Do you need to be fully adult before you start having babies, or is it having babies that helps turn you into an adult? That’s the question Sam and I wrote about on the Motherlode blog at nytimes.com. (Part of pre-pre-publicity plan for our Twentysomething book is to blog about twenty-something quandaries wherever we can.) What prompted the question were the findings in a new study by Child Trends that the majority of twenty-something women who are having babies today are not married. Clearly, young women are leapfrogging over marriage en route to motherhood. But are they leapfrogging all other elements that are also thought to be part of growing up, and heading straight for the baby?
In the post, we emphasized the class distinctions in how young women answer this question. We referred to research by Martha McMahon, a sociologist at the University of Victoria, who back in the 1990s interviewed 59 Canadian mothers of preschoolers to see, among other things, the sequence of adult transitions that they considered idea. she found that the answer depended on their socioeconomic background. “Whereas middle-class women indicated they felt they had to achieve maturity before having a child,” McMahon wrote, “working-class women’s accounts suggest that many of them saw themselves as achieving maturity through having a child.”
I beg to differ — sort of. I’m pretty sure that I, too, achieved maturity through having a child, and thought that was a perfectly acceptable sequence, even though my sensibilities have always been solidly upper-middle class. In Twentysomething, Sam and I look at all the ways that being young are the same for Millennials as they were for Baby Boomers, and all the ways they’re different. This is one way things are different, I think. Maybe it’s to everyone’s advantage for young people to wait until they have had all the youthful adventures they crave, and have learned to really take care of themselves, know who they are, and gotten to know their partners, before plunging into baby-making. All this is possible today because of developments in assisted reproductive technology that make it routine to wait until the thirties or even later to start having children. I get it.
The downside is one that’s hard to admit. Just as I was in a rush to get going with my life when I was young (married at age 19, babies at age 26 and 30), I’m in a rush to get going now. But I’m already 58, and I can see that I’m never going to get to be a young grandmother. I might not even be a grandmother at all. And if I am, I might not be one who lives to see her grandchildren graduate from college and get married, the way my own mother did. As Millennials’ views of the shape and timing of their own lives evolve, it looks as if my own generation’s expectations have to evolve, too. I expected to become an old lady through grandmotherhood. I guess I’m going to have to get there the traditional way, by getting old.