What’s the Best Age to Have Kids? 10 Things You Really Need to Know
First of all, how in the world can we ever agree on what “best” really means? If we’re talking purely about biology, science is pretty steadfast in its stance that younger (as in early 20s) is better – and that’s not so much opinion as empirical fact. But clearly there is more involved than just biology; there is also preparedness (emotional as well as financial), social expectations, and personal desire to take into account, not necessarily in that order.
So is “best” referring to best for you, best for your relationship, best for your children, or something else entirely? The sociology, biology, and psychology of the situation are inseparable, yet often in conflict with one another. Amidst all this conflict, how can we ever sort out a reliable answer to the question? In short, we can’t – we all just make educated guesses about how becoming a parent will affect us, and attempt to choose accordingly. That doesn’t mean that information can’t help
us accomplish that, though. With that in mind, here are ten things prospective parents really need to take into account when planning for the future:
10Young Parents Have Fewer Peers
Some studies indicate that when a person gets into a serious, long-term relationship, they can generally expect two people in their inner circle to slowly disappear from the scene. Well, relationships don’t get too much more serious or long-term than those that exist between parents and children, so be prepared for that trend to hold true when it comes to having a kid. Unfortunately, this is happening at a time in your life when you need friends the most; without them, it’s all too easy to get cooped up in the house, lost in your own problems, and find yourself losing your identity under the tedious pressures of raising a child.
However, if your friends already have kids of their own, or are considering having kids in the near future, or simply happen to be on the high side of 30, they’re probably a lot more likely to stick by your side, even after you’ve had to cancel on them in order to take your kid to the doctor or been late because it took an extra hour to get naptime underway. This is true for a number of reasons, namely that you’ve likely already been friends for quite a while by the time you hit your 30s.
For those thinking of having kids much younger, say under 25, just take this under consideration: some of your friends will probably make a quiet exit from your life – they’ll still be partying while you change diapers. Your true friends, meanwhile (the ones that stick around), might not have their own kids for another five or ten years yet. In fact, generally speaking, you’re going to run into a lot more older parents than younger ones. All this adds up to mean that as a parent in your early 20s, you’ll really have to be looking in order to find people you can relate closely to. It might seem like an insignificant issue now, but it also might feel very different when you are a young parent being judged unfairly by people of all ages, and when a lack of close, understanding friends takes a toll on you as well as your relationship with your children and your partner.
9You Can’t Divorce Your Kid
Okay, so you already knew that. And what does it have to do with becoming a parent when you’re old versus when you’re young, anyway? Just this: as a younger person, you are inherently more likely to have a kid with the wrong person. With that said, it’s pretty much impossible to nail down what exactly makes someone wrong or right for the job, but basically you should know that raising a child is already hard work – trying to do it with someone who you don’t really love or just can’t get on the same page with makes it infinitely harder.
Of course, while raising a kid with the wrong help is a real challenge, raising a kid with no help is often even more of a challenge, so getting out of a troubled relationship when there are kids involved isn’t always so easy. Being involved with – or even married to – the wrong partner is just a bump in the road compared to having a child with that person; then you’re really in between a rock and a hard place, as they say. If you’re sure that you want to be with someone forever (or at least for the next couple of decades), then go for it. But the younger we are, the less likely we are to have the experience and wisdom that it takes to predict how stable our current relationships are or will be, not to mention how they will be affected by something so drastic as parenthood.
8Your Genes are Healthier When You’re Young
And we’re not talking about your favorite pair of dark-washed Levi’s here. Genetic material degrades over time, there’s no getting around it. It might be possible to have a never-ending debate about just how significant – or insignificant – that degradation is, but it’s definitely there. A man’s sperm quality starts to decrease in his 30s, presenting an ever-growing risk of fathering a child with some type of genetic disorder, and generally making conception increasingly difficult.
Females, meanwhile, have an even more imposing biological schedule to deal with; typically most fertile between the ages of 20 and 24, women can definitely expect their likelihood to conceive to start dropping by age 30, and more steeply still around age 35. Does this mean that older people can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t have babies? Definitely not – in fact, the average age of new parents has gone up throughout recent history, and new technologies and medical procedures (such as in vitro fertilization) have played a part in that trend.
Still, hard evidence makes it impossible to deny that becoming pregnant does, for the vast majority, becoming more and more difficult with age, and that later pregnancies also come with increased risk for multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, or beyond) and also miscarriage. Taking nothing but biology into account, science is fairly firm on the idea that the best time to try for kids is before age 35, particularly for women. Bottom line? You and your kids have a better shot at good health, both in the short term and long term, if you undertake parenthood as a young adult.
7Having a Kid Can Tie You Down…
People say that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and we won’t disagree with that here. But just because you can do something doesn’t make you likely to, and it definitely doesn’t make it easy. Say, for instance, that you’d like to have three kids while traveling the world, thanks to a high-paying career and an amazing, location-independent lifestyle. As terrific as that sounds, take a minute to reflect on the fact that it’s already pretty darn tough to live that kind of life without kids.
Even if your aspirations aren’t quite so high, it’s important to realize that children (even just one child) can definitely play the part of a ball and chain. If you don’t have car payments, a mortgage, or other major commitments, it’s actually fairly simple to live the kind of life that allows you to put down roots (and pull them back out) anywhere you want to, pursue a wide variety of experiences, and generally work things out according to your own rules. Having a kid changes everything, though. Suddenly you have to make steady money and keep a certain level of stability present in your life. Suddenly you can’t go out with your friends on a whim every time they call, and you definitely can’t decide to live out of your car for a few months while you explore the Canadian provinces.
Any travel you are capable of undertaking is suddenly twice as complicated. Traveling internationally means procuring documentation for a whole other person, and even a three hour road trip becomes an exercise in compromise – just try changing a diaper without pulling the car over. The moral of the story here isn’t that having a kid totally locks you down – it doesn’t, unless you let it. But at the same time, it definitely makes a lot of things more difficult, time-consuming, and tedious.
6…But it Can Also Set You Free
We just finished saying that having a kid can seem to slam a lot of doors in your face. But the truth is that becoming a parent can also open a lot of doors, sometimes even more than it closes. The inconvenient side to a world steeped in modern conveniences is that we are required to do so little. With such a wealth of knowledge, tools, and personal connections at our disposal, not to mention the freedom much of the world gives us to make use of them all, there is basically no limit to how we can choose to live our lives.
This leads to the paradoxical “golden handcuffs” problem – we have so many choices, it becomes impossible to figure out what we want the most, whether that’s in terms of a career, relationships, hobbies, or breakfast foods. It’s classic “analysis paralysis,” where an over-abundance of options ends up crippling us. That’s when becoming a parent can actually make things simpler in some cases. It can give you a point of reference for what you need to achieve, both in the short and long-term.
Having a child can also open doors in the sense that it forces upon you an awareness of new and alien worlds. Many parents find that their children inspired them, in one way or another, to pursue their passion to a greater extent. Maybe it takes the form of a newfound love for advocacy, teaching, writing, mentoring, or just means sharing your own pre-existing passion with your kid. Whatever the case, becoming a parent has the potential to act as a beacon of light in the otherwise frequently murky ether of life.
5You’re More Balanced When You’re Older
Parenting can be tough – did we mention that? Whether you are a stay-at-home parent, a student, a full or part-time employee, an entrepreneur, or some mixture of those, it can be really difficult to figure out a way to structure your time in a way that takes all your commitments into consideration. Obviously, you’ll want to put a lot of energy into being present with your child – playing with them, teaching them, and just enjoying being around them.
But part of being a good parent is providing, and so a certain amount of energy also has to go into that, and how much really just depends on the amount and type of opportunities that you want your kid to have. If you care mainly about the emotional connection you have with your kid, and about living in the moment, then to you, financial stability might just mean making ends meet so that you have as much time as possible to spend at home. If you’re determined that your kid will have every opportunity possible, you might find yourself working longer hours at a more stressful and demanding job.
Meanwhile, between working and parenting, you desperately need time for yourself – your parenting will reflect just how far away from “at your best” you really are. Of course, somewhere in there you’ll need to weave in time for friends, family, hobbies, or whatever else your lifestyle entails.
The point is that life is a juggling act, and having a kid is like throwing a flaming chainsaw into the mix (and having a second kid is like doing it on a unicycle). Older first-time parents might have a slight advantage in this regard just because they have been juggling for longer already. The older you get, the more statistically likely you are to already have your career on track, your lifestyle figured out, and a general sense of balance pervading in your life.
4You’re More Energetic When You’re Younger
If many older parents have an advantage in terms of balance, it should also be pointed out that many younger parents will often have an advantage in terms of energy – and make no mistake, parenting takes a whole lot of energy. Putting on diapers, taking off diapers, cleaning up in between; making someone else’s meals, feeding them (at least for that first year), and cleaning up after them; shopping for someone else’s clothes, dressing them, and doing the inevitable extra laundry; all these things seem relatively minor, but they add up quickly, and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
Becoming a parent means, well, exactly what it sounds like -being completely and totally responsible for another human life for at least several years, and then being at least partially responsible for it for many years after that. If you’re considering making the leap, this is one of the most important factors to let sink in: you’re going to need enough energy to take care of another person (a small person, granted, but a person nonetheless) and still enough to take care of your life, too. It gets worse, though, because that thing you relied on to renew your energy for all these years – you know, sleep – yeah, that’s going out the window, at least for the first couple of years. It does get better on a curve, and every kid is a little different, but you would be sadly misinformed if you went into parenting not expecting to get up two to four times a night, every night, for the next several hundred nights.
3It’s Not Getting Any Easier
Okay, so maybe you already live a more or less balanced lifestyle. You’ve had plenty of experiences, you already know who your true friends are, you’re at a stable place in your career, and you have a somewhat clear vision of what you want from yourself and your life going forward. All that stuff can definitely make having a kid a little bit easier, and in some cases, a lot easier. However, what they don’t do is make parenting easier – as in changing diapers, teaching phonics, dealing with teenage angst.
Running your own successful business is admirable, but it won’t teach you anything about what to do when your kid wakes up having a night terror at three in the morning. Getting a college degree might be easier without the extra burden of being a parent, but that diploma hanging on your wall won’t do you any good figuring out how to get a three year old to do his business on the toilet instead of in a diaper. Those things are learned skills, and you don’t become magically good at them simply by virtue of living longer. You only start figuring out and improving those skills when you actually start doing them, whether that’s at twenty, thirty, or forty years old.
Long story short – being a parent might be a little different when you’re older versus when you’re younger, but it’s not going to get any easier, ever. No matter how much or what type of life experience you have, raising a child is a learning curve totally unto itself.
2Older Parents Think Younger is Better
Although it’s not anywhere near unanimous, there are a lot of older first-time parents (particularly those who had kids at 40 or later) who have reported that they think their 30s would have been a more ideal time. On the one hand, there is a trend of older parents acknowledging certain benefits of their age, like more financial stability, more time to become self-aware and otherwise emotionally prepared for the challenges of parenting, and more self-confidence.
On the other hand, many of them are also up-front about the realities of being older parents; in one study, a third of women and a quarter of men surveyed said that a lack of physical energy was a disadvantage to waiting until their 40s to have kids. Overall, older parents are just as happy with their family life as any other age group, but do commonly agree that having kids at an earlier age might have been better.
1Younger Parents Think Older is Better
On the opposite end of the spectrum are fairly young parents who think that things might have turned out for the better had they waited a few more years before having kids. Younger parents cite the obvious advantage of having energy and generally reliable health, but acknowledge a number of downsides as well. In some surveys, for example, parents who had kids in their early 20s or before agree that they would have been better prepared emotionally, mentally, and financially if they had waited five or 10 more years.
Another frequent observation among those who become parents at a young age is that it would have been nice to have more time with their partner before getting tied down with the responsibilities of parenting. There is no doubt that a relationship goes through some serious changes when child-rearing is introduced into the mix, and that truth is reflected by how many younger parents agree with the sentiment of melancholia regarding missed opportunities for carefree togetherness.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
After all that, what remains clear is that there is no one right answer. Some studies suggest that mothers who give birth for the first time in their mid-thirties can expect better long term health for themselves, on average. Other studies suggest that mothers who give birth for the last time in their mid-thirties are more likely to be healthier later in life. Younger parents wish they had kids when they were older. Older parents wish they had kids when they were younger. Biologists say that younger organs produce healthier babies. Sociologists say that older parents lead to more stable families.
There’s so much conflicting information out there that it becomes easy to just cherry-pick the bits and pieces that support how you already feel – and really, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. After all, you are the best judge of what will or won’t work for you. Does money make parenting easier at times? Absolutely. Does social stigma make it harder at times? Definitely. But at the end of the day, the single most determinant factor in how good of a parent you will be is how much love you will be able to show your child, regardless of your circumstances, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably doesn’t have any kids.