My friends, as a general rule, have no immediate interest in having children; it’s largely a “maybe someday” kind of idea for the people I am closest to (like calls to like, I assume, and we also met under similarly classed circumstances, almost all of us only a generation or two American, working and middle class, and graduates of public colleges with similar life goals). In turn, however, I, and every one of my friends, and my sister, has at least one friend, if not more, who has an “I want kids by” plan.
The “I want kids by” plan goes something like this: in their early 20s, friend announces, “I want to have kids by 30/my early 30s.” It is always 30 or 30-adjacent; I assume this has to do with the manufactured notion of what “30” is, and means, especially for women, and the constantly-reported “facts” about women’s fertility and its eventual drop-off, and articles that make the idea of being an older parent not only scary, but actively irresponsible, and the still-prevalent, perpetual, heteronormative emphasis on the need for biological family (your rapidly aging egg follicles are of no concern whatsoever if you plan to adopt – but for you, then, there’s the idea perpetuated in the last link, that having children when you’re older will be a burden on them). “I want to be a young mom,” friend says (see last link). “I want to be able to play with my kids. I want to have kids and then go back into the work force.” etc. There are many good reasons. (I am not being facetious – there are truly many good reasons to have children earlier rather than later in life, and if you want biological children, you do have a window that could close, depending on your economic means and access to fertility counseling, anywhere from your late 20s to late 40s.) By mid-20s, if friend has found “someone,” a partner to share their life with, the conversation shall now come to an end, to be replaced by ongoing discussions of fertility, family planning, and, from an outsider’s perspective, a somewhat unfortunate internalized pressure to move towards a goal-line of children, and whatever accompanying family structure and institutions seem appropriate to the two people involved, at a clipped pace. But most college-educated women are no longer married by their mid-20s. And here it gets sticky. If friend with “I want kids by” plan isn’t coupled up by mid-20s, but is instead mired in the common struggles of dating, cohabitating, negotiating and, not so much as an aside, working full-time or more and building a career, the conversation shifts into a very uncomfortable place.
“I want kids by 30, and he doesn’t want to get married for a few years,” one friend said of a partner they seemed genuinely happy with, when the discussion wasn’t about kids, but left anyway. “I thought I would be pregnant by now,” one friend who really, really is not fun to be around at weddings tells me all the time, still single and, I would like to say, holding out for a right person, not just any person, so good on that. I have multiple friends who hit 30 and were married within two years, two of them to someone they had not been dating for very long. “I want kids by” can be a powerful and compelling mantra, supported as it is by a multitude of social pressures and pseudo-science and a hanging sense of heteronormative judgment no matter what we do. Anyone reading this who has a personal “I want kids by” plan that is divorced from their real, lived conditions may, in fact, be feeling defensive and judged right now. Please don’t. I’m not saying people holding to these plans are bad, wrong, or foolish; I am insisting that the “I want kids by” is a perfectly normal conditioned response to a set of circumstances we should instead question and, if possible, fucking blow to high heaven; the circumstances that lead to the “I want kids by” plan are bad for us. They do not have our best interests at heart. And no good comes of formulating cherished plans and dreams based on circumstances and conditions that are working the fuck against you.
Now let me pause for a moment and say the “I want kids by” plan is deeply, deeply gendered; in the dozens of instances of friends and friends-of-friends that I am referencing here, I know of only women. This is a deeply socialized phenomenon, helping to create widespread notions of what women are and should be (mothers, long-term partners) and simultaneously creating actual people’s lives (people with “I want kids by” plans, people who date and marry people with “I want kids by” plans, even friends of people with “I want kids by” plans).
The structure of the problematic “I want kids” plan is supplied, also problematically, by the available discourse for talking about how we want to live our lives. Essentially, our words for how we want to proceed with our lives have become entangled and interchangeable with the words we use when we talk about what we want to do with our careers. We “plan” for families. We set “goals” for children, for marriages. Magazine articles offer “five-and-ten year plans for achieving your romantic goals.” We are talking about working and creating our lives, which are not the same thing, as if they are the same thing. Certainly, ideally, the work you do and the life you live should be in conversation, should accommodate one another (ideally), and should be holistically lived in tandem, but your work and your family and your life are not the same thing. But we don’t have other, unique means of expressing “creating a family,” or “how I want to create a family.” We use the same words we use for work.
This has the effect of both making creating our lives (a slow process of building over which we realistically have often minimal control) seem like work and creating the expectation that we can control these other aspects of our lives like we control work and our careers. Set goals. Negotiate for raises and promotions. Meet deadlines.
No. NO. No. This is a bad idea. This is a disastrous confuscating of what should be understood as very separate, distinct, non-interchangeable processes.
Stop thinking of having kids, raising kids, and creating a family as something you can make happen, will into existence, or work for. You can apply all of those principles if you really want to, but I doubt they will make you happy. I do. I really doubt you will be happy if you separate the natural, organic process of creating the life you want from natural and organic methods and apply, instead, largely capitalist notions of hard work and meritocracy to the undertaking. Think of the happy people you know. Did they set their life out for themselves as a goal? Or did things just “happen”? Did they decide they needed a specific kind of life, or did they feel their way towards a life they think is right for them, and accept it – the joyful, the disastrous and the often indifferent? Have they failed? Of course they have. Everyone fails. No one gets everything they want. Creating a family is, frankly, just like that question people always pose about marital problems: would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?
If you “wait” to have children – because you’re not ready, because you don’t have the economic means, because you want to raise children with a partner and don’t find one until late in life – yes, your aging may be a burden on them. But then, it may not be; my mother was the youngest of eight children, not born until her mother was forty, and the end-of-life care she helped provide her parents with was much like the end-of-life care we provided my father’s parents with, who had their children much younger. My friend’s mother had her at 32 and passed away at 39, unexpectedly, leaving a widower with two little girls, who, yes, will be responsible for their father’s end-of-life care in different ways than they might otherwise be if he were to get re-married.
What is, really, most important to you? Is it most important to be a “young” parent, or is it most important to parent with a partner? Is it most important to parent with a partner by 30, or to parent with someone you truly feel is the right partner for you? Is it most important to give your parents time to be grandparents, or to have kids when you feel personally ready? (I struggle mentally with that one a lot, actually.) I mean all these questions quite seriously. If we accept for a moment, all of us, so many of us subject to bouts of Type-A personality disorder and control issues, that we cannot simply work hard enough to give ourselves everything we want in creating a life, then we have to pause, look around at what we do have and what options those things have afford us, and decide what we want most. This is a case of not letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “actually right and best for us personally.”
Life is a fucking crapshoot – that’s the truth. Having kids: same. Jobs and work: a lot less so, actually. You’re subject to your own limitations, society’s biases and isms, and the whims of the market, but you can do a lot of work with what you have. Life? Kids? Hell no. HELL no. Everything can be going perfectly along your perfect plan when you find out the baby’s heart isn’t beating. Or that your child will be born with disorders that will change everything about the life you envisioned for them. Or that your partners has been cheating, or is just flat-out leaving you, and nothing is going to go the way you thought it was. That you can’t have biological children at all, that the state you’re living in won’t let you adopt as a single parent, or a member of a same-sex couple, or that your 50-year-old mother has early onset dementia, or your father lives to be 96 and requires a full decade of end-of-life-care you weren’t anticipating and that neither you nor he saved enough money for.
I truly believe in life, you should have dreams and desires and a knowledge of what your resources are and go from there. There is no right time to have kids.