In the Parenthood

How old were you when you became a parent?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  May 20, 2010 08:04 AM

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I like to joke that there's a huge difference in the way my husband parented his first born versus the way we parent our youngest. Except it's not really a joke; he's an equally good but more relaxed and confident parent now, in his 40s, than he was then, in his 20s.

As a brand new parent in the early 1990s, he was a vegetarian who fed his toddler "not dogs" and soy butter and I think I remember him saying she didn't get to eat anything with refined sugar. She listened to "The Playground" on WERS-FM but rarely watched anything on TV.

Fast forward to the arrival of his fifth child in 2006.

Our now-3-year-old was licking steak from his daddy's fork at 6 months. We smear real butter on his (whole wheat) toast, and top it off with homemade jam or cinnamon and (refined) sugar. While he does listen to "The Playground," he also spends time in front of the tube with his older siblings. Watching "SpongeBob Squarepants." And "Blues Clues." And "Team Umizoomi." But, yes, "Spongebob Squarepants."

Over at Babble.com, Ariel Gore writes about becoming a mother, first at 18, and then again at 38. "When I was a teen mom with an infant, people often mistook me for my daughter’s nanny," she writes. But by the time her second baby came along, 20 years later, people assumed she was his grandmother, she says.

"Most people I meet assume that parenting when we’re older is intrinsically better or easier," Gore continues. “ 'Congratulations on the improved circumstances,' ” more than few people told me when I got pregnant with #2. But of course there is no better or easier."

Statistically speaking, first-time moms are getting older. In 1970s, the average age of a first-time mom was 21.4; by 2006, it was 25, according to an August 2009 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1970, 1 out of 100 babies were born to first-time moms who were older than 35; by 2006, that had changed to 1 in 12. (Moms who become first-time parents post-menopause are a tiny fraction of the minority.) In 1970, 36 percent of births were to mothers younger than 20; in 2006, that figure had dropped to 21 percent.

I had my first baby when I was 32. Friends called me a semi-new mom, since I'd already been step parenting for five years by then; my first baby was also my fourth child. People didn't assume I was my stepkids' nanny but, oddly enough, once I began toting a baby along with our big kids people would gawk at the age gap and, ocassionally, ask if they all had the same father. ("Yes," I told someone once. "But they have different mothers." What makes people think it's OK to ask something like that, anyway?)

How old were you when you became a parent for the first time? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? Older parents, do you ever wish you had started earlier?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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26 comments so far...
  1. If you count my son (given up for adoption at birth), I was 19. Since he is still part of my life but I had nothing, ultimately, to do with his rearing, I don't know if that should count. I only knew that, even though I'd been living on my own and supporting myself (barely) for 4 years by then, I could not parent a child in my circumstance. It was a hard decision to make but the best decision I've ever made as a mother, especially when I see where he is now and how he's thrived.

    I was 33 when my daughter was born. She just turned 2. Is it easier? Well, I have a life established. I have a career. I have a solid marriage to a wonderful husband and father. I'm a lot more relaxed and have definitely gotten (most of) my ya-ya's out. But I do, occasionally, feel my age, plus 10 - especially when trying to keep up with a very active toddler who, in spite of having an nth of the leg length still manages to run faster than I do!

    And FWIW, It's never OK to pry into someone's family circumstance like that. Really. Family is family, and it's none of anyone's business how it came to be that way unless you choose to confide that to them in friendship.

    Posted by Phe May 20, 10 12:02 PM
  1. I absolutely think your son counts, Phe! That's when you became a parent, and it's interesting to read your perspective on becoming a mom at 19 vs. becoming a mom at 33. Thank you for sharing this! -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page May 20, 10 12:22 PM
  1. I was 22 when I had my first, 28 when I became my step-daughter's mom and had my second baby and 30 when I had my last. Because I was single the first time around, and my son was so different in temperament than the others, I don't know what, if anything, I would have done differently by virtue of being older. I had a lot of convictions back then that carried through to the rest of the kids (breastfeeding, cloth diapering) but researched things and was open to anything (and still am). I didn't plan on co-sleeping, but I didn't plan on a colicky baby either and co-sleeping ended up being a good fit for us. I certainly had more energy at 22 than at 30, but at 30 I had more help so it balanced out.

    I would say that the one thing that I regret about being so young and single is the financial consequence to my oldest child. I am easily 10 -15 years younger than most of his friends' parents and that gap makes a huge difference in life stages - for example, they bought their first homes when I was in high school. Sure, I'll catch up to where they are now financially when I'm 45 (and they're 60) but by then, my son will be out of college so it won't benefit him that I can finally afford a home with non-hand-me-down furniture and more than one bathroom. In the meantime, it's painful that he's old enough to recognize the relative shabbiness of our current home (and cars, and clothes) and be somewhat embarrassed by it. He and his friends don't realize that their parents were once in starter homes and driving used cars into the ground too, they just weren't born yet or are too young to remember. On the upside, I won't be financing college and retirement at the same time.

    Posted by Jen May 20, 10 12:41 PM
  1. I am 36 and I have a 16 year old and an 11 year old. On the negative side being a young parent is difficult financially and emotionally. On the positive side I think it's easier physically and also to relate to your children especially when your children become teenagers. Despite the difficulty, I think I've done a good job and have great kids. But I did have a lot of support which is very important. I think when you are an older parent you can be more independent and not need support (and the criticism that sometimes comes with the support).

    Posted by Diane May 20, 10 02:38 PM
  1. I had my first at 20, my second at 23 and my last at 26. Same father(not that this matters) but we both made the decision we wanted our kids "young and done". This way we would be able to enjoy them while we were still young and enjoy our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Also we would have them potentially out of the house in our 40's.
    I am 29 now and am the youngest mother in two eldest class. I certainly know what Jen is talking about with the gap in ages. We just bought our first house this year. We are constantly struggling with not having any savings since we had to immediately pay for daycare. We do envy what we call "DINKS" Double Income, No Kids. But this is the decision we have made, and wouldn't do it any other way.

    Posted by momof3 May 20, 10 03:32 PM
  1. I was32 when I got married and was an insta-parent of 2 step kids, 33 when I had my daughter and 35 when I had my son. So now I'm a mom of 18, 16, 7, and 5 yr olds....We get funny looks and questions like Phe mentioned. I refer to my step kids as my children - so the age differences make people do a double take. I wasn't prepared to be a parent in my 20's and I knew it. I wanted to grow up first and luckily I was able to make that happen. I'm more patient now than I could have ever been in my 20's, but I'm also further into my career and feel caught having to cloose alot between my kids and my career. I think parenting is tough no matter what age you are...it's just in defferent ways!

    Posted by Jenn May 20, 10 03:47 PM
  1. 38 with one beloved one and only.

    I kinda liked my adult life the way it was going - until I fell in love with the man who would become my husband, and we decided together we wanted to share our love with a child. She is now 12.

    "Been there, done that" as they say. I got a lot of my running around, never at home stuff out of my system, and was ready (and wanting) to nest. I also had an established career, which I would eventually drop to become a SAHM (when she entered kindergarten - I did the work/SAHM a** backward). I traveled a ton abroad to Europe and elsewhere (helps to have English cousins and French chums). I went to the Faroe Islands. These recent years, it's basically been Canada and the South, all we can afford for now, and usually road-trips.

    It surprised me that my creative life would really, really flourished after I was at home. It's taken a new direction, but it's stronger than ever. I credit my daughter with being my muse.

    And, yes, sometimes I **do** want to impulsively get out of the house, and wish she were just a wee bit older so I could do this. But I wouldn't trade the life I have now for all the world. I have no desire to be a DINK, just a little more "me time" is all. It will happen in a few years (and then I'm sure to regret it, and have a bad case of empty-nestism).

    Posted by reindeergirl May 20, 10 04:27 PM
  1. I was 18 when I had my six year old. I wouldn’t do it any other way. While we struggled for a few years financially, we are secure now (as much as anyone can be in this economy).

    My child has perfectly adapted to all of the transitions in life, we’ve always had an age appropriate level of openness, and I’ve been there through every step of the way.

    I find that people very much look down on young parents OR young parents feel guilty, especially in Boston and surrounding areas, and feel that we are viewed as irresponsible. The ironic thing about this, I find, is that the same people who would usually look down on young parents, are the same people who are texting on their blackberries or are too busy to pay attention while their kids are going down the slides at the play ground. I am the parent who is running around with my child and having fun with them. When my child grows up, they will look back fondly at these times, and remember how great they were, and not remember that we had Ikea furniture because Mommy wasn’t as established as other people thought she should have been.

    Posted by Bettie May 20, 10 04:43 PM
  1. I was 39 when I had my one and only (he's 10 now). I was married at 31 and had a miscarriage at 18 weeks when I was 37. Having my son so 'late' was not a choice, but the result of many years of trying, many years of medical intervention and a lot of physical and emotional stress. He is worth every bit of it.

    Posted by Cathy May 20, 10 05:02 PM
  1. Married at 40, instant step parent to a 12 year old, first baby @ 41, second baby @ 43.
    Frankly, I'm psyched we were able to have kids...especially @ 40+.

    We're more established, and are able to take the time off for the kids that would be harder to do when just starting out in our careers.
    Having said that, yeah, I wish we were younger..not because of the physical energy required, but more because I worry about when they're in high school and college, and we'll definitely be older than most of their friends parents.

    We do want to be there for them when they're older. I lost one parent when I was a kid, and it was lousy. My parents were also older (mom was 32 when she started having kids in the '60s..her last child was at 40, in 1972!), but my husband had very young parents (they were in early 20s when they had their family)...so we've seen it from both sides.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to both....but that's life. I've got a friend the same age as me with a high schooler and kid in college, and she makes fun of me because I am just starting out as a parent. But, you know what??
    It is funny...and good..because I've got friends with lots of experience..so when I call them and ask what happened when their kid decided to give up milk during toddlerhood, or would fight with another kid at daycare, I get some great advice and perspective, because others have been there!

    Posted by motherof3 May 20, 10 05:22 PM
  1. I had my first at 35; second at 37 and third at 39. I never planned to be a SAHM, but it just worked out that way after #3. I didn't want that crazy life anymore – day care, traffic, work, traffic, day care, dry cleaners, grocery, dinner, calling in sick with sick kids, and so on-ugh it just didn’t seem worth it for the extra income. We had to make some major adjustments, but it has been so worth for us. It is still crazy, but in a different, better way.
    I don't really feel like an older parent (kids are 8, 6, 4), as many of my friends are also in their 40's with young children. I do have a couple of friends from HS and college with teenagers. They get a kick out of my watching my kids, and I am blown away watching theirs. My two main concerns are: being really old or worse by the time they have children, and being able to get back into the working world when the time comes, and it will come!

    Posted by leefee May 20, 10 07:08 PM
  1. Had my oldest at 19, youngest at 26. Two in between. I am glad I was young and full of energy when I had my kids, and still energetic when the grandkids started coming. I think most people have kids when it is right for them, and if it wasn't planned, it becomes right.

    Posted by patches02 May 20, 10 08:55 PM
  1. I was 20 when I had my first and 22 when I had my second (and last we hope!). I'm glad I had them young and can relate to what Bettie said. When my son went to his first preschool birthday party last year, I walked in to McDonalds and the mother of the child says rather loudly "Wow, you look so young!"...well yes that is because I'm am young, thanks for pointing that out!
    But you know what, I get complements on how well behaved and polite my kids are all the time. My oldest has been in preschool for two years now and every Parent/Teacher conference, the teachers rave about what a good friend he is. It really makes my husband and I proud.
    Being young doesn't mean you are a bad parent and it does sting when I hear people make jabs about young parents. Yes, we struggle along financially, my husband stays at home with the kids, but that is how we want to raise our family. We are all happy and healthy! Yes, my sons may be a little older than most kids when we have our own house, but I don't think that will matter to them.
    We had lots of help starting out, I was still finishing my last year of college. We appreciate and are thankful for all the help that we got. I hope to provide the same for my kids no matter what age they decided to have kids as well.

    Posted by weyma May 20, 10 09:20 PM
  1. I am about to turn 46 and have an 11 year old. Focused on college, career and then the biological clock for me. I would not do it any differently. Sometimes I wish I had the same energy as when I was 26 - but I was not emotionally ready to be a parent back in those years. I am blessed now and able to give my daughter the focus, values and lessons in life that only an experienced 'gal can give her daughter ... AK

    Posted by ABK40 May 21, 10 07:56 AM
  1. I appreciate this--I'm having my first, a girl, at 29, in another month or so. My due date is in early July and I'll turn 30 in October with my husband following me in December. I think its funny the difference between having babies in the US and having them in Boston. My husband and I (both same age) live in a condo in Chestnut Hill Brookline (we were super lucky with the real estate downturn) and we feel like the teenage parents of the neighborhood! Always the comment is that we're "so young!" FWIW, we've been married 5 years in September and together 10 years total...we were more than ready for this big step!

    Posted by Issybelle May 21, 10 08:54 AM
  1. Married at 39, first baby at 5 days shy of 41, twins at 42 (about 18 months between kids' ages).

    I didn't put off marriage because of a career...I just hadn't found the right person. When I did, we didn't rush into trying to have children. My gynecologist suggested we start trying when she found out we got engaged! I'm glad we waited a little. We needed time to get adjusted to each other, let alone to a child.

    Would I have done things differently if I could have? Yes, I would've preferred having children maybe 5 years earlier, but that's just not how it happened. We were very fortunate to have gotten pregnant without intervention. We were fortunate just to have found each other! But it does bother me sometimes that I am probably the oldest Mom in my kids' classes. More because I feel a bit ostracized by the younger moms. My kids don't care, why should I get bent out of shape about it?

    As for being more confident with children...I think you become more confident with the number of kids you have. First one scared me to death. I knew nothing. By the time the twins came, I was a pro!

    Posted by jozkid May 21, 10 09:15 AM
  1. I was 28 when my first child was born. There are times I wish we had waited a little longer and had a little more 'us' time before having kids, but it has worked out well for us. We're planning to retire shortly after the kids are out of college. Some of the kids' classmates' parents are a little older, but I'd say that the majority are within 5 years of my age, which I don't see as a significant difference at this phase in my life.

    Posted by akmom May 21, 10 11:05 AM
  1. I had my first son at 28 years old and now 30 pregnant with my second son due in August. I am glad I waited to have children in my late twenties and early thirties. Sometime I wish I did have my first at 25 years old, but I don't think I was financial ready or ready to give up my night life yet.

    Posted by TJG May 21, 10 11:33 AM
  1. Husband and I had first child at 23. Really wish I had waited until more financially secure. And I missed out on so much freedom during my twenties. Had second at 32--it was the perfect age. I was so much more patient with my second and emotionally ready. I feel very sorry for my first child who had to grow up with parents that were still growing up too. That child grew up in apartments rather than a house, with parking lots to play in rather than a yard, sirens to fall asleep to rather than crickets. My firstborn missed out on a lot. Wasn't fair--to either of us.

    You'll get very few people to say their first child was a mistake. But I do think you can love your child a lot and still wish you'd had that child five or ten years later instead. And warn others that they might be better off waiting if emotional stability and financial security are important to them.

    Posted by anon May 21, 10 12:10 PM
  1. I had my first 9 years ago, the week I turned 30, and my second a month before 32. I thought I had waited, and was older at the time, but now it seems so young. It was perfect for us, as I was fortunate enough to stop working, and I was far more mature than even a few years earlier. The only time I wish I started younger is that I would love to have two more kids close in age now, but am afraid I'm too old to even have one more!

    Posted by mom2boys May 21, 10 01:06 PM
  1. I had my first at 32 and my second at 34. I didn't think I was that old because many of my friends were doing the same thing, working for a decade out of college, then starting their families. I know I wouldn't have been ready to be a parent before then because I was a late bloomer, and not terrribly mature all through my 20s. My kids are 13 and 15 now, and I feel much better equipped to parent teenagers than I might have felt if I'd had them a few years earlier. It's easier for me to step back and be a parent, rather than a friend. The only thing I really regret is not having a third child!

    Posted by Ashley May 21, 10 03:11 PM
  1. I am a 47 yo man. My wife is in her mid 30s. We talk about having a child, and I lay awake at night, doing the math: child 15, me 62; child 20, me 67, etc. I'm in exceptional health and love my life and my wife. Until recently, our lifestyle didn't look like it could include a child. I've got a whole lot of life's lessons to pass along that I wouldn't have had if a child came in my 20s or 30s. Still, it breaks my heart to think that a child or I won't be able to handle the age difference. Any advice?

    Posted by Rewind? May 21, 10 05:36 PM
  1. "Any advice?"

    Rewind,

    Stop crunching numbers, and think about the beauty of creating and raising a child.

    If you don't want a baby, don't have one. But leave actuarial tables out of your decision.

    Also, what does your wife say? Is this a mutual decision, or do you make all the major life's decisions in your family?

    Posted by reindeergirl May 22, 10 06:01 PM
  1. I became a parent at 19, even though I was trying to conceive since I was 17 (right after I got married). I am now almost 50 and I can honestly say I would not have changed my age for anything. Financially it was harder at 19 but my kids never did without anything they needed.

    Now that I am a grandma of a 3 year old and an 18 month old I can tell your that I had way more energy as a young momma then I do now. I spend the day with both of my grandbabies because they (and my daughter) work in my baby & maternity shop with me. Most days I am tired, both from chasing them around, taking care of customers, and chasing their little ones around too, lol, but I truly enjoy being around them everyday.

    My brother in law & his wife had their 1st at 40, 2nd & 3rd by 45. I don't think I would want to wait that long...look at all the years of parenting fun they missed out on.

    I think being around little ones can be tiring, but on the flip-side it helps to keep you young.

    Posted by Anna @ The Baby Store Plus May 22, 10 10:27 PM
  1. I was 31 for my daughter and 33 for my son. They are now 2 and 4. I think there are benefits to being a both a young mother and an older mother. I have friends who had children in their late teens/early 20's who are fantastic mothers and the same can be said for those who waited. I think it all depends on the person. I feel I'm a much better mother now then I would have been in my 20's.

    Posted by CCmom May 24, 10 08:07 AM
  1. I was 37 and my husband was about to turn 38. We are so blessed with our sweet daughter, we would not change a thing. She is the light of our days.

    Posted by rmg May 24, 10 09:33 AM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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