics found that an increasing number of younger women are choosing to have children earlier, with the idea that they'll return to, or even start, their careers later on. In a reader poll conducted by the Telegraph, 15 percent of voters said that the best time to have a baby is early on in your career. The argument: It's easier to leave when you've got fewer responsibilities."
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, workbook, and website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.