It was pretty impossible to be a female writer and not be aware of Judith Shulevitz’s Dec. 6 article in The New Republic on the aging of American parents. Not since the premiere of Girls was there such an eruption among the ladyblogs; it seemed as if everyone had her own perspective on the article’s lessons and (to some) insinuations about women and their pesky biological clocks. Yet amid all the blog traffic and fiery debate, my 23-year-old self kept wondering, “So what does this mean for me?”
I didn’t read Shulevitz’s article as a feminist essay as much as a scientific one — and not a particularly shocking one at that. Studies showing increased health risks for babies born to older mothers have been confirmed and in the news for decades. If anything, Shulevitz stressed that the mother’s age wasn’t the only problem at hand; older fathers also increase the risk of health issues in their progeny (again, not exactly news). But the commentary and emotional responses her article churned up made me realize that I should start thinking about my motherhood plans sooner than I anticipated…
First, a message to my family members, friends and suitors: Calm your horses. By no means am I saying I want to have a baby any time soon. It feels strange and ridiculously premature even admitting, at 23 years old, that I want to have children at some point. Though my inability to cook anything other than macaroni and cheese and to properly read a Metro-North schedule reveal just how ill-equipped I am to care for another living creature (potted plants very much included), that’s not why I feel this discussion is so premature. It’s actually because of the way my mother, the woman I respect and admire more than any other, raised me.
You know the stereotype of Jewish mothers who can’t wait for their own children to shack up so they can kvell over grandbabies? Well, my mom has made it clear she can wait. My mother had me when she was 30 years old, more than five years after she got married and years into her career as a lawyer. To her, my choosing marriage and babies over a career — not to mention having fun with friends and generally enjoying my twenty-something freedom — would be imprudent, if not an all-out reckless move. Basically, I’d be throwing my life away.
And she was hardly the only mother who raised her daughter — and sons, for that matter — to view parenthood in this way. My mother and friends’ mothers graduated from college shortly after second wave feminism had opened professional doors. The pill was widely available, and women started having fewer qualms about waiting to have kids. I grew up in an upper-middleclass suburb of New York where most of the mothers had advanced degrees and didn’t start having children until they were in their early 30s. Some of my female relatives waited until their early 40s. The women around me made it clear through conversations and their own decisions that motherhood was something wonderful, but forever life-changing. And by “life-changing,” I mean it makes everything harder and more expensive, so you certainly didn’t rush into it until you were prepared.
On the one hand, it’s a gift to be raised by mothers of this mentality. I am grateful that I don’t face familial pressure to settle down or annoying questions regarding when I’ll start a family (or at least I get a grace period until my early thirties). However, women also face the reality that, if we want to be mothers, biology tells us that sooner is better than later. The values and goals I was raised with simply don’t jive with what science is telling me, and now I have to start making some decisions.
Thus, many Millenials like myself are facing a new generational divide. It’s easy to tune out anti-feminist politicians telling us women are too focused on the workplace and not concentrating enough on babies, or pundits like Ross Douthat who blame men and women for a “decadence” that apparently makes them too selfish to procreate. We can ignore blowhards, but hard, rational medical data… That’s another issue. The reality is, women have all the health information about motherhood and fertility that runs in direct contrast to the professional and personal goals we were raised to have.
While I’m not yet ready to sacrifice those goals (or, to be perfectly honest, I’m still not sure of those goals), I am certainly not going to ignore the studies on fertility and birth defects on the grounds that it’s anti-feminist poppycock meant to trap women into young motherhood. I used to think I could start a family in my late thirties, since it was around then that my mother had her last child. But she was lucky in many ways, and the hard facts tell me I need to at least make some considerations and back-up plans. I don’t need to make a decision tomorrow or even in the next few years, but I’m suddenly aware that my plans about motherhood need to come sooner than I had originally thought.
All the while I think of what my mother would say. It is precisely because she was the most loving, funny and dedicated mother that parenthood so appeals to me. I don’t know yet what she’ll say about my dilemma. She’ll probably tell me I’m too young to worry myself about all this. And maybe I am. I just know that I want to do everything in my power to make sure I can be as good a mother to my children as she has been to me.