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Family planning starts at an early age

July 19th, 2004 · 5 Comments

The other day the girls over lunch were discussing what they want to do with their lives. I learned that six year old Abigail and three year old Michaela now each want four kids. And then they talked about when they wanted to have these kids, tossing out random ages, since any number beyond age six is all the same to them…”I want to be a mommy at 21″ one of them declared.

I tried to tell them that they couldn’t simply have children whenever they thought they wanted to have them.

“You need to have a daddy too.” I tried to inform them.

“What does the daddy do?” asked Abigail.

“Um…I’ll tell you when you’re older,” I grabbed for words, trying to postpone the explicit birds and bees for a little while longer…at least through lunchtime…

“When I’m 31?” Michaela wanted to know.

I’m sure I will have told Michaela what the daddy does to help make a baby long before she is 31. In fact I hope, God willing and circumstances permitting, she has a baby by her thirties. To a three-year-old, 31 is the same as 21 is the same as 43. But to a woman’s body, the years are very different.

After observing his friends going through torture while trying to conceive, Philip Greenspun asked whether women should have children earlier in life. Maybe teenage pregnancy isn’t such a bad idea after all.

When I was in college someone I knew, an older man, suggested to me that a woman’s best years for bearing children were between 18 and 25. I wanted to slap him. At the time I was set on getting an extensive education and going to graduate school, postponing marriage and motherhood for later in life. His opinion that I was possibly missing my best baby years made me mad and it sounded to me like another proposal that women were only good for being barefoot in the kitchen with a bulging belly.

Yet now that I’m older, I think this friend had some truth in what he said to me. I’ve given birth to three kids, beginning in my late twenties. One could argue that it was the fact that it was my third pregnancy, but when I was having my last baby, in my thirties, it felt harder than the first time and seemed to take a greater toll on my body. Some moms start their families at my age or ten years older than I am now. I can only imagine how it is for their bodies to go through the dramatic demands of pregnancy and birth. Philip Greenspun mentioned the ordeals his friends suffer in order to get pregnant in later life. There are also the increased risks that come with babies born to older women.

Teenagers probably are at their physical peak for childbearing, especially given the fact that puberty now arrives earlier than it has in the past for girls. There’s elasticity, energy and strength that youth provides. I know that Ted and I have felt tired as parents in our thirties, with twenty years to go… If we had been teenage parents we might have more energy and flexibility for our family.

However, our culture is complicated and it is difficult to raise children at a younger age in life. In order to raise a child or even have a household, significant financial resources are required. To obtain these resources, years of employment and education must be pursued. It is only later, at the time when a woman’s childbearing ability and fertility begin to decline, that she may feel her life is ready for a baby. In addition most jobs demand a commute to an office away from the home, dictating a lifestyle that is unfriendly to families especially during the preschool years. A number of other factors impact a family’s finances and working arrangements including day care, college savings, lessons and schooling, and whether or not a parent can afford to stay at home with the baby. Most teenagers are not able to earn sufficient income to support a family. They need either education or experience or both. Having a baby during these years of high school or college can affect a woman’s earning potential for her life, especially if she is not able to graduate. The responsibility of parenthood itself is beyond most adolescents today, I imagine. Taking care of a child requires maturity, patience, selflessness, wisdom and insight as well as a variety of skills. Not that I feel I have all of these, but I feel I had more of them at 30 than I had at 15.

In addition to the financial facts and necessities, there is the social stigma of motherhood on either end of the curve, as a number of authors, including Joyce McMillan (whom I linked earlier in the week) have described

On one hand, we accept a workplace culture that obliges talented young women to work flat out through her prime child-bearing years in order to achieve the right qualifications and build up a career; and we live fairly unquestioningly with the assumption that a talented girl in her late teens should not “ruin her life” with the curse of early motherhood.

From what I’ve seen, both teen moms and gray-haired ones can feel the stares.

Greenspun suggested that perhaps the grandparents could raise the baby. That is a possibility. Or another one might be if teen girls were partnered with older males who already were earning enough to support a family. However, neither of these options may be practical or appealing to parents.

The comments section on his post contains good insights, such as the fact that children born to older parents may not know their grandparents well. We all have limited time on this planet, and the longer we wait to have kids, the older our own parents are, and the more family members may not get to meet the next generation. Longevity is now at record levels but I still think it is best for kids to be able to know their grandparents if possible. And starting parenthood younger makes it a greater possibility to see your own grandchildren. I’m told that grandchildren are the reason why parents have children in the first place 😉 I think Ted and I wish we had started our family earlier.

Then again I don’t want my daughters to have babies at 15. I hope that they will experience life and education for a while. I want them to have skills. I want them to be sure of what they want for their lives and their marriages. I want them to see what a serious undertaking parenting is, and to know what it means to have relationships with a husband and children. I want them to have maturity and preparation. I want them, as much as possible, to have thought through their lives and plans, to seek guidance and be intentional.

I don’t think kids should be having kids. I do think it is wise to consider when would be a good time to have children. Kids aren’t bought at 7-11: they are never convenient. Parenthood isn’t quick and easy, something that can be changed. It changes life. There may never be a “good time” in some sense. When women should have children is a choice that is changing as our culture is changing.

But I also believe that parenthood if possible shouldn’t be postponed until it is too late to be enjoyed, until it becomes a series of tests and injections, a hope grasped with doctors and desperation. Family planning starts early, even when kids are young enough to start thinking about being a mommy someday….

Tags: motherhood

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob V // Jul 19, 2004 at 7:09 am

    Julie! When Abigail asked you, “what does the daddy do,” you could have referred to a vast number of excellent posts that detail much of what the daddy does. Surely she understands why her own family needs its daddy without going into the biology involved.

    If women could have children at any age, what would be ideal? You’ve mentioned that children shouldn’t have children since most lack the maturity. With age, however, it seems like parents will be more mature and financially capable. They also will have had the chance to build their careers into whatever they like. So, if it weren’t for fertility problems associated with old age, would it make sense to have children very late in life? Perhaps even in retirement when you can dedicate more of your time to the task?

  • 2 Janelle // Jul 19, 2004 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Julie, sorry I couldn’t make it to the picnic, I am still battling this virus that I caught…perhaps I’ll attend the next one!

    I had my daughter when I was 19. I had no idea what I was getting into, believe me. I always got stares and questions about if I was going to get married etc.,even from complete strangers.
    I have no regrets about the way I handled becoming a mother so young. I do sometimes wish I could have finished college or had more time to explore the world, but it’s something that I know I can do in time if I really want to.
    I think what you mentioned about young girls being partnered with much older men used to happen a long time ago and women considered themselves old maids by the time they were 25 if they weren’t married with children. heh How times change…

  • 3 Kris Hasson-Jones // Jul 20, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    When it was normal for teens to marry and have children, it was also normal for them to stay in the extended family unit–either his or hers–and get a lot of help, both financial and physical but more importantly development and emotional help, in raising their kids. I doubt teens were a whole lot more emotionally mature than they are now, but they were surrounded by people who helped them choose to act as maturely as they could manage, and who gave them relief from caring for the children and having sole responsibility for teaching them. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, all helped raise children in extended families.

  • 4 Julie Leung: Seedlings & Sprouts // Jul 21, 2004 at 1:15 am

    Everyone has a story

    The other day I wrote a post describing family planning, fertility and the choices women must make. In the comments, Janelle shared some of her own story of motherhood. I was grateful for what she wrote, and as I thought…

  • 5 Julie // Jul 21, 2004 at 2:06 am

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. This is an intense and complicated subject, and I feel I could keep writing plenty of posts about it…