When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t really want to tell my friends. We’d talked about babies, over wine and second draft feature articles at a nonfiction writers’ group, and everyone agreed that if you’re smart, you wait until you’re 35. “There’s too much to do before then!” said one of the women. I was 26 when I got pregnant, which meant I’d jumped the gun by almost a decade.
In a lot of different parts of the country, having a baby in your mid-20s is not a big deal. According to a 2009 report from the CDC, the average age of first-time mothers in Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and nine other states New Yorkers rarely visit was recently 22 to 23. On my Babycenter.com Due Date Club app, people are constantly starting threads with titles like “aNy othr teen moms on here???” And they get plenty of sympathetic answers.
But the average age of first-time moms here in New York is 26, although I hadn’t yet met anyone my age who was pregnant. That’s probably because when you account for factors like advanced education, the ages climb. The Pew Research Center notes that 71 percent of first-time mothers older than 35 are college-educated. In New York City I only know one other woman my age who has a baby. She’d gone to Harvard and worked on Wall Street, but, she confided in me in low tones, “I always wanted to be a mom.”
I have not always wanted to be a mom. (If I’ve always wanted to be anything it’s a famous fantasy novelist—dorky, I know.) More immediately, I wanted to get a college scholarship and then get a high GPA and then get into an Ivy League grad school and then have a sparkling career in the big city.
Until now, the conversations I’ve had with my friends about babies have sounded something like this:
Glamorous, perfectly made-up Mara: “My mom is a nurse. She says it’s a myth that women are less fertile in their mid-30s.”
(We all nod sagely.)
Julie, who has just been promoted and is managing 10 people and attending star-studded work parties: “I need to spend at least another five years on my career. And anyway, my boss hates pregnant women.”
Stephanie, who works at a tech startup: “Five years, definitely. That’s the right amount of time. You have to live your own life first.”
Everyone else: “Yes!”
I had been married for a couple years when I decided to go off birth control. By then, I was in therapy to try to cope with my career-related anxiety. At my preconception appointment (this is a thing! Although I may be the only one who has ever taken advantage of it), the doctor congratulated me for being so proactive and told me to go off the pill three months before I was even thinking about trying to conceive, to get the hormones out of my system and allow my body time to readjust. So I did. And then I panicked. “I have to finish my book,” I told my therapist. “Maybe I should wait another year? Six months? I think I rushed into this. I’m not ready.”
But my body was. Two hours after that therapy session, I peed on a stick, telling myself that I was stupid for even taking a test this soon. It said “YES” in very straightforward digital letters. I was already pregnant.
I have had many visions of my professional self over the years but none of them involved children. My friends were career-oriented and driven, and for all of us, being a young woman was about proving ourselves in a competitive world. Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton were urging us forward, reminding us of our endless potential. And it was clear that having a baby before fully establishing yourself professionally was exactly the same as giving up on your potential. Having a baby was the kind of thing that my friends’ less ambitious sisters sometimes did, much to everyone’s long-distance concern.
I got married young, at 24. I didn’t mean to, but I fell in love in a way that wouldn’t compromise. But marriage isn’t anything like a baby. Despite what some people seemed to think about it limiting a person’s freedom, I felt more available to pursue my career goals and other interests than I ever had before. Without the distraction of dating and with the support of another income, I could push myself harder. “You should write!” my new husband said. “That’s what you want to do, so you should give it a shot.”
Tentatively, I left a job I’d never really liked, and soon I was working part-time and writing every spare moment. I was nervous. I wanted this so badly. Actually, I was nervous all the time. I was also the meanest boss I’ve ever had. I berated myself for not being more productive, for not being more savvy, for taking a whole day off. These were angsty, whiney, first-world problems, I thought, but I couldn’t seem to shake them. So I plowed ahead, telling myself that if only I had a big break, if only I succeeded in the way that I sometimes succeeded in my dreams, where Bill Bryson was constantly telling me that he’d read my latest best-selling book and he loved it, then I would feel better. I would finally relax. By the time I turned 30, I swore to myself, I would have arrived.
But then something happened. I began to think with an eerie, abrupt certainty that I should get pregnant. At first, I dismissed the urge as self-sabotage. You just won’t let yourself achieve your goals. But the changed part of my mind fought back. It said, There is enough time in life for all of this. Babies and writing, too. Stubbornly, it seemed to imagine that everything would somehow turn out all right, that life had a slower, more graceful arc than I pictured. The part of my mind that relentlessly encouraged me to have a baby sounded reassuringly like healthiness. It sounded like growing up. It sounded like calming down. And I was emotionally exhausted. I gave in.
In the middle of the night, during the first trimester, too sick to sleep, I found myself downloading books about infertility. I didn’t know why, but suddenly I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on about and by people who wanted a baby more than anything and couldn’t have one. I didn’t realize at first that I was seeking some justification for feeling accomplished just for getting pregnant. For my whole life, I’d wanted to stand out and go further and be more impressive than other people. But becoming a mother is completely ordinary. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to feel proud of myself, and I was a little embarrassed that I did.
I can feel my baby kicking now. She prods me from the inside, and it feels like a little reminder every time. I am here, too, my baby is saying. You’re my mother. And I am warmed and scared by it. But not the same kind of desperate fear I’ve felt so often about my career. Instead, it’s a fear that sharpens me and makes me grateful. After a grueling first trimester, I am back to work on my book proposal, and I’ve taken on a new column. Sometimes I am anxious, thinking about how I should work harder, I should have a publisher by now, but the anxiety has slipped into the background in a way I never thought it could.
Recently, the day before my 27th birthday, I had my nonfiction writing group over for cake and conversation. Everyone sipped red wine except for me, and they talked about their recent victories—a cover story, a new job, a book deal. A little awkwardly, I shared my ultrasound photos. “Oh my god,” they said, uncertain at the sight of my ghostly black and white baby. And then they were all talking at once—reiterating themselves frantically to each other, explaining why they weren’t ready to have babies, how they hadn’t accomplished nearly enough yet, despite all of their accomplishments, how they just weren’t old enough.
“I think I’m old enough,” I said, interrupting.
It got very quiet. Finally Stephanie said, “But how do you know?”
“I don’t, really,” I said. “I just don’t want to wait.”
To my surprise, she said that sometimes she wishes she could have a baby now, too, but she isn’t married and wants to get married first. Julie added, “Don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to have kids. Someday.”
“I don’t, ever,” said Mara, and she looked uncharacteristically nervous. “You’ll stay friends with me, though, after this, right?”
“Can I touch your belly?” someone asked. And suddenly, everyone’s hands were on me, and for a moment I felt like the sun in one of those Styrofoam models of the solar system, with my friends orbiting my roundness. Their hands were shy but supportive, and I felt important and relieved. Rebelliously, I was impressed with myself.