I found out I was pregnant last June, after taking a cursory pregnancy test in my office bathroom. A few days later, when I started telling my friends, they responded by asking one of the two following questions: “Was it planned?” (hell, no), or “When are you going to get an abortion?”
“Actually, I don’t think I’m going to get one,” I’d say. “I think we’re planning on keeping it?” I’d then shrug and giggle apologetically, as if I’d just told a bad joke or audibly farted at a party.
Prior to seeing the two cornflower-blue lines winking up at me from my First Response stick, I never had any intention of getting pregnant in my 20s. While my husband and I both wanted to eventually have kids and had discussed the topic at length, we both agreed that we were too focused on our careers (and, if we’re being totally honest, our desire to have uninterrupted sex with each other) to start a family until we were well into our 30s.
Over the weeks, as I became increasingly sure that I would continue with the pregnancy, I noticed a trend: The reaction to my pregnancy was neatly split along demographic lines. When I told people over the age of 40 that I was pregnant, they were delighted. People under the age of 40, however, were horrified.
“Don’t you think you’re too young to have a kid?” my friends would ask. “Don’t you want to enjoy your 20s? Aren’t you worried about your career?” Some of them worried about my mental health; others fretted over the state of my postpartum vagina. (I ended up delivering via C-section, so this concern was ultimately moot.) Yet the message was consistent: At my age, having a baby would be, at the very least, harmful to my career, and at worst, a regression on behalf of my entire gender — like I thought we should all quit our jobs, return to the kitchen, and resume cooking Virginia hams and douching with Lysol.
“I just feel like we’ve come so far that having kids in your 20s is, I don’t know, like taking a step backwards,” my best friend said. “I feel like this is the time for us to focus on our careers above everything else.”
I found the general response to the news surprising, to say the least. I wasn’t a teenage girl or a heroin addict; I wasn’t unemployed or transient, a street performer with aspirations of a career in puppetry. I was a 27-year-old woman a few months away from getting married, with a decent job and a steady source of income. On paper, there was no reason for anyone to think I was a wildly unsuitable candidate for motherhood. And as a career-oriented feminist, the idea that I couldn’t be a mother without sacrificing my ambition was absolutely anathema to me. “It’s 2016,” I thought. “Adele has a kid. Hilary Duff has a kid. The British woman from Girls has like 45 kids. Who’s to say that I, at 27, can’t get pregnant and have a career as good as the British woman’s from Girls?”
In my head, it made sense to have my first child in my 20s. Yet in the eyes of my peers, for whatever reason, having a kid was one of the dumbest things I could do.
Historically speaking, having a first baby at 27 is not particularly remarkable. Yet in a culture where women are increasingly delaying marriage and motherhood, if not eschewing them altogether, my experience is less and less typical.
The average age at which women have their first child is rapidly climbing: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the average first-time mom is 26.3 years old as of 2014, up from 25.2 in 2000 and 21.2 in 1970. There are a lot of reasons for this trend, some of which are more obvious than others: the introduction of women into the workforce, as well as the advent of reproductive technology such as the pill, which has given more women control over their reproductive destinies.
“In general, [the trend] tends to be associated with women getting more education and more into the workforce,” sociologist Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were, told me. Coontz added that this trend is not specific to the United States. In fact, in countries such as Italy, France, and Sweden, the average age of first-time moms is 27 or older. “It makes a lot of sense for women to delay parenthood when your prime professional résumé-building years are also your prime childbearing years,” she said.
Of course, it’s important to note that this trend is specific to a very particular demographic — namely educated, upper-middle-class women who have the economic and social support systems necessary to pursue a college education or a career in the first place. It’s also worth noting that women who opt to have kids later in life arguably face a more extreme form of judgment, as evidenced by the vitriol that greets women who say they want to have their first children in their 40s (or that they don’t want kids at all).
Yet for progressive women in their 20s who harbor both career ambition and the desire to start a family, there’s overwhelming cultural pressure to prioritize one over the other. Writer Michelle Horton, 30, found out she was pregnant when she was 21. At the time, she had a steady boyfriend and a coveted internship at a magazine. “I was at the cutting edge of everything I wanted to be,” she said. When she told her colleagues she was pregnant, “there was a sense of, ‘Ooh, you could’ve been so great, Michelle. And now your life is probably over.’”
Even though Horton was well past her teens when she had her first child, she said she often came up against the assumption that young moms “are stupid or reckless or promiscuous, especially if it’s unplanned — before you’re married and you have the right house, the right job, and all the things in place,” she told me. Her experience prompted her to launch the blog Early Mama, a platform for women who become moms in their 20s. “I didn’t realize that every woman who has a baby gets judged for it, regardless of the circumstances,” Horton said. “Between the ages of 29 and 32, it’s okay to have a kid. And then it’s like, ‘You’re too old.’ You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Rebecca*, 25, who got pregnant shortly after she became engaged to her husband, said that hearing comments from friends, who questioned her ability to stay sober during her pregnancy and urged her to terminate, made her feel depressed and guilty. “You get taught through your teenage years that being pregnant is absolutely a life-ruiner,” she said. “So when you actually get pregnant, it’s hard to kick those feelings.”
Even in an era when we aspire to have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too feminism, and nearly 70 percent of women with children under 18 participate in the workforce, working motherhood still attracts a certain degree of hand-wringing — particularly if you’re in your early-to-mid-20s, when your career is barely established yet. Whether you’re consulting Sheryl Sandbergian playbooks on career success or watching TV 20-somethings endure seasons’ worth of wacky misadventures, it’s easy to internalize an ambient assumption that certain periods of your life are reserved for specific milestones. Your 20s are for establishing a career and finding a life partner; your 30s are for marrying that partner and (maybe, if everything else is all lined up) having kids; and your 40s are for taking care of anything you didn’t do in your 20s and 30s.
Checking off these boxes out of order is a surefire means of inviting judgment, said Coontz.
“There probably are a lot of women who, because they are ambivalent in their own lives and have made sacrifices in their own lives, feel defensive or legitimately concerned that you won’t make it if you make this decision earlier. There’s stigma [to having children at an early age] that certainly was not there 40 years ago,” she told me.
If the pregnancy is unplanned (which at least 45 percent are, according to the Guttmacher Institute), that sense of shame intensifies. “There’s this idea that educated, ambitious women would never allow themselves to get pregnant, because that’s not what you’re supposed to do,” Horton said. Of course, ambitious women do sometimes wind up getting pregnant, particularly if they’ve relied on the tried-and-true contraceptive cocktail of pulling out, going on and off birth control, and just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, as my husband and I admittedly did for years.
As a staunchly pro-choice feminist whose attitude toward motherhood was ambivalent at best, I’d always assumed I’d opt for abortion if I ever found myself accidentally pregnant, as did pretty much everyone else in my similarly staunchly pro-choice feminist social circle. “You know you still have time to terminate. It can’t feel anything. It doesn’t even have fingernails yet,” people would tell me as my pregnancy progressed, as if my decision to have an abortion was entirely contingent on my fetus’s ability to generate keratin. Yet in a country where women still often lack paid maternity leave or affordable childcare (and whose president has said that pregnant women are an “inconvenience” to employers), “choice” is always complicated. “Our choices are constrained by a lack of socioeconomic support” in the form of flexible work policies, Coontz said.
Then, in September, I was laid off. Within a span of hours, I went from being a steely-eyed millennial career woman to being a young, unemployed pregnant woman, padding barefoot around my apartment and waiting for my husband to come home like I was in some bizarre, anti-feminist time warp. I had spent my 20s completely subservient to ambition, climbing the ladder rung by rung. With that ladder yanked away, I felt like little more than a vessel for the fingernail-less alien growing inside me. I started to question whether I’d be able to achieve the things I’d hoped to in my career, or if I would even be able to have a career as a new mom to begin with — and given how difficult it was for me to find a new job, it was hard to shake the feeling that my friends had been right.
Eventually I did find a job, at a millennial-parenting website with a staff full of sympathetic new moms. When I got the offer, I was elated — not just at the prospect of once again working full-time, but also by the idea that I’d be writing and editing about the very issues I was struggling with as a mother-to-be. In this new role, it wasn’t just okay for me to be a 20-something mother in the workplace, it was considered a professional advantage. Many of the young mothers I’ve spoken to shared a sense of optimism about their career prospects. “It’s not a disaster. It can open you up in ways that are quite beautiful,” said Horton, who ended up working for the New York State Democratic Assembly after giving birth. “It makes you more mature because you have to be more mature.”
I gave birth to my son in January, a month before his due date. Right now, I’m on maternity leave. Unlike my friends and colleagues, my life is no longer a whirlwind of emails and gossipy bar dates with industry peers; instead, it’s a blur of folding onesies and wiping Desitin smears off sweatpants and 3 a.m. feedings while watching MTV reality shows and waiting for my son to lock eyes with me and feeling my heart shatter into millions of pieces when he finally does. For now, I am a mom; for now, I am a vessel. But when I come back from my leave, I’ll be climbing back up that ladder, rung by rung — except this time, I’ll have my baby in tow.