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College Grads: Early Parenthood

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Ian Shapira and Liz Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer and Parent
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; 1:00 PM

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.

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Washington Post staff writer Ian Shapira and Liz Johnson, a young parent, will be online Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the story.

A transcript follows.

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Ian Shapira: Hello readers of The Washington Post! Welcome to a chat about a story on today's front page (and home page) of the newspaper, about what it's like to buck demographic trends of the college educated set -- what it's like to have children in your 20s instead of postponing them until at least your 30s.

The issue brings out all sorts of issues and so many people have written to the paper about how and why THEIR strategy is the best: Why it's better to have them young, why it's better to have them older? And by the way, what is the definition of "young" and "old"?

A bit about me: I am 29, so is my wife. The story idea did not come directly from our own family discussions. But I can tell you this: My wife woke up this morning, read the story for the first time, and said something like: "We gotta get goin." I think I mumbled something back about how we needed to re-stock on Cheerios and how we needed to fix our blender to make Smoothies.

With me today is Liz Johnson, a brave soul who let a Washington Post reporter (me) and photographer spend time with her and husband, Brett Libresco, as they changed their kid's clothes in the morning.

Liz and I are both here for your questions. So let's go at it!

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Washington, D.C.: You say that the college-educated tend to delay marriage, which is one reason they don't usually have children before 30. However, the word delay seems to imply that people intentionally put off marriage. For some people that's true, but many others just don't find the right person to marry until later -- these folks can't have kids in their 20s unless they want to be single parents.

Ian Shapira: This is true, but I think one factor or reason that people don't find the right person to marry is that they are so consumed with their careers and climbing their profession or company's hieararchy, that they do not have time or an inclination to find the right person. Also, what people tell me is that they don't feel comfortable in their own skin if they are not semi-established in their own careers, and that they wait for that feeling to happen, before giving themselves to another person.

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Young parent: Take it from me, you are doing the right thing to have your kids early. I had mine young, and she is now a 22-year-old Ivy League graduate embarking on a new career. And in my mid-40s, I'm watching my same-age colleagues struggle with sleepless nights, day care, and the like.

Ian Shapira:"Young Parent" is the kind of person I met frequently on the reporting trail: someone who is confident about their own strategy and believes that their tack is better because they are younger, and perhaps more nimble in dealing with issues.

But the tone of this comment is very interesting. Young Parent, I wonder, do you think it is somehow unseemly of an older parent to be dealing with things like day care and sleepless nights?

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Rockville, Md.: Great article! I worry that some may think it's a frivolous topic... but as a woman who had a Ph.D. and two children by 30, but has not been working full-time since her first child was born, I feel this pain! None of my closest friends have children, and though I've met a wonderful group of parents, we never seem to have the same type of discussions that my still-childless college buddies and I enjoyed so frequently. I love my life, but it can be lonely out here as a demographic oddity!

Ian Shapira: Dear Rockville,

Frivolous Topic! I love frivolous topics. Who doesn't? But how is pregnancy, anxiety of status and place in life, and fending off questions from friends about whether you accidentally got off birth control a frivolous topic?

But Rockville, you do bring up a consistent theme I found with others: an sense of isolation from your childless friends

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Washington, D.C.: I had my first child when I was 29, and I thought this article was a lot of fuss over nothing. Yes, I was one of the first of my friends to have kids. But I found wonderful support and advice both online and in in-person moms groups -- and my age was a total non-issue.

What made you think this was worth a story?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington:

Fuss over nothing! Not worth a story? Everyone has different perspectives. I'm sorry you couldn't relate to the tensions going on in other people's lives, including those of your demographic. But just because you don't relate, doesn't it mean there's not a story. I am happy that when you had your first child at age 29, it was smooth sailing and that you had wonderful support from friends. Other people simply just don't share that perspective.

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Washington, D.C.: Liz:

Are the compromises you thought you were making when you and your husband were thinking of having the baby the same as those you're now experiencing?

Liz Johnson: Before having the baby, I thought I would be able to attend graduate school fairly easily. It seemed to me that working full time might be difficult, but that being in school would be much easier. My perspective on that has now changed considerably. I realize now that being in school requires a lot of time away from the baby -- classes, studying -- almost as much as working. So, I have compromised, by not returning to graduate school at the moment, in a way that I did not previously expect.

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Rockville, Md.: I just didn't understand this article at all. Can't we all just get along? My friends who have kids vs. my friends who don't have kids (we are in early 30'slate 20's with degrees) is entirely dependant on when that person met the person they ended up marrying and staying with for more than two years. This is just one more article that creates anxiety between groups. Am I now supposed to wonder whether we can all remain friends -- kids or no? Geez! How about we all just try to be sensitive and support one another instead of playing on people's fears and anxieties. Isn't high school over?

Liz Johnson: Thanks for your posting. I was initially concerned about appearing in an article on parenting, mostly because I do not find the ongoing debate about working as a mother or staying home very constructive or even representative of all of the available options open for parents. However, I did not think that this article was pitting 20 somethings with kids against those without. Rather, the article was attempting to shed some light on the worlds that young-ish parents straddle. When I repeatedly turn down my friends invitations to go out past 10pm do I feel alienated from them? How easy is it to transition into parenthood? These are some of the issues I thought about when getting interviewed for the article. There are differences in one's life after having kids, including making social certain adaptions, and my perspective of the article is that it is highlighting some of those differences and touching upon how new parents are handling those changes.

Ian Shapira: Dear Rockville.

It sounds like this article really struck a deep emotion for you. I think it's okay to remain friends with both camps. I am not sure whether you are childless or not, but if you are childless, be sure you accept brunch invitations at 10 am. And if you do have a child, be sure you hit the bar scene after putting the baby down.

Kidding, of course. But the point is, there's no need to feel such diviseveness. Everyone has their own strategies in life and no single strategy is universally the best. It all depends on the person, the marriage, and your circle of friends.

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McLean, Va.: In the studies quoted in the article, did it appear there was any geographic correlation between age of marriage in the more educated set? I get the feeling a lot of this has to do with coast city vs. midwest city mentality. I recently talked with a friend who graduated from a prestigious east-coast school. He knew no one engaged or married out of college. I graduated from a good midwest school and knew several people engaged or marrying right after graduation.

Ian Shapira: Hi McLean,

Good question. The data I found only could specify "metro" areas, including cities and suburbs. But demographers that I spoke with speculated that the delays of marriage and children were more pronounced in cities like New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And in a region like Washington, which has lots of government jobs, NGO jobs, law jobs, many women have numerous opportunities for advancement and so they spend much of their 20s climbing the ranks.

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Fairfax, Va.: My daughter (24) is looking for a place to meet other young moms who share similar values about the importance of parenting. As the article points out, she is concerned about acceptance by the "older" mothers. Any ideas of where she could connect to other like-mided young moms?

Liz Johnson: A lot of moms connect on online groups. There are many very active online moms groups in Alexandria, a large forum in DC, and I am sure many more out there that I do not know about. These groups usually post messages with helpful parenting information as well as potential social outlets. Hanging out in local coffee shops and libraries is another good option. Often once I start a conversation with another Mom, we can figure out another way to get together, go for walks, etc.

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New York: I'm in my late 40s and have a six-year-old. I don't recommend my path to everyone (exclusive focus on my education and career into mid-30s, marriage at 38, infertility followed by parenthood at 42), but as an older parent, I feel like I am a better one emotionally than I would have been in my 20s or early 30s. I found it particularly poignant that some of the parents in the article felt like fish out of water when they are with older parents. I encourge younger parents to seek out other parents, regardless of their ages or experiences. I would welcome friendships with younger parents, if only I could find them!

washingtonpost.com: Bringing Up Babies, And Defying the Norm ( Post, Jan. 15)

Liz Johnson: Thanks for your thoughts. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to having children at any end of the spectrum and everywhere in between. I try not to let age serve as a barrier in my meetings with other parents. Usually, I have found that our children's age is more of an issue.

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Young parent again: Sorry if the tone of my post was over-confident -- that's the problem with the Internet!

Frankly, my own circumstances were not so great when I had my daughter, and it was probably not a smart thing to do. But she was a terrific kid, and it all turned out very well. Being in your mid or late 20s and having finished college is a much better approach than what I did. My point was really to support the young(er) parents, because my guess is you may get a lot of flak from those who waited, either by choice or by necessity!

That being said, I have no problem with the older parents -- but I think it must be exhausting! In your 20s, a night or two without sleep isn't a big deal, but I don't think I could do it regularly in my 40s. But it's certainly not "unseemly" -- more power to them!!

Ian Shapira: Young Parent! You again!

(See? You think I am angry because the Internet does not translate tone. But really, I am kidding.)

I hear from parents all the time who waited until their 30s, late 30s, and early 40s about how they have no regrets, how they were able to travel, party, cultivate their curiosities without having to worry about the responsibilities of raising a child.

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Vienna, Va.: On one level, I understood what the "young" parents interviewed for this story were going through: I had my first child when I was barely 28, and at the time my husband and I were definitely the youngest folks in all the birthing classes and hospital tours. (This was about four years ago.)

But at some point, I think these folks are just looking way too hard for conflict that isn't there. Writing someone off because he was wearing a Rolling Stones shirt? Please! I wouldn't care if someone had a Count Basie T-shirt -- if I might be able to learn something or strike up a friendship with someone because of obvious common interests (our kids being the same age and all), I would!

Liz Johnson: Again, I think that the age of the children is more of an indication of whether parents will connect at a given time. Sometimes parents with older children have already formed all of the necessary social groups and are not trying to meet other parents as much as parents of newborns are.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Heh. You're lucky to be able to stay home with your kids. If you can't find the 1/3 of people your age with your level of education with kids, it's because they have no choice but to work.

And if your childless friends can't find time for you, I doubt it's primarily because you have kids. I still see plenty of my childless friends, but it's usually at my house.

Liz Johnson: I have also been lucky to spend time with my "childless" friends at my house. They have been very accommodating and seem to relish the chance to play with the baby. I agree that I have been fortunate to have flexible employers who allow me to work part-time, and that I am financially able to do so.

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College Park, Md.: Have those young parents out there made their decision to have children based on an emotional desire for children? Or is it more of a calculated decision factoring in all the pros/cons?

Ian Shapira: Dear College Park:

It's a combination of reasons. One of the characters in the story is an associate at Washington law firm. She says that she wanted to have kids early so she could be up for partner without having to tend to small infants. Others want children early for emotional reasons, to feel like their family is more "complete" (not necessarily in the Jerry Maguire meaning).

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Alexandria, Va.: What do you feel is a reasonable salary level to be able to afford children in D.C. area?

My wife and I are working professionals and bring in around $130-140K a year, yet we can't imagine having enough for children.

Liz Johnson: I think that kids can be raised, and are raised, at many salary levels. It depends in part on how many other things you want -- square footage in a house or condo, new cars, private schools, etc. Not to say that having kids is cheap, but I think can be managed without being wealthy. I can't really comment on exact salary figures.

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Alexandria, Va.: This article hits home. My husband and I are 30 and considering starting a family this year. None of our friends have kids and we would definitely be the youngest parents in our neighborhood. But our biggest road block is finances. I found it interesting that money wasn't discussed in the article. Daycare and housing prices are exorbitant in D.C. and many other metro areas. We're worried about finances (and we make good money, own our home and have no outstanding debt other than our mortgage). I think a lot of other college-educated folks our age are making the same decision to hold off on kids until they are more financially secure, which can take a while in this area.

Ian Shapira: You raise a good point, Alexandria. I felt that the issue of finances was implicit in the idea that young people hold off to bolster their career. But you do raise a solid point about how the issue could have been explored more deeply. We at the paper felt that we wanted to hone in on the theme of isolation more than anything, and that plenty has been written on how to navigate finances for young parenting.

But Amy Elliott, featured in the story and the online video, described to me in our interviews how expensive good day care can be. It can cost thousands of dollars, plus you have to deal with the constantly replenishing of new clothes, since the creature that you just gave birth to is constantly morphing into new sizes and shapes. My advice: Hold off on the flat screen 50-incher.

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Arlington, Va.: Because our area can be so expensive, I wonder if many of us postpone having children until we are more financially stable. I am a public school teacher in my early 30's. My school system, with the top-ranked schools in the country, only gives six weeks maternity leave. That coupled with a modest income make the prospect of having kids scary! What are your thoughts?

Liz Johnson: There are a lot of postings about financial stability. This is certainly an important issue and can be difficult to attain in this area, given the cost of housing. Paid maternity leave policies certainly help make having children more feasible. Other policies, such as low interest housing loans for local teachers also help ease financial burdens.

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Re New York: I find this sentiment a lot from older parents -- glad we waited, because we are emotionally more stable, which is better for the children. But the problem is, you don't know how you would have behaved had you (intentionally or unintentionally) been faced with raising a child at 25. Perhaps you were emotionally ready then, but will never know. That's one reason these arguments are really so pointless.

Ian Shapira: This brings up a good point. I often think to myself: What if I waited a couple years before going to college? I would have appreciated my experience there much more than when I did go, at age 18.

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Question for Liz: HI Liz, I am 29 and have two children age 4 and 1 and live in D.C. The biggest difference I notice between myself and older moms is...Finances! People in their 20s just don't have the same financial resources as those in their 30s. I don't know about you, but for me this is almost a bigger difference than age. My daughter does a lot less "stuff" because I can't afford it. Have you observed that too?

Liz Johnson: Oh definitely. That is a good point. There are many activities for kids that cost a lot of money, although there are others that are free. Luckily my son likes wrapping paper better than presents! And there is nothing he likes better than watching cars and buses go by on the street. Go figure.

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Rosslyn, Va.: My wife and I both thought the article was overly negative -- having a kid is all about not sleeping, changing diapers and not seeing your friends. The baby itself didn't really play a part in the article. Babies aren't a fashion accessory women should have when its "fashionable." While there are many important practical concerns, having a child is more than that.

Liz Johnson: I agree that there is much more to having a baby than changing diapers and losing sleep. If there were not, we would probably see fewer babies in the world! Having a child is an amazing, exhilarating experience that has brought so much joy to my husband, me and the rest of our families. I think Brett, my husband, touched upon that in his final quote in the article.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for the story. I am in my mid-twenties and have a 4-year- degree plus a graduate degree. Most of the couples I know fall on either end of the spectrum: have children now or wait until after 30 and nothing in-between. More and more friends are moving towards the children now despite the raised eyebrows simply because they think they can make the necessary sacrifices now, rebound with their career, will be done with child-rearing at a younger age, be energetic parents and reduce their chances of dealing with infertility -- which is normally a huge issue. As I'm not married, I don't have children right now. But if I was, I would want children earlier for the above reasons. I have also thought about adopting on my own now as an unmarried woman.

Ian Shapira: Dear Arlington,

I hear from some experts out there how many women, in the future, will choose not to marry and adopt or have a child on their own. Adoption is another huge issue -- some countries are tightening their laws now.

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washingtonpost.com: Bringing Up Babies, And Defying the Norm ( Post, Jan. 15)

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Washington, D.C.: This discussion would be so much different if we were talking about different race/class dynamics. If you come from a background where getting a fancy education and powerful career opportunities are things you and your family had to work really hard for (and there were expectations and community pressures to "make it") than compromises like not going to graduate school or not making the most out of expensive degree are much complicated and loaded. I wonder (do you know?) if people from low-income backgrounds who graduate from prestigious schools put off children until even later than others in their cohort?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington,

I don't have any data on whether low-income students who go to college, let alone prestigious schools, put off children until later or have them earlier. I could not find those of figures in my reporting, but it would be interesting to see.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think friends of yours are positvely or negatively influenced by your having kids? For example, are people in your peer group who might have children earlier because they see you doing it? (Or does the opposite happen -- they see the sleepless nights and think: that looks rough; nevermind -- I wanna got to the Galapagos Islands!)

Liz Johnson: Hmmm...I am not sure, it may depend on the day they visit us! only kidding. I am not sure that our having a baby really influences my friends one way or another. Although, it has certainly opened up conversations about having and raising children. Once I became pregnant, I was amazed at how much my peers, both male and female, wanted to talk about the experience and the idea of having children. I can only think that they were going over the possibility for themselves. We'll see what people decide in the long run.....

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Washington, D.C.: This story has had me and my friends chatting all day. I'm only 23, and am still struggling to find out what my "career" is. Although I'm in a happy, long-term relationship, we never mention the word marriage and we have never mentioned kids -- other than the fact that we might one some someday (but not necessarily together). This story is almost making me have the opposite reaction -- it would be great to feel adult enough to want to care for another human being -- and I want to feel that way. Mostly, though, my friends and I are not ready for that.

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington,

Glad to see the story has you and your posse buzzing. Your comment really resonates with me, as I look back on my early 20s (I am now inching towards 30). I too felt like marriage was way too soon and that it was something almost unthinkable before the age of 25. I wonder, why don't you and your friends feel ready for marriage in your early 20s? When I was that age, I just felt like I should be working and trying to get a career going to support a family (and convince another human being I could help support a family).

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Alexandria, Va.: My husband and I (both 30) are constantly told by everyone, even strangers(!), to not wait any longer to have kids. We are resenting the fact that everyone acts as though having kids while you are younger is best. It's hard not to feel as though everyone is trying to sell you something you might not want.

Liz Johnson: I think every person/couple should have children at the time that they feel is the most appropriate for them. I am sorry that you feel a social pressure to have kids now. I also think there is social pressure to wait, for a variety of reasons. I've realized in having baby that there is pressure on all sides of almost all decisions regarding kids! You have to do what is right for you.

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Seattle. Wash.: A flip side of "kids from younger parents don't get as much stuff:"

I find, as a parent of two school-age kids, that the kids of older, more fiscally successful parents are more likely (not always of course) to be spoiled and their parents more likely to be insufferable helicopters. (Start late, have one kid, make him/her the center of the universe)

Ian Shapira: Seattle, you are quite feisty today. But you do bring up an interesting point. Are older parents more vigilant and heavy on the micromanagement?

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Heath (Washington, D.C.): Liz:

What a great article about you in the Post! We're all very proud of you, but we miss you here at Team Moran!

Liz Johnson: Thanks, Heath. I miss you guys, too! I am afraid my discussions on the federal budget is lost on little James.

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Ian Shapira: Well, it is 2 pm and our time is up. Thank you so much for the thoughtful replies and thank you to Liz Johnson for participating.

This story is the third in a group of articles I am writing about young people in the Washington area who are college-educated and who typically are in their 20s or early 30s. I am looking to do stories like this, that resonate with people, that capture their emotions about their lives, their obstacles, successes, and anxieties.

If you have any ideas for future stories, please email me at shapirai@washpost.com. And if you have any comments on this story, please let me know.

In the meantime, I'll be entering a series of diplomatic talks with my wife Caroline that I am sure will last for the next several weeks. And maybe Liz can get back at me in the future (the way way way distant future) and write a story about me when I go through all this. (I think I would decline to comment.)

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Washington, D.C.: Can you suggest some books or articles on finances for young parents in metro areas?

Liz Johnson: Jeez. We read lot of books with financial advice for all people -- not just young parents. Personal Finance for dummies, Home Buying for Dummies and the like. On smaller scale items Baby Bargains is pretty helpful. We also try to get a lot of financial advice from family members. coworkers, etc.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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