When my 79-year-old father had two back surgeries a couple of years ago, I saw him in a hospital gown for the first time. As his closest family member — my mother died of cancer in 2006 — I gave my dad rides to the doctor and the grocery store. I helped him clean out his house and move into a smaller, stairless apartment. I watched him struggle at physical therapy. He has fully recovered, but the process aged him. Now I move a little slower when we walk down the street together. When he runs 20 minutes late, my imagination runs wild: Has he fallen or gotten into a car accident? Has he forgotten about our appointment? Oh, God, does he have Alzheimer's? My father continually reminds me that he can fend for himself, but his protestations fail to dismantle the layer of worry that has set up camp in my brain. The parent-child roles have begun to reverse, like they have for so many baby boomers caring for their aging parents.
Except I'm not a baby boomer. I'm 27.
When I was born, my mother was 42 and my father was 51. I was the odd one out in my Brooklyn elementary school — most parents were 10 or even 20 years younger than mine. I remember being wildly embarrassed of my parents' advanced age. I lied about their birthdates to teachers and friends.
But today, educated urban parents wouldn't bat an eye at parents like mine. My folks had me late for many of the same reasons people make similar decisions today. Their careers and political activism were extensions of their identities, and they were reluctant to disrupt that. They met and fell in love later in life, after they had become the people they wanted to be. My mother, an ardent feminist, thought she needed to raise a child with a man who was willing to split the job 50-50. It took four decades to find him. My father had a child at 20 and another at 24, later divorced their mother and sacrificed spending time with them for a frenetic career as a union organizer. He knew that if he did it again, he'd want to do it right.
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Having kids at my parents' ages still isn't the norm, but the age of first-time mothers continues to climb. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that the pregnancy rate for women in their early 20s declined noticeably from 2000 to 2008, while the pregnancy rate for women older than 30 crept up. In the past 50 years, the average age of first-time parents has jumped from 21 to 25, and it's even older for college-educated women.
My mother's standard of equitable parenting isn't such a tall order for my generation (although women still end up doing more of the housework). For us, delaying parenthood is mostly about money. The economic shift in the past couple of decades, accelerated by the recession, have led to 20 percent of young people putting off marriage and children because of their finances. And no wonder: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a typical family with a household income between $57,600 and $99,730 will have spent $226,920 on a child born in 2010 by the time high school graduation rolls around. Those numbers are daunting for Millennials, some of whom will stay moored in low-wage service jobs or contingent contract positions a lot longer than we'd like. Kids like me who grew up middle class want the same for their children. We want to wait to have kids until we get a “real job.” Problem is, we could be waiting for a long time.
I'm one of those 20-somethings biding my time. If I had a child today, the kid wouldn't starve — but my journalism career might. My partner is in an even more financially precarious position as a freelance filmmaker. We like to sleep in, go on last-minute vacations, and pull all-nighters working on projects we care about. We'd rather spend the money we do have on dates, not diapers.
For affirmation about this decision, I needn't look further than my childhood. My parents had more resources than their younger counterparts. They were more educated, more financially stable, more established, more relaxed. Their relationship had that mature, second-marriage feel — a romance with a healthy dose of pragmatism. People my age are putting off parenthood partly because of their bottom lines, but also because meaningful careers and leisure time are important to us. Parenthood can be delayed, it seems, with a little luck — or science.
In her much-discussed recent essay in the Atlantic, asking whether women can “have it all,” Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter acknowledged that struggling to have children later in life can be costly and frustrating. Her solution? Try to have a baby before you turn 35 or “freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not.” Easy enough. Why shouldn't we wait until we're financially secure and emotionally mature to have children?
Yet that logic falls apart when I'm scrubbing a bloody handprint off my father's kitchen wall because he lost his balance in the middle of the night and fell down so hard that his brow broke the tile. It rings hollow when I uselessly think about the extra decade I might have had to hang out with my mother if she had given birth to me when she was younger. While my friends' parents are still nagging them, doing their laundry on holidays and helping them fill out health-care forms, I'm doing those things for my dad. When my friends ask their moms for advice, I can only speculate what mine would have said.
Granted, my mother died when she was only 64, well below average life expectancy. And all things considered, my father is sprightly; he still works as a professor, reads several books a week and travels frequently. He has friends and a girlfriend. Research has shown that being an older parent can keep your mind limber and social life active (my father concurs). Financially, he's pretty lucky; he can pay for a person to clean his apartment once a week, and he can spring for a cab when he needs one. He has long-term care insurance, which means he can pay for live-in help when the time comes. In some ways, mine is the best-case scenario for a daughter with a 79-year-old dad.
But what about the families who can't afford any of that? What about the parents who retire the day they turn 65?
The irony is that when you have a child at 45, you're ensuring that your children will grow up faster than you ever had to. It guarantees that your kids will have a little less of the freedom you enjoyed because they'll be taking care of you a little earlier. Having an older father means I don't feel right leaving New York or turning off my cellphone for three days. I push away fantasies of pressing the reset button on my life and moving far away. Even if my dad were in Olympian shape, I still wouldn't want to squander my last decade with him living thousands of miles apart. Losing my mother in my formative years was gut-wrenching, and all of my grandparents had died by the time I turned 25. (My father, whose mother had him at 19, didn't begin this parental caretaking process until he was in his early 60s.)
It's one thing to decide to have children late or not at all. It's another thing to feel that you have no other choice. If child care were free and ubiquitous, if elder care were humane and easy to navigate, if the job market weren't so tough, I'd gladly have a child at 27.
But for now, deciding when to have children is a riddle of figuring out the right age when neither my ovaries nor my career prospects will wither. I can only hope my children, whenever I have them, will have more than these infuriating options. We'll have to demand that world first.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a writer and co-founder of Tomorrow magazine.