In February last year, while hiking in California’s Yucca Valley, I realized I was probably pregnant.
I was 25 years old and had hoped to have more time to travel and write and get lost in the desert among the agaves, far away from my home in New York City, before having a baby. But the plus sign on my pregnancy test indicated that those plans would be cut short—and I’d need to craft new ones fast.
My husband and I had been married for three years, and we would have preferred to save more money before starting a family. But there was no question we were going ahead. I am staunchly pro-life, and though our child was unplanned, he was definitely wanted.
In normal-person terms, 26 isn’t a very young age for a first-time mom. But Brooklyn, where I live, is proudly not the land of normal people. After my son was born in October, I went searching for a new social circle in an attempt to make friends with other new moms like me.
I found a group in tony Park Slope, 10 subway stops from my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The mothers have been kind, but almost all are a decade older. They’re also more professionally successful than me by a mile.
But while their organizational abilities and propensity to research and plan have served them well in their careers, my few months of motherhood have taught me that babies seem unimpressed with these skills. Raising a new life is a realm where intuition reigns, chaos ensues, and no success is ensured by having completed hours of research.
Being a young mom has also insulated me from some of these older moms’ anxieties. In fact, having less money might also mean fewer problems—or at least fewer choices to ruminate over—as well as a greater resignation to circumstances. My son sleeps in a closet, which up until a few weeks before his birth housed my husband’s surfboard (he’s not a professional surfer, he’s in tech).
When I was pregnant, I did not go overboard buying stuff I couldn’t afford, despite the targeted ads that attempted to convince me that parental sleeplessness could be alleviated by a weighted sleep sack for baby ($89), or that my little guy’s motor skills could be honed with a $69 shape-sorter.
Well-off Brooklynites believe certain things ought to be in place before they start “trying.” A room for the child; a sturdy grip on a top rung of the career ladder; a neighborhood with good schools; superlative emotional maturity. I admittedly had none of those things locked down. But most generations that came before didn’t either.
My grandmother raised her first at 18, in a trailer, which she remembers fondly since it offered more space than she’d ever had before, having grown up in a large, poor, Catholic family in German-immigrant Kansas.
My mom, who had me at 22, worked as a nanny for other people’s children when I was a baby, bringing me to work with her in St. Louis, where we were living so my dad could finish school. She had a few rules for kid-raising: no need to go to the doctor for most things (better to wait and see if a malady resolves on its own); a cardboard box from the garage makes for the most thrilling play; and babies can—and should—be brought practically anywhere. In 1997, she took me to Lilith Fair. And who can blame a 23-year-old for wanting to go to a feminist music festival?
I’ve concluded that the baby-rearing confidence of these earlier generations was partly ingrained, partly passed down, and partly the result of lean times leading to inventiveness. But their cheerful, relaxed attitudes are not shared by most moms I encounter today.
At 26, I represent the national average of first-time motherhood. In San Francisco, first-time mothers are on average about 32. In Zapata County, Texas, along the Rio Grande, the average is a low of just under 21. Generally, the more women have access to education and careers, the fewer children they have and the later they get started. As The New York Times reports, “Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without.”
For a population to remain stable, the replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman. The U.S. is now at less than 1.8. This puts us on par with many other developed nations that have seen plummeting fertility rates over the decades. Many cultural critics point to the population implosion of Japan, where deaths have outpaced births for the last decade, and where an increasingly elderly population expects to depend on the taxes generated by grandchildren who were never born.
In the U.S., women putting off child-rearing to later in life means that in some cases they won’t have the number of kids they desire, or that it will be harder for them to conceive the children they do want. (The U.S. has also seen a welcome decline in teen pregnancy rates, which are at an all-time low.)
But my concern is less the fertility rate, and more the cultural script that accompanies having children, which leaves professionally successful moms high and dry. Despite living in a time and place of such extraordinary abundance—of products, of experts, of information—their anxiety seems to be soaring.
I can’t help but wonder if this fear has an effect on when people want to have children and how many they desire.
Take this comment posted by one mom to my Park Slope-based group chat at six in the morning.
“Question about solids,” she asked. “How many times a day/week are you giving them?”
A litany of highly specific regimens followed—three meals a day by seven months; at least two consistent feedings every day if they’re six months or older; purees first; purees never; a chart about how many solids should be introduced to a breastfed baby by age. Three moms expressed how anxious they were about whether their babies were eating the correct amounts on the correct timeline.
Of course, the devoted and thoughtful mothers in my group are just surveying their digital “village” to make sure they’re doing okay. But every time I peek at the chats and forums, I wonder: Why are moms so anxious? Whatever happened to the time-honored tradition of winging it?
I’ve been trapped in conversations with moms obsessing over the best nursing pillow or electric breast pump. I’ve heard all about the virtues of the Uppababy Vista V2 ($1,000) vs. the Uppababy Ridge ($600) vs. the Nuna MIXX ($800)—strollers that look engineered by scientists, designed for lunar exploration.
I can see how the impulse to optimize everything is borne out of the belief that these executives-turned-mothers can perfect their son or daughter’s childhood. But so often the underlying theme is fear.
Consider the Owlet, a baby sleep monitor that retails for $300. The app, which uses “predictive sleep technology” to tell you when the next nap is needed, is hooked up to the “dream sock” that monitors the baby’s heart rate, alerting parents if there are signs of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)—a terrible yet rare event that can occur while a baby is sleeping. Though the company got in trouble with the FDA for marketing the Owlet as an anti-SIDS technology despite not having secured proper classification, it was a great sales pitch: pay us $300 and we’ll give you a device that can alert you in the middle of the night if the baby stops breathing.
While hanging out with these older mothers, I have come to understand the origin of some of the fear and anxiety. Many have gone through expensive fertility treatments and suffered repeat miscarriages. When it takes three years and $40,000 of IVF to get pregnant, and when the hardships are so numerous that you’re pretty sure you’ll have to be one and done, regardless of your dreams, I can see why they feel extra pressure to do it all “right.”
My situation in some ways feels liberating. I’ve quickly learned the nuts and bolts of baby tending. I have the energy to work like a dog, waking up early to write or prepare for TV hits, to make up for the fact that much of my week is occupied by baby needs. The tight spacing of the generations in my family fosters closeness. I feel like I watched my parents grow up and hope my own son will enjoy the same experience—and one day even find his closet bedroom comedic.
Many women of my generation think they should start having children only once they’ve become a fully-fledged person. But it’s never clear when that completion sets in. And it’s frequently sabotaged by our inability to ever feel like we have enough—enough money, enough free time, enough patience.
And ultimately, the pursuit of reaching these goals is futile because—even if you finally become a fully-formed adult—having a baby will unmoor you with a new love that is so overwhelming and self-sacrificial and all-consuming it fundamentally changes who you are.
Children aren’t trophies you get for having completed your “becoming.”
Having my son when I did has given me the unexpected gift of the inability to overthink, to overbuy, to overplan. In doing so, I hope to follow the example of the generations who came before me, who raised resilient kids during tough times, with less gear and more grit.
Liz Wolfe is a writer at Reason. This is her first piece for The Free Press. Follow her on Twitter (now X) @LizWolfeReason.
Read Martin Gurri’s incisive essay on population decline here.
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