Published May 2, 2022
Changing a diaper is not that difficult. Doing it in the dark at 3:30 a.m. after a few weeks of rarely sleeping for more than ninety minutes at a stretch, while being screamed at, is the hard part. The challenge of having babies—other than, as my wife can attest, getting them out and recovering from getting them out—is the relentlessness of caring for them. No wonder professional-class culture emphasizes having life well in hand before having kids.
Nonetheless, my wife and I did not intend to follow the expected procreative schedule for educated professionals. We wedded a little earlier than most, and we did not want to wait long for children. But wait we did. It was almost a decade later, when we were in our mid-thirties and had given up hope of conceiving, that we were blessed with children. Thus, our two daughters were born right at the approved baby-making time for people with advanced degrees, though I still doubt that schedule’s wisdom.
Perhaps this is just wistful thinking about might-have-beens, or residual grief from years of unexplained infertility followed by the anguish of losing our first pregnancy. Perhaps it is just accumulated sleep deprivation talking. But I doubt it. I do not know if it would have been better if childbearing had unfolded according to our plans, but I do know that the culture’s recommended reproductive schedule for the young, ambitious and educated is one-sided, and that it is not good for society’s leadership classes to be this close-minded about such a fundamental part of being human.
For example, Elizabeth Bruenig sparked meltdowns last year with a Mother’s Day declaration that she did not regret becoming a mother at twenty-five. She and her editors knew the backlash was coming, even though her piece was amusing, observant and reflective. Her best insight was that trying to find oneself before having children is overrated, because not only are our identities always changing, but they are also best defined by relationships. So if you want to be a parent, don’t wait; your kids are not going to care about the carefully curated, Instagram-ready identity you used to have. If becoming a parent does not change who you are, you’re doing it wrong.
The Risks of Waiting
There are also reasons to be concerned about waiting too long to have children. Leading the list are the increased risks that advanced maternal age poses to the mother and her baby. Pregnancy at thirty-five and older is sometimes bluntly described as “geriatric” and it is more prone to the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Professional-class parents have a reputation as overprotective, but they often increase the risks to mother and child by delaying childbearing.
Of course, to brave these dangers women must first become pregnant, which becomes more difficult with age. Despite our cultural expectations, the female reproductive system begins declining around age thirty. Which is to say that the culturally-favored reproductive strategy for educated professionals is to wait to have children until female fertility is on the downswing. Having children during one’s best childbearing years is seen as, and statistically is, lower-class—the prejudices of the educated are sometimes stupid.
Furthermore, letting the biological clock tick close to midnight not only increases the likelihood of fertility problems, it also narrows the window in which they can be diagnosed and treated. Relatedly, putting off children makes it more difficult to have more than one or two. Yet these risks are often overlooked by those who say they want to have children—just not yet.
Nor do the difficulties of having children later in life end with conceiving and safely giving birth. The most obvious problem is that time wears us down. Even those among us who haven’t put on a few extra pounds or picked up a nagging ache or ailment are probably going to find it harder at thirty-five than at twenty-five to cope with the demands of a newborn or a toddler. The sleep-deprived haze of newborn days will never be easy, but the energy and resilience of youth can reduce the strain. Playing punk rock at my elder daughter to help her sleep makes for a good story now, but I was struggling to keep it together at the time—my capacity to stay up late, sleep poorly, and bounce back quickly has been much reduced.
Likewise, grandparents and other relatives also slow down with age, and so the help they are able to provide may be consequently diminished, or come with a cost. Nana’s back might be hurting a lot more these days, or she might have moved away to Florida or Arizona. Don’t count on free babysitting always being there for you.
Of course, there are counterexamples to some of these points. For instance, retirement might allow grandparents to be more helpful despite being older. Conversely, the usual reasons for delaying children do not always hold true—the expected benefits of putting off children may not materialize, for careers and other circumstances might not be as stable or child-friendly as they were expected to be. There are no guarantees with having children, only probabilities. Circumstances change in unforeseen ways, and children are not uniform. Sometimes, parents just get lucky, or unlucky. Our second daughter slept better at two months than our first did at a year old, and the difference is due to her temperament, not to improvements in our parenting.
A Vision of Control
When it comes to bearing and raising children, we have less control than we want, or than we think we have. Unfortunately, a vision of control based on ambition, education, and income has come to dominate professional-class perspectives on having children. Consequently, many high-achieving young men and women who say they want children someday are struggling with how to make someday happen, and to handle it if it does.
There is something cruel about this development, as well as the expectation that, as Megan McArdle once put it, educated professionals “must time pregnancies exquisitely to optimize a career.” Women bear the worst of this, for they not only endure the physical tolls of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but nature inequitably gives men more time before fertility declines and a more gradual fall-off when it does. It is far easier for a forty-year-old man to father a child than for a forty-year-old woman to bear one.
Unfortunately, the ambitions that talented young women are encouraged to pursue often do not account for the realities of female embodiment and family life. Professional women are expected to risk their ability to have children in order to serve corporate efficiency within the preexisting male-oriented career model. The measures that some corporations offer to rectify this, such as paying for egg freezing, merely highlight the exploitative, even dystopian, nature of their corporate culture. It is similarly notable that feminism has come to champion surrogacy, in which the well-to-do rent wombs from poor and working-class women. Reducing pregnancy to a boutique service job is far closer to a misogynistic dystopia than putting Amy Barrett on the Supreme Court, whatever costumed protesters might think.
The renewed conservative focus on family policy has a target-rich environment. There are obvious areas to address, such as the child tax credit and childcare, but there are ways to make having children easier or harder in areas from housing to education to transportation. For example, an education system that pushes as many people into college for as long as possible (often incurring significant debt) is in practice anti-family. Even policies meant to protect children can have anti-natal effects—increasingly stringent car seat mandates have been shown to discourage having children.
But though material conditions matter, a culture of anti-natalism among the leadership class will be difficult to reverse, even after conditions improve. The educated professionals who direct our economy, politics, and culture are told to define themselves through accomplishments and indulgences—youth is for achievement and enjoyment while finding oneself, with children as a capstone when the party is ending.
But it is by giving up our autonomous selves that we gain our lives as persons in communion with other persons. Autonomy means keeping our options open and our hearts free, always having an out from our obligations and relationships. Autonomy holds us back from full commitment, and it therefore limits love, which requires vulnerability. In this sense, autonomy imposes limits that restrict essential aspects of human flourishing—love is sacrificed for freedom.
Consequently, getting married and having children helps us build and establish more substantial identities than those sought through professional advancement and personal pleasures, or relationships that always come with an exit option. In particular, the permanence of marriage and children indicates that these gifts express the deeper aspects of our identities, while also reflecting the truth that we are ordered toward giving and receiving love.
There are many reasons to reject the cultural pressure to put off having children until middle age is near, but the heart of the matter is that our culture is mistaken about the good life. Abundant life awaits amid the messes and stresses of raising children.
Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.