There's No Perfect Time to Start Having Kids

Let's all take a deep breath.


Another week, another series of hand-wringing articles about how women are doing it wrong. This round's theme is how we all (men too!) need to have babies earlier before we get too old and our sperm and eggs rot out from under us. In the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz reports that American mothers have aged on average about four years since 1970, and that men have also aged. She then goes on to worry about the resulting social and health consequences and, somewhat improbably, about the very future of the species.

It was impressed upon me that parents like us, with our aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments, would change the nature of family life. We might even change the course of our evolutionary future. For we are bringing fewer children into the world and producing a generation that will be subtly different—"phenotypically and biochemically different," as one study I read put it—from previous generations.

Alison Benedikt at Slate, who is herself 35 with a third child on the way, adds,

You know what I am doing? I'm wishing. I'm wishing we had started popping out those kids, oh, say, five years earlier than we did, so that maybe, by 40, my bedroom and my sons' bedroom wouldn't be separated by a fake wall.

I hear where Bendikt and Shulevitz are coming from; I'm 41 myself with a 9-year old, and my wife is 46. It would have been nice to have had the kid a couple years earlier, maybe. We'd be sprightlier and better able to chase him down, anyway. Maybe we would have even had a second. And, were we going to have a second right now, certainly Shulevitz's discussion of the way that some birth defects and syndromes (notably autism) rise with the age of the father and the mother might have given us pause. The science doesn't sound 100 percent conclusive or anything, and expert opinion gets reassessed on such matters a lot more than you might think. Still, given what she says, there's reason to forego the fertility treatments...and perhaps reason to think about adoption if you're an older prospective parent (an option Shulevitz doesn't mention).

Still there's more going on here than just regrets or sober weighing of possible downsides. Shulevitz, after all, in that quote above, is raising the specter of vague catastrophic evolutionary I-don't-know-what. Elsewhere in the article she brings up past Malthusian foreshadowings of overpopulation apocalypse—not to suggest that such scare-mongering turned out to be kind of silly, but instead to let us know that the real apocalyptic scare is population decline. If it's not one over-hyped doom, it's another.

That over-hyped doom, is, at bottom, and again, the fear that we, men and women, but especially women, have fumbled the ball. Somehow, it turns out, women don't have it all —the successful career and the happy family; the carefree young years without children and the fulfilling young years with children. The feminist dream of absolute empowerment has proven to be a mirage, and all that is left is concern-trolling, neurosis, and gnashing of dentures.

Of course, the feminist dream isn't actually one of absolute empowerment—or, at least, it shouldn't be. Absolute empowerment isn't possible. Everybody, even the most self-actualized among us, is eventually going to experience suffering, and everybody is going to die. Both Shulevitz and Benedikt present the possibility of dying when their children are in their 30s as a major anxiety for older parents. But just because you're a young parent doesn't mean you're ensured seeing your kids into their 50s. And even if you do, leaving them will still be hard. It doesn't matter how old you are or how young; nobody gets out of this world alive.

The tendency to see death, and therefore life, as impediments that can be removed through more optimal strategizing—that's not feminism, per se. It's late capitalism, or modernity, or the post-enlightenment, or whatever you want to call where it is we live now. The obsession with empowerment requires us to see our lives as things we tinker with and recalibrate and drive beneath us towards some perfect, ever-expanding nirvana of utility. From this perspective, the most real part of us becomes not who we love, nor even who we are, but rather what we have "sacrificed". If only I hadn't had kids, I could have gotten that job; if only I hadn't taken this job, I could have had kids; if only I'd slept around; or married and settled down; or started a family earlier, or later. We spend all our time mourning the stronger, brighter, better selves we could have been, if we had only more fully maximized our choices.

Again, I say "we" because men worship empowerment too. In fact, they worship it more. Women are the ones who disproportionately deal with child care. They're the ones whose bodies are forcibly repurposed to cater to some small creature's needs for nine-months-plus-breast-feeding. As such, women tend to have a better handle on the fact that they are not always and in every situation the captains of their own fate.

Women's potential for bearing children, then, makes them targets for belittlement and/or marketing (to the extent the two can be separated): Women endure a constant barrage of admonitions and warnings, all to the effect that they are not measuring up to some impossible standard of self-actualization, and that therefore they and their children must suffer.

But that inability to live up to an impossible standard also, at least potentially, gives them a space from which to question those very standards. For example, Nel Noddings, a feminist ethicist, uses a consideration of female experience to challenge very basic ideas about how we should live our lives.

Women should, of course, have access to the occupations that have conferred status and wealth on men. We should have some control over our own lives and futures. But what of the activities for which we have had responsibility for centuries? Should we agree with powerful men that these occupations, paid or unpaid, are worth very little? The discussion here leaves us with an uneasy feeling that, although we want to control our own lives, we may be unavoidably heteronymous in our thinking. That worry raises a deeper question concerning the notion of autonomy. In what sense, if any, are human beings autonomous?

Noddings goes on to note that human beings do not choose their families, their first languages, their cultural status, or most of the things that make them most themselves. She adds that "because we are committed to care, we bind ourselves."

The point here isn't that women shouldn't be in the workplace. Nor is the point that they should work, or that they should have babies early, or late, or not at all, or that they should stop fighting for, or settle for anything less than, equal treatment and respect. Rather the point is that our lives are our lives, not some exercise in game theory. You don't get a thousand permutations; you get a single story. The most important things—who you love, who your child is—aren't even things you decide. Historically, women have been in a better position to know that than men have. That doesn't mean they're doing it wrong. Rather it means that we—men and women and everyone else—could stand to learn from their experiences how to let our own lives be our own lives, even as we grow old.