When I called my mom up on the phone to let her know that I’d had my first child — a healthy, happy baby boy who just happened to be like four months old at that point — she sighed. “Well,” she said, “I can’t say I’m surprised.” It was about three weeks after the first time I met him, in the waiting room of the paternity clinic, and I had the test results in hand. They didn’t surprise me, either. Even though the paternity had been between me and one other guy, from the second I saw that baby, I knew — I just knew — he was mine. Partly because the guy was Italian, and this baby didn’t look Italian at all, but I’m still pretty sure the other part was some kind of paternal instinct. Either way, I was 20 years old and I was a father, and what I felt about that was about 80 percent terror.
I was not what you’d call “prepared” for fatherhood. I knew nothing about babies, had read no parenting books, had never changed a diaper or prepared infant formula or soothed an infant’s cry. I wasn’t what my friends would have described as “parenting material.” I was, rather, a high-school dropout with few prospects who, at the time I took over as the baby’s father, was holding the first job I’d ever managed to hold for more than about five months (that one lasted nine). In retrospect, actually, I’m sure the baby was equally frightened — like, who is this bumbling-ass dude I’m spending every other weekend with all of a sudden?
I was not ready. It was not the right time.
My experience is fairly unique among my demographic — educated 20- to 30-something white people with upwardly mobile careers, most of whom don’t have kids at all, let alone kids who are 9 years old already. I was a young parent. But I wasn’t a particularly young parent when my second son was born nine months ago, when I was 29. He was my girlfriend’s first. She was 27, which is not all that young, either. Still, her decision to start a family even in her late 20s gets a fair amount of raised eyebrows among her grad-school group of peers — particularly, it seems, the women. “Oh, you had a baby? That must be so much to handle!” these women tell my girlfriend, sometimes while actually holding our baby. “Yeah, I want to have kids too someday, but I’m really focusing on my career right now. Me and Mark are just waiting for the right time.” On a side-note, their boyfriends are all named Mark.
And so they wait. And they wait. And the length of time they wait for is, more and more, getting pretty ridiculous. Last week, the New York Times ran a story about an emerging and baffling trend: older parents, who, aware of the maddening ticking of the biological clock, are paying their aging, 30-something daughters to have their eggs frozen in the hope of warding off their rapidly decreasing odds of having grandchildren one day. It’s a revealing example of the bizarre side of what has become the conventional wisdom — reinforced by actual science! — that it’s better to wait to start a brood. In fact, science claims to have pinpointed the figure: a few years ago, the National Institute of Ageing and the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that the best time to have a baby is at exactly age 34, claiming that stress problems associated with having a family tend to drop off steadily until age 34 and then rise again.
Why that rise in problems after 34? Because, of course, in terms of child-bearing, 35 is getting pretty old to be doing it. The older we get, in fact, the precipitously higher the risk of serious pregnancy complications and birth defects associated with eggs that, well, have just been in the fridge too long, so to speak. It’s hard on our bodies. The irony here being, of course, that the cohort of folks paying to freeze their eggs until they’re settled enough in their careers to maybe give parenting a shot is the same cohort of folks most likely to wring their hands about the horrors of teen pregnancy — the time at which our biology most strongly encourages us to have kids in the first place. I mean, good Lord, freezing eggs is hella expensive — the procedure can run a tab of up to $18,000. I’m just saying, if these people had offered to pay their daughters 18 grand to get pregnant when they were still teenagers, I bet they totally would have done it and it would have been way easier. What? I’m just saying.
And shit, forget gestation – even if a viable embryo makes it through the pregnancy, the childhood is hard on our bodies. Kids are tireless, perpetual little balls of obnoxious energy, and personally, I’ve got a lot less energy of my own to keep up with it at 30 than I did at 20, no doubt about it. Plus, by the time my first kid turns 18 and I heartlessly kick him out of the house to go and seek his fortune with the advantage of all the character he’s built by having grown up with the uncertainty and adversity of young parents with tenuous financial situations, I’ll be a spry 38 — the age at which many of my peers will just be starting to have babies. And I will pity them, and I will say things like, “Oh, you had a baby? That must be so much to handle!”
To some extent, of course, I’m playing the devil’s advocate. I’m not suggesting that doing it the way I did — being a 19-year-old vagrant and knocking up some chick you barely know and then moving to a different city so it takes her like a year to track you down and let you know you might be a father — is the right way to do it. But it wasn’t the end of the world for me, either. I got my shit together and did the deal. I sacrificed. But I don’t regret it. It’s been a hell of an experience and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.
What I am suggesting is that “waiting for the right time” is futile. There is no right time. Having a baby this time around is easier, yeah, but I’d attribute that ease in large part to already having done it and having a better idea of how to go about it and what to expect. For my girlfriend, I’d venture to say it hasn’t been vastly easier for her at 27 than it was for me at 20. Having kids at any age is stressful and selfless and demanding in a way that people who don’t have kids can’t even begin to imagine. It’s also rewarding in the same way. So if you think that sounds worth it — and I think it is — then what I’m saying is quit waiting for a right time that will never come and just do it already.
Because having babies isn’t fucking rocket science. Unless you wait too long. Then it’s pretty much fucking rocket science.
Jef Otte is a freelance essayist and writer. He lives in Denver with his girlfriend and two kids, who probably wish he would get a real job.