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.
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.