Slaughter and then Penelope Trunk both recommend childbearing in your midtwenties, and then doing Big Things with your career later in life. Trunk talks about building your career slowly while your children are young, and I will say, in this economy especially, that might be the right plan. (Putting my personal feelings about her aside, I find that people who dislike opinions espoused by others just because they don’t like the person are irritating, so I am not going to be one of those people.)
If I had children straight out of law school, or while I was in law school, my career would probably actually be exactly where it is now. If I work at this job for another year and then have children, my career will stall for a few years while I shift down and take my foot off the clutch. In this economy, it’s taking longer to get a career started, and careers are growing more slowly. However, there is one tricky bit to all of this, which is that we could not afford to have children right out of law school. If my husband made a little bit more money, or I had made *any*, we might have gone for it, but it wasn’t an option, and I think for a lot of women, it’s even less of an option. Remember – I’m fantastically overprivileged, graduated law school without debt, and had a husband with a good job. But our income covered our expenses with no room for savings or anything else. We could have moved somewhere where our rent was cheaper and my husband could have commuted to work, but then we risked having to buy a second car, which was one of the reasons why we could afford single income living.
I had a friend once who, when we were talking about it, and I kind of mentioned that I wanted to have kids soon and I was starting to think about work-life balance (I was 25, she was 22, we had both just gotten married), she said, “Husband and I have talked about it, and the thing is, I want a career, and if that means that we can’t have kids later in life and we end up adopting or whatever, that’s the way it’s going to be.” And at first I bristled and then I remembered that is exactly how I felt at 22 and then I felt embarassed because I’m sure I said that to several people at several points and they all still secretly hate me.
When I hit my mid-twenties, I made a decision that was different from the one that 22 year old me would have made. It was a decision that I got to come to by virtue of being fantastically over-privileged and not having to worry about debt or building up a savings the way many people do, and that was the decision not to sacrifice my twenties for my career, and that we would have children sometime in my/our twenties (that day has not yet come, so my sister can Sit.Down.). I also made the decision that my career may not look the way 16 or 22 year old me thought that my career would look. I shifted from wanting to be high powered and awesome to “settling” for being low-key and awesome. Partially this was my entry into the legal system, where I learned that you may not make a difference in the lives of everyone, and you may not save the world, but you can genuinely give yourself to people, in a professional capacity, and you can be what they want and what they need and guide people through the system and help them. I make a difference in the lives of about 20 people a month, just by being me, by showing up to my job between 8:30 and 4:30, and that’s good enough for me. I even found private practice to be fulfilling – something about being there for people, whether they pay you or not, is fulfilling and I’m lucky because I get to do that.
Lets not forget the fact that if you spend your twenties struggling to make ends meet, or paying down your debt, or saving up for a house or retirement, having children in your thirties becomes much more difficult, and potentially much more expensive. I know that that is not a given, and plenty of women in their twenties are suffering from infertility as well, but with my own family history, I know the downside of waiting will be difficulites later on. (My parents know that as well, and I’d be an idiot if I didn’t think that played a big role in why they have been so willing to financially support me through college and law school.) That in itself is a frustrating consideration for somebody in my position, where my earning potential will never be amazing, and to be able to afford fertility treatments in my thirties, I will need to take a much more high paying job that takes up more of my time.
The other downside of putting off Big Things with your career is that you might not get to them. You could die tragically young, you could develop some kind of early-onset alzheimers or serious health condition in your forties that means that you can’t do Big Things with your career, but truthfully, these are all also reasons to have children young. So you can do both at once, and resign yourself to the fact that you will never do both things spectacularly, or you can do one at a time and accept the risk that you may shortchange one or the other in a very big way.
All this math is just convincing me that it might really be true what they say – there is no “right time” to have children, so you might as well go for it whenever it no longer scares the whatever out of you or interferes with your life in a major way. But the money piece of it, I think, is a big part of what Slaughter and Trunk are missing. If you are so in debt that most of your income goes to loans, or you are barely making ends meet, and there isn’t any give in your budget – you can’t move somewhere cheaper without doubling your commute and costing yourself precious time with your family, then money is going to drive everything, and maybe that’s what makes the question of when to have children an “elite” problem. If your only focus is to have a Big Career in which you do Big Things, and you don’t have debt, then yeah, have kids at 25 (except that for women who were raised to do Big Things, we don’t really feel ready at 25 for kids.)
Thoughts from folks with debt or serious career slowdowns?