Thursday, January 17, 2008

In Which I Discover That I Am The Demographic Trend

From the Washington Post, an article on young professionals who choose to have children while still relatively young:

Rexroth, a former congressional aide, and her husband, Philip, 27, who works for the Department of Homeland Security, are defying the norm for their class and age group: They are raising a child. The majority of college graduates in their 20s in metropolitan regions postpone having kids until at least their 30s or never have any, according to recent demographic research.

Like anyone who strays from the generational pack, college-educated parents in their 20s often face questions about friendships, careers and their place in life. Although rearing children invigorates them like a high-profile job, these parents sometimes say they feel like guinea pigs among childless peers. They wonder whether it's possible to befriend older parents. Some say they feel isolated from friends, those who don't change diapers or deal with sleep deprivation.

Demographic data obtained by The Post indicate that in metro areas nationwide, including cities and suburbs, 13 percent of men and 31 percent of women ages 25 to 29 with four-year college degrees have had children, according to an analysis of 2000-06 social survey data from the University of Chicago'sNational Opinion Research Center. By contrast, 49 percent of men and 62 percent of women in that age group with less education have had children, according to the analysis byUniversity of Maryland sociologist Steve Martin.

New data from the National Center for Health Statistics also show that college-educated mothers are usually about 30 when they deliver their first child.

"This is very significant data. It's giving numbers to a trend people have been only inferring," said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. The data, she said, show that "there is this increasing divergence of highly educated women and less-educated women."

College graduates who have children when they are young say they are irritated when they hear suggestions that they are giving up on careers. They also contend with feeling alienated even in casual moments, when, they say, childless friends ask awkward questions such as: Was it planned?

Many delay children because they have delayed marriage. From 1950 to 2004, the median age of first marriage rose from 20 to 26, according to a new book, "The Price of Independence: The Economics of Early Adulthood," co-edited by Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor. Another factor in delaying having children, Danziger said, is that women and men who live together without being married are more socially accepted than ever. "Cohabitation is a trial marriage," he said, "and a substantial number of cohabitations don't become marriages."

Danziger said many people who seek high-profile jobs in metro regions face a long educational haul during their 20s. They might finish college, work for a few years, go to graduate school and then try to cash in on expensive degrees in their late 20s.

Others who have take time off are easily irritated at the suggestion that they have "opted out," a controversial expression for women who leave high-flying careers to raise children. People in their 20s said they are too young to feel they cannot resume their professions and excel. "The expression sounds permanent, but a lot of parents want to do a little bit of both, moderated to some degree," said Liz Johnson, who was given a one-year leave from a consulting job while she raises her 7-month-old, James. She also works 10 hours a week at an organization that gives state governments federal funding information.

"Am I going to be able to do the things I want to be able to accomplish, given that 90 percent of my time goes to the baby?" she asked. "Having a baby is definitely a risk. You risk losing a devotion to yourself, to other things like a cause. I have one friend who goes in the evenings to get his PhD in social policy. . . . I don't know if I'll ever have time to do that."

See, this is why I am such a dishonest academic. While I despise the rhetoric of choice that surrounds the "opt-out"/"opt-back in" narrative, at this point in my life I am planning on waiting until my early -to-mid-to-late 30s (basically, whatever point in that decade) before I think of having children. I also doubt I'd take a full year off. Mind you, my dissertation argues against gendered constructions of work and family care, and in favor of expanded federal leave requirements.

Sigh. It is one thing to read and research. I can sort of try to figure out how to do a literature review, research design, and survey. But for the life of me I can't figure out how to live my own life. In theory, law, and real life, I'd like for us all to have greater flexibilty in our lives, and to not have to choose either/or between work/life, especially with respect to when to have children and being a part of our children's lives.

I'm torn. My research argues for the expansions of options and choices for workers, particularly workers who are in the position of primary caregiver to their children or disabled spouse, a position that is disproportionately occupied by female workers. Yet I myself feel so constrained by the limited choices that I will probably very definitely live within those constraints. I'll wait to have babies, go back to work after a few months, stick my children in daycare, and work 60+ hour weeks. It's one thing to argue for choice, quite another to feel like you have it. Moreover, my work can argue for choice even if I, by personality and preference, decide to choose the more conservative option. The point of my rant against the knocked-up movies is not that they make the choice of pregnancy, but that the choice of abortion isn't really offered as a choice. Were it offered as a viable choice, I would be fine with the final result. Similarly, if I really felt like I had the choice between having a child and having a career, I could choose not to have a child until later or remain a careerist even after childbirth, and feel like these are my choices and not some constraints I just had to learn to live with.


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