Friday, March 24, 2006

The Petrified Forest - SUMMARY POST

From Po:

* In 1976, 10% of women age 40-44 had no children.
* In 2004, 19% of women age 40-44 have no children.

What's going on here, we've asked? It used to be a tenth of women never had children - now it's a fifth of women. A major demographic change has happened in thirty years.

Is it just that people aren't pairing up, aren't even getting married? We know there's a lot of skepticism about marriage out there, but if you've read WDILTP, you'll remember from the halftime chapter that while we might delay marriage, we still get around to it. For the women turning 40 this year, over 83% of them had already married by the age of 35. And the Census Bureau expects about 92% will marry at some point in their lives. Pairing up, it seems, is still very popular.

The crucial words there might be "at some point in their lives." You can marry right up until the day you die, but biological children have a window of time. And that window is shrinking quickly. I don't mean the window is closing on us ... I mean that a woman today is expected to do some other things before she has kids - she needs to go to college, she needs to gain her independence, she needs to get her career going ... and she has fewer years left in which to pair up with the right person, and fewer years even then to get pregnant. It's no wonder, with all that going on, that another tenth of our society can't manage to get it all worked out in time.

Unfortunately, many women who haven't pulled all that off are labeled as having "chosen" to forego bearing children ... when it's not been their first choice at all.

But this "So Much To Do - So Little Time" explanation doesn't fully explain the doubling in childless women. The numbers are similar for men. Let's be honest: the decision to have a child can be scary. We might be reasonably well-off today, but it seems that the tradeoff has included greater uncertainty about our future. With such uncertainty looming, and with nobody able to see more than a year or two into their own future, making a decision that will impact the next 20 years (having a child) is hard to make.

So when I used "The Petrified Forest" to describe the big group in the middle who's scared of having kids, readers backed me up - yes, becoming a parent can be terrifying. It's hard enough to just take care of ourselves.

Thirty years of divorce culture has been a factor, too. But it's been a factor both ways. For every guy who doesn't want to get married or have kids because of what went down in his own home, there's another guy with the same backstory who senses redemption in marrying and having children.

Ashley looked into the theory that it's mostly liberals who aren't having kids - is that partly why the country has shifted to the right? It might be, if not for the Hispanic women keeping the fertility rate high in the blue states.

So the optimist in me still finds solace in the fact that over 4 out of 5 women (and almost as many men) will overcome all these stated obstacles and manage to have children.

Lastly, we've met some women who have decided to take men out of the equation, at least temporarily. One less piece of the puzzle to find, one less problem to avoid. Sperm can be bought. It's not cheap, and the few thousand women each year who do it are very wealthy and very white ... (37 times more likely to be white than black.) Ashley gave Jennifer Egan a shellacking for the way she told this story, but to me, in a world where it's so easy to be pessimistic and so easy today to find reasons not to have children, I found only admiration for the women willing to raise a child alone.

So I'll put it back to you, readers:

How did you decide whether to have children, if you were a person who had your fears?

And how do you counsel someone (a friend, a daughter) who is confused about whether to have children?


Blogger Jennifer said...

Is it too naive, desperately pedestrian, and unpopular spirituality these days to believe and accept that some things just happen the way they're supposed to happen? For a reason?
In the 80s, most of our mothers launched careers trying to catch up with the imagined notion of what they were supposed to be doing as women. The entire phrase "having it all" came out of that time.

As a child of that era, I have come to believe and accept that the firm answer is: NO. You cannot have it all. At least, if you define "it all" as what you've listed as modern expectations of women.

she has fewer years left in which to pair up with the right person

My personal story is that I met and married relatively young - straight out of college, age 22. Even my parents, married at age 19, thought I was young...having adjusted their reality to the modern timescale. I firmly believe I was given my soul mate at the precise moment we needed each other the most.

Some would argue that not everyone is that lucky. Possibly. Or is it that people fail to accept or recognize it because it doesn't fall into their pre-defined timeline. "I'm too young to get serious." "I just started my career and I have to focus." If those are your priorities, then you have to accept the consequences of those later down the road.

she needs to gain her independence

Was the arrival of my husband in my life at the most convenient time? No. My husband was a REBOUND date after a break-up of a 2-year relationship (less than a month later!). I was just about to graduate from college: "Had my whole life ahead of me". Part of me was furious because I wanted some "time" before my soul mate paired up with me. BUT, risking losing that 'young freedom' I took the chance on someone who seemed to be the perfect fit (10 years this October.)

she needs to get her career going

My husband and I are both the youngest in our families. We both lost grandparents either before we were born or in our youth. Our parents were older than all our friends' parents. My parents in particular had children under "foot" from the age of 19 to the age of 52. My husband and I decided that was TOO long for us. FOR US, mind you. Just the two of us making our own decisions for better or worse.

This led to the decision to have children "sooner rather than later" and that's how we left it. Two years into our marriage, child #1; two-and-a-half years after that child #2.

The decision to have the first child was one of those call it an accident because you weren't trying, but it wasn't really because you took biology *grin*. But it didn't stop me from crying, "I'm not ready! I've still got issues with my parents. I can't raise a child right, I'm so immature."

But we figured it out..year by year. From the first pregnancy through the 2nd child's 2nd birthday...I've been a traditional working mother, a telecommuting working mother, a SAHM by obligation (my husband's job took him overseas), a working mother by financial necessity, and a SAHM by choice...and I continue to play with all the pros, cons, and options; I never did and sometimes still can't say exactly what I want or what I think is best for our family. The decision to HAVE children, at least in hindsight, is the easiest part of all the logistics and future decisions.

Now at 32, we have "resume" stats of typical 42 year olds: married 10 years, 2 kids, 1 mortgage, 1 car, 25K debt, 2 major health conditions, 1 income. And we experienced alot to get here...the boom of dot-com just as we got out of college...the crash of dot-com just as we started acruing debt...the struggles post 9/11 with chronic unemployment, no health insurance, etc. etc.

I think that is what troubles me so much about this notion of expectations or requirement before having children or starting a family.

It's all about priorities. You can't have everything in the exact order you want it, when you want it and even if you could, it certainly would not come sacrafise-free. And that's what I'd tell anyone trying to decide about having children. It's all about priorities (in a non-moral based're entitled to your own priorities).

I still struggle with where I'm at now; 32 years old and 2 kids in public school and nothing but 7 hours, five days a week ahead of me to fill. I have, by the list of modern expectations, given up alot: independence, glamorous "Sex in the City" stories of young adulthood, a career of any significance other than a paycheck, being one of those glass-ceiling breakers. Most of my "mom friends" are ten years older than me, having followed a path more similar to what you've described. The majority of my long-time friends can't relate to me because they're just now getting married (and yes, finding fertility an issue).

But were/are these sacrafises worth it?

Yes. But not for the saccharin "my kids are my world" or "you'll never regret having kids" reasons. [Come on, think of Andrea Yates; does she regret having 5 kids only to be too mentally ill to care for them and then ending up killing them? I digress...]

But my particular story is that YES the sacrafice was worth it because:

---I didn't pass up on the only person on this Earth who could have held me afloat this last year** just because he didn't fall into my "five year plan."
---My daughter will have memories of my father. I never met either of my grandfathers. If I'd waited even 1 1/2 years, she would have missed really KNOWING him. (As it is my son won't remember much.)
---In this last year**, I've learned I "shouldn't" have any more children. I can only attempt to make sense of this by knowing that I was able to have children at the time that was right for me (even if I didn't know it was right for me at the time).

There are a million other stories: a friend of mine 40+ years had 6 miscarriages, the one that finally "took" was the child she carried DURING her treatment for breast cancer. How could she have known that at 25?

In the end, sometimes things just ARE as they should be - whether you like it, whether you planned it, and whether or not you choose to accept it.

** This last year I have been mourning my father's death, my paternal grandmother's death and received my own difficult medical diagnosis.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Heather Ferreira said...

I will consult a sperm bank late this year and artificially impregnate. It is sad to say it, but the men I meet are nowhere near being good candidates as husbands or father material. Each of them seems to carry a lot of baggage, and all the good ones are taken. I have far more constructive to do with my life than sit around waiting for the unlikely man without issues to magically show up at my door, or worse, go looking for him. He doesn't exist; I've reached this conclusion, and it's set me free from a lot of pain.

Essentially, I can handle the stresses of motherhood better alone. I can be an excellent mother and raise an excellent human being, and all that stands between me and doing it are a few thousand dollars. I already have my children's names planned -- Partridge, Hatcher, Fletcher and Sedge -- and I plan my donor to be Asian. Chinese, specifically.

They will be gorgeous, intelligent, and fully evolved. I don't need a potential cheater or abuser to bring drama into their young lives. They'll be raised without some "him" as the source of that drama; I owe it to them.

Sorry, men: I gave it the college try. At 38 I'm over it. Here's to technology!

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to have children someday. I would also like to be in a committed, loving relationship when this happens. I am 32 and naturally assumed I'd be married. I was raised to think this was what was to happen. Unfortunately, I never thought seriously about my career or my future and now I am wondering what direction I want to go, so now, naturally, it has become more about me. I regret not doing this ten years ago. I have had plenty of freedom but I have also been waiting and longing for the "love of my life" to appear. I am a single woman who lives with a cat. I am a little sad about it but I have waited, I have searched, I have dated, I have been broken-hearted, and I have almost given up. Now I am almost too scared to get involved with another one (man that is.) I am not going to sit here and pretend I don't get lonely. I like to think that the decision to have children is between two people, but I do, at times, live in a fantasy world. I guess my priorities have lived in a fantasy world as well. I suppose if I really want children, I can make the decision and adopt one day and hope that I have gotten past my issues with my parents and learned something from it too.

11:24 PM  

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