The average age of first-time mothers in the U.S. is 25.1, according to a 2002 CDC survey. I became pregnant for the first time at 24, so that makes me "average" according to this statistic. But it certainly does not feel that way. In fact, reading the voluminous commentary within the "In the Parenthood" blog by Globe Magazine staff member Lylah Alphonse, most mothers in their mid-to-late twenties often report being the youngest mother in their play group or nursery school class. In most East Coast metropolitan areas, the average age of first birth has risen five or more years. The increase is less than 2.5 years in places like Oklahoma, Mississippi and New Mexico, say researchers T.J. Matthews, MS, and Brady E. Hamilton, PhD of the National Center for Health Statistics in a CBS News web report.
There is a flurry of "Millenial" feminist writing that encourages women to find their purpose without falling into convention -- more specifically, to "be all they can be" by delaying or eliminating family. Some studies are even beginning to argue that marriage and family make women miserable. In a provocative July 4, 2010 New York Magazine article, Jennifer Senior argues that parenthood does not make most people happier.
Senior cites several studies, including one by sociologist Robin Simon, which said "parents are more depressed than non-parents no matter what their circumstances, whether they're single or married, whether they have one child or four." There's a message in today's mass media that having babies in your twenties is just plain out of touch and perhaps even self-destructive!
"The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. Compared with mothers of newborns in 1990, today's mothers are older and better educated," Gretchen Livingston and D'Vera Cohn write in a May 6, 2010 Pew Research Center report. This phenomenon is also evident globally. As professional and scholastic opportunities open up, women all over the world are pursuing their careers vigorously through their twenties and early thirties. The United Kingdom Office for National Statistics reports that there are now more first-time mothers in the 30-34 age group than the 25-29 age group in England. The average age for first-time moms in New Zealand and Australia is 30.7, and in Slovenia women are waiting until about 29.
"We're a slim demographic," a friend of mine recently said. "There are not many educated, professionally ambitious women who choose babies first and plan to seriously pursue career later."
But despite these studies, many women I know in their late twenties are beginning to feel a sense of malaise and dissatisfaction with their lack of family and intense focus on only career and friendships. In her book Marry Him: The Case for settling for Mr. Good Enough, author Lori Gottlieb cites women who delayed marriage for career and then ended up unhappy as single, childless women unable to find a compelling mate in their 40s and 50s.
"Despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know -- no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure -- feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried," Gottlieb writes in March 2008 Atlantic Magazine article about her book.
Although I don't necessarily agree that all women need a husband and children to be fulfilled, I think many eventually grow to find family even more fulfilling than friends, parties and career combined.
I began to feel the need for a greater purpose after college. The love of partying, autonomy and obsession with the self faded, and I became serious about continuing to develop my talents but also finding a partner to grow with. After I met my husband and we married, I proactively made the decision to start a family right away. Since my professional aspirations were still germinating, it made sense to tackle motherhood when my body and energy levels were most ready for it. Now I see that either path -- whether it is delaying babies to further career or embracing them early on -- has both positive as well as frustrating elements.
For me, the core stability, confidence and mutual support were incredible positives. Here are two challenges of choosing babies before career: It is easy to feel generationally out of place: Women of my generation, or "Millenials," are delaying marriage and family more than any other. We grew up vehemently rejecting the June Cleaver, stay-at-home mom ideal and embracing the Carrie Bradshaw prototype. Open up a Cosmopolitan magazine and it is filled with "I am woman hear me roar"-tinged proclamations rejecting the conventional lifestyle choices of marriage and family. In a July 10th Glamour magazine survey, women in their mid-to-late twenties were asked to define what the American dream meant to them. A 29-year-old from New York city said it's "not about finding the 'perfect man' and starting a family... it's about embracing life as it actually is," and a 28-year-old from Rhode Island said she's "in no rush to get married -- and not meant for breeding." In that article not a single woman specifically mentioned children as a goal.
There have been times when I was ashamed to admit I was a "stay-at-home mom" -- the term itself made me cringe. I thought my peers would see me as 1950s throwback, someone uninteresting and lacking ambition. Author and pregnancy specialist Brenda Lane writes that "our culture rarely values this role of the stay-at-home mother and instead seems to tell mothers that they need to 'be everything they should be' by pursuing a career." Not only is choosing to be a young mother often not valued as prescient decision-making, but there is an underlying intimation that by choosing motherhood a woman is not maximizing her potential.
All of these social trends together can sometimes create a sense of not belonging.
Increasingly, many of stay-at-home mothers today are older and have already had interesting professional experiences. I was stuck somewhere in the middle -- a stay-at-home mom in body, a career woman in spirit. With time, these hormonally-propelled, insecure feelings passed. But in the first year of being a new mother -- the time when a woman needs a support group and people she can relate to around her the most -- I felt displaced from my peers, making the transition more difficult.
Being a mother is not necessarily a resume booster: Mothers are 79 percent less likely to get hired than non-mothers with equal resumes and job experiences, according to a report by the American Journal of Sociology. They are also paid less and "held to harsher work standards," Gabriela Montell wrote in a January 7, 2008 article for The Chronicle blog. The situation is more bleak for young mothers because they have to compete with applicants who may have multiple graduate degrees and years of work experience, merit badges younger mothers do not have because they chose to pursue family first. Managing a family has taught me incredible multi-tasking, organizational, interpersonal and even strategic skills that I could never have learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, most businesses do not view these, nor the patience, maturity and confidence that come from being a mother, as valuable qualities in a job applicant.
Ultimately, choosing family is a highly personal decision about what fulfills you and can make you the best possible version of yourself. For me, choosing babies before career ignited a personal metamorphosis and maturation, as well as a sense of fulfillment in two years that may have taken more than a decade otherwise. Having two other people to make proud and strive for has made me that much more determined to accomplish my professional goals.
Young people today are amazingly creative and driven, yet can also be restless and indecisive in our society of instant gratification and boundless choice. By going after family early, many young women can find their center and purpose more quickly. There are a slew of young hip mothers in Hollywood who prove just that. Ashlee Simpson, Nicole Richie and even Angelina Jolie all had setbacks or challenges in their pasts, but were really able to find calm, joy and stability in their lives through family. There is a confidence and glow about those women now that they never had before, and they are thriving professionally because of it. As Ashlee Simpson said, "being a mom is so empowering."