Under the Influence of America’s Youth: I feel a Midlife Crisis coming on

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” ~ Bronnie Ware

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

When I was 22, 34 was my scary age. I imagined that I would get married at 30, spend two years enjoying married life, and begin to have children at 33 or 34. I’ve always thought I had a strong maternal instinct, so at 22, the women who were 33 with no children seemed alien to me.  

Well, you know what they say about a dream deferred... Now as I approach 34, and nowhere near ‘on track’ to what I imagined I would be, I feel the need to shift my scary age. But what should that age be? And more importantly, what should my fear be predicated upon? Career advancement, children, loss of hard-won independence?

While career success is important, my personal tension lies between relinquishing my independence to have children, and perhaps the marriage that comes along with it. Who would’ve thought that I would be one of those women who wasn’t ready for children? And with my career shaping up nicely, what do I do now?

Popular science tells us that 36 is the upper limit for ‘safe’ childbearing. Modern technology has pushed these upper boundaries, and modern sociology might even espouse the benefits of later-aged child rearing. [See New York Magazine’s mildly disturbing piece on post-fifty pregnancy and parenting].

So what is considered ‘scary’ these days, both physiologically and psychologically? Is scary merely a state of mind, or is there really a time when we should be getting concerned about both our declining fertility, and its tension between our world’s ever-increasing obsession with Youth? All I know is that at 33, I’m still scared. Scared to lose my youth, my independence, and to take on the responsibility that comes with family and marriage.

This week, women have been circulating Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly piece, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.’ In the article, Slaughter calls for a re-envisioning of traditional workplace expectations on a day-to-day basis (primarily focused on schedule flexibility), redefining our career ‘timeline,’ maintaining a career defined by ‘stair-stepping’ and periods of parental ‘investment intervals’ v. a steadily upward professional trajectory, and finally socializing and rewarding men for taking on more familial responsibility. She also proposes careers where we peak, not in our thirties and forties, but in our fifties and sixties. However, Slaughter, while calling demands on women to our attention, does nothing to obviate them, or to make us more comfortable with our own choices and inadequacies. 

In my opinion, the tension underlying society, lies not in the disparity in social and workplace norms v. the requirements of parenthood, but whether we as women (and men) are ready to make the choice of parenthood, to put our children above ourselves. In America, where the individual, the Self, introspection, and choice, are prevailing tenets, are we ready to think of our children’s well being above our own desires? 

Career advancement is a choice we make to better ourselves intellectually, financially, and socially. Succeeding in our careers means we have made a transition from youth to adulthood and independence. Defining ourselves by, and advancing along this path could potentially lead us to a career peak, and commensurate social recognition, if done right. 

In America, while we grow into financial adulthood, our culture enables us, even encourages us, to remain youthful. We choose from a plethora of consumption opportunities, adult toys, entertainment, and adult playground cities on a daily or hourly basis.

If we define ourselves by our careers and our independence, as well as the choices they afford us, where can children fit in? Where can another person fit in? Should we be forced to choose between career and family?

Too often, we forget that the impetus to have children reflects our physiological need to pass on our species. Implicit in this need (or choice) is our realization that we are no longer in our prime, that much of our lives are finished, and that we must now focus on passing on our DNA and our knowledge to the next generation. I would equate having children to actively moving onto our legacy-building stage. But if we are to start a legacy, must we also relinquish what defines ourselves? This is scary.

This is scary for many reasons. One, aging. By admitting that we are in this second or third stage of life, we are admitting that we are getting older. This is difficult in a culture where we are never young enough, where we can prolong youth by ‘retouching’ the face and body that we show the world.

Secondly, it is scary because we are never finished advancing ourselves. We can always step up to the next promotion, save for the next house or car, take the next fun vacation. In the face of so much choice, where do children come in? Are we ever really ready?

In my personal life, I’ve seen many women a few years older than I having their first children, both naturally, and sometimes with the assistance of lots of technology and lots of money. Many of my friends in my own age cohort are beginning to have their first children. If I use my friends as an example, it would appear that the average age for a first child is about 36. As mothers are getting older and older, are we becoming better and better parents? 

Concurrently, I’ve also noticed a trend to ignore the issue, to not talk about it, or for women to assure each other that we can have it all, that we can get pregnant at forty. If in-vitro, egg freezing, ex-vivo, etc. are emerging as acceptable alternatives to conception, how does this affect our life choices? It would seem to me that prolonging childbirth is more akin to prolonging youth. As our life expectancies increase, perhaps this is ok.

Here is the real question. Are our families getting better as we approach childbearing with a stronger, more stable adulthood? And in doing so, do the sacrifices we make for children, seem all the more painful? Should we accept that having a family supplants our independence, or do we stay optimistic and move for careers where we peak at fifty and sixty? Because let’s admit it, who wants to work at sixty?

The very premise of the Modern Woman is predicated on the idea that we can both empower ourselves and empower our children. Is this truly possible? And where are the men in this picture?

I would like to start a conversation here, and address the following thoughts that haven’t been discussed enough.

1. How can prolonging our youth and delaying childbirth benefit our families?
If we take as axiomatic that it is Selfish to delay childbirth, how can this selfishness help our families? As mothers we give up intellectual and social stimulation in favor of childrearing. I can’t tell you how many mothers I know who incessantly discuss their child’s bathroom milestones. Is it possible to maintain our intellect, and provide social role models for our daughters and sons, while still bonding with them emotionally and nurturing and supporting their accomplishments?

2. Where have all the cowboys gone? Where are the fathers in this discourse? 
Slaughter states that it would be impossible to ‘have it all’ without a husband. If this is true, why has she skirted the male role in both the family and the workplace?
Let’s not assume that men want to be removed from shared parenthood, or that we as mothers have the right to control access to our children. We’re happy to discuss women in the workplace, but fathers have the worst of both worlds too. They are under constant pressure to provide for the families that they play a sometimes peripheral part in. True coparenting could create a more diverse family where myriad roles and talents are appreciated. Let’s talk about the challenges that men face. Victimizing women and affirming male dominance impedes the courage needed for men to step out of their socially imposed roles as breadwinner and backseat parent.

3. Please do not feel sorry for us.
This is my most important point, which I would like to discuss at length. While it is important to point out that it is a man’s world out there, let’s give ourselves the agency to acknowledge and Own our advantages and strengths, which makes a stronger case for diversifying the corporate hierarchy and family structure. Change derived from perceived benefit v. cooptation is always more welcome.

So what is my scary age? 34? 36? Forty? The tension between youth, independence, and family, is a big one for both men and women. The more we talk about it and get comfortable that it exists, the better off we will be. We’ve only started, so I’m hoping we can talk more.