Bringing Up Babies, And Defying the Norm

Amy Elliott, 28, is defying the norm for her class and age group: college-educated parents in their 20s often face questions about friendships, careers, their place in life. Video by Ian Shapira/The Washington Post, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In an Alexandria strip mall, Erin Rexroth watched her 21-month-old daughter, Haley, straddle and bounce on a plastic alligator one recent day at the My Gym. Rexroth, 27, stood apart. On the playroom's other side, older parents chatted with a nanny and a grandmother next to a plastic basketball hoop.

"I don't feel quite mentally in mom-world," Rexroth said, glancing at the others. "But you do whatever makes your kids happy. At least the gym doesn't play annoying kid music all the time."

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.

On her drive home, Rexroth lamented the last-minute cancellation of a lunch with old Capitol Hill friends. "We would have talked politics, what they're doing about work and reminisced about crazy days and pranks," she said. "I was disappointed."

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's National 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 by University 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?

"If we already had a child or were a bit older, no one would have asked that," said Brett Libresco, 29, a research analyst at the World Bank. He and his wife, Liz Johnson, 29, a part-time program analyst, were the first among of their local friends and colleagues of their age to have children. "Sometimes, what you think is behind that question is, 'It must be an accident,' because none of our friends are doing this."

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.

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