Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thank you, generations

This morning, Luke and I spent some time looking at a recent letter from his Great-Grandma Carey. After I told her about a reading activity I do with Luke where we cut out pictures of words he knows from magazines, she sent him an envelope filled with cut-out pictures of animals. She even pasted a picture of a very fat cat sitting on a sofa to some stationary and wrote Luke a little story letter about it. He loves this envelope full of pictures, and he loves the story letter. I am fully aware of how precious a real letter from a great-grandparent is, and I fully plan on preserving this sweet missive.

Renée is named for two of her great-grandmothers; one living, and one passed on. We just received a gift package in the mail from Great-Grandma Renée today, in fact. This image of the two Renées together was taken by my sister, and it will be an heirloom forever. But even sweeter are the memories we've made so far with Great-Grandma Renée holding baby Renée coaxing laughs and smiles from her, wrinkled hands around chubby ones.

The relationship of child to great-grandparent is truly tender and awe-inspiring. When I have been in the room with my children and any of their great-grandparents, 5 of whom are living, I have felt the beauty of it deep in my soul. The human race, so resilient and wise as it ages, so buoyant and joyful in childhood. When you have children yourself, it changes your relationship with your parents and grandparents. They talk about different things to you. Your children act as a lodestone for the powerful memories of their childraising years, and you suddenly find yourself hearing stories about yourself, your siblings, and your parents that you have never heard. Happy stories, sad stories, funny stories. Precious bits of family and personal history that never would have come out if not for the presence of those sweet little spirits around you.

These are the fruits of 3 generations of bearing children young. Nick and I's grandparents, our parents, and now us, all having children in our twenties. This is one of the many things I've been thinking about after reading all these articles on waiting to have children.

The desire to be a grandparent and a great-grandparent is probably incomprehensible to most twenty-somethings today, who can't even manage to wrap their head around being regular parents--but that will change. You may desire it dearly, so dearly someday.

If you wait until your late 30s or 40s to have children, and then your children follow your example, there is very little chance you will live to be a great-grandparent, and your time as a grand-parent will not happen until you are already quite old. The loss of these relationships again, may not resonate with twenty-somethings now. It may not resonate with anyone, because if anything has become clear to me while reading over all these articles, it is that our culture does not value family relationships. Not the relationship of parent to child, not the relationship of sibling to sibling, certainly not the relationship of grandparent to child. No, what our culture values is money. Because nobody's afraid of losing the relationship of great-grandparent or grandparent, but the idea of women losing MONEY because of childbearing is simply TERRIFYING.

Truly, what is the prime reason that these authors are discussing delayed motherhood? Money. What is the baby penalty they're talking about? Essentially, money. To read these articles, you would think that making less money is the worst possible thing that can happen to somebody.

Why are all these people freaking out about money anyway? For most of these high-end careers that are being discussed, mamas will be making PLENTY, especially if they're in a dual-income household. At most, they'll probably have two or three kids, soooo what are they gonna be spending all this extra money on?  When I read all these freak-out facts about women making less money as a result of motherhood, I just think it sounds so stupid and shallow. Grow up! Money is not the only thing that matters! I'm in a household that will be primarily single-income in a very expensive area and we plan on having, I don't know, between 4 and 7 children. I'm not freaking out about money and how much or little I personally will make.

I'm not trying to overly simplify things, and obviously people live in a great variety of household set-ups and financial situations. I guess I would just like to see somebody writing an article that says: screw all that--kids are worth every penny less of paycheck. Kids are worth every extra moment you spend striving toward a goal. Children are worth it all, because at the end of the day, children are the only thing of worth. Career is nice, and money is nice, but anyone with children can tell you that family is the only thing that matters. These articles make it sound like women are suffering and miserable and leading terrible lives because they're making 10 grand less a year, or taking extra time to achieve tenure, or finish grad school, or make partner at a law firm.

I'm not saying these things should happen to women just because they're women--I'm not saying that the current hurdles women have to jump over are acceptable. Obviously, salary should not be fixed on gender, but on work accomplished. And guess what? During certain periods of a woman's life, they may need/want to work less than men, and that's okay! What these articles appear to say is Because of all these career difficulties, women should just delay having children/not have children--because clearly a bigger paycheck, faster career advancement, and more prestige are way more fulfilling and worthwhile than being a mother at a younger age. I'm saying the only way these hurdles can be abolished is if the brilliant, capable women that employers want to hire and retain fight for the working world to embrace women's biological timeline, and not just men's. 

Speaking of that timeline...there are more factors than just "How quickly can you get pregnant with a healthy child?" involved in deciding whether to delay children (for some people it's a conscious choice. Others may simply not be in a position to have children until later, and that's a different matter). As I mentioned already, you are sacrificing your future familial roles for present career gains. Waiting till an advanced maternal age limits your family size choices. You may think "Oh, I only have one sibling, I want a small family, I'll have plenty of time to have a couple kids after 35." But motherhood is a change far more visceral and tremendous than any other--you may feel differently when you have children. I have a friend who only had one sister growing up, and now has six children. She is young, fit, and luscious. She is one of the most joyful and relaxed mothers I have ever seen, and everyone who encounters her is in awe of her. She didn't know before that she would have such a big family--but it's pretty nice that she started having kids young so she could accommodate so many sweet little ones with healthy timing between each.

Waiting puts you in a difficult position if you conceive a disabled child, because you will not have the same amount of young, energetic parenting life ahead of you to care for that child. There's the consideration of young, student life being ultimately more flexible for bearing and rearing young children than a rigid career life. If 30 to 40 is a crucial decade for career advancement, as one article claims, then is that really the decade you want to have children in? If women shifted back to having children in their early 20s, then their children would be much older by the time careers grew more demanding. Why, Wendy Davis illustrates that quite well.

It's convenient for Jean Twenge, the author of "How long can you wait to have a baby?", that she easily conceived three children with no disabilities and experienced no miscarriages after the age of 35. I'm really glad it turned out that way for her. But just because it didn't happen to her doesn't mean other people don't have problems. It doesn't mean that a rising likelihood of childbearing issues--even if that rising likelihood is less steep than people at first assume--isn't something to weigh seriously and perhaps fear.

Let's remember that the way people view and present statistics is subjective. Jean is basically looking at these statistics and minimizing the risks, saying, Sure there's an increase in childbearing issues, but the risks aren't that big, they aren't that serious, nobody really needs to be afraid of them. It's easy for her to retrospectively look at these statistics and say "What was I afraid of? I conceived healthy children easily, so obviously these statistics are blown out of proportion and my fear was groundless."

But someone else--someone who has struggled long and hard to conceive because of age, or who has a fetus with Down syndrome and has grappled with whether or not to give birth to a child they won't live long enough to properly care for, or who has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage because of age, may look at those statistics and think "Oh my gosh, why would anyone risk going through what I've experienced by putting off children? Don't they see how the likelihood they'll have difficulties goes up every year?" Because she didn't struggle, Jean thinks those percentage points can be brushed aside. But someone who did struggle may believe every percentage point counts.

This isn't about being afraid--it's about being informed. If by choice or chance a woman is in a position that she's bearing children in her late 30s or 40s, she needs to be aware of what the possible struggles are, and she needs to be aware of how her body has changed so she can optimize her chances of a quick, natural conception. For instance, Taking Charge of Your Fertility advises, "As women age, the quantity and quality of fertile cervical fluid tends to decline...women in their 20s will generally have 2 to 4 days of eggwhite, while women approaching their late 30s will often have a day or less. This decline can lead to impaired fertility if intercourse is not timed well. In addition, as women enter their late 30s, they tend to have more anovulatory cycles, and often those in which the egg is released have shorter luteal phases." If you don't know what she means by fertile cervical fluid or luteal phase, that's a reason to go read Taking Charge of Your Fertility! And if you don't many women don't know?

I feel like it is unwise to just ride along on a wave of popular lifestyles, assuming that you can do whatever you want whenever you want and you will suffer no ill consequences from it--that's basically what Jean is saying. Don't worry about it! Nothing will happen! You'll be fine! SHE CAN'T KNOW THAT FOR YOU. SHE CANNOT KNOW THAT WAITING UNTIL YOU'RE 37 TO TRY TO CONCEIVE IS A GOOD IDEA OR NOT FOR YOU.  Sure, waiting until you're older may be the right thing for you and you personally may not feel the effects of age-related childbearing issues, but you can't tell the future, and neither can Jean Twenge. If you want a family, don't gamble. Make a plan, make sacrifices, and bring the children who are waiting to love you and learn from you and laugh with you into this world. Trust me--your children will love you a lot more than your paycheck will.

(On a final note, maybe you think I don't know what I'm talking about since my career choices happen to be very flexible and compatible with motherhood. In some ways, I agree. That's why there will be future blog entries with interviews and input from some of the savviest high-power career women I know who have also had children young. Just wait). 

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