April 15, 2002 Vol. 159 No. 15

The Cost of Starting Families First

For those who choose to have children early in life, the trade-off may involve more than just money

Time Magazine

Lu Dayment hangs out with her husband Rich and two of their three children
Babies cost you dearly. Put aside the romantic images of first steps and bike rides and tearful college graduations, and parenthood is a series of transactions, investments and calculations of risk vs. reward. And these are not just about money. Your children will cost you thousands of dollars, sure, but also chunks of your youth, middle and old age, physical stamina and, at least for many women, career opportunities.

Of course, all this is true at any age. But to extend the financial metaphor, deciding to have her family while she's in her 20s changes a woman's investment horizon. A younger mother has more time in the bank: more time to conceive successfully, more time to start, restart or change careers when she's ready. But she also has less in the real bank, and in these days of high college costs, she may have a significant debt load. She will have clocked few years in her career, so she will either have to nurture a new life while nurturing a fledgling career or return, years later, to entry-level work after her school friends have moved on. She might find she has more energy than older moms, or less maturity; she may feel like the coolest mom at nursery school, or she may feel estranged from her unencumbered college pals. Having a family first, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett says in her book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, may be advisable for women who ultimately want careers and children. But that doesn't make it easy.

TIME talked to women across America who began their families early. Many did so by accident (about half of all pregnancies are unplanned), others on purpose. "We wanted to be young parents," says Donna Ballard, 35, of Norwalk, Iowa, who had her first child at 25. "We didn't want to be 60 when they got out of high school." For all these parents, the decision required trade-offs, hard work and the recognition that having children early usually means giving up something.

Mortgages and Macaroni

Did we just say that money is not the only trade-off of motherhood? O.K., but don't get us wrong: it's the biggest. Young mothers start off with less of it, and some never catch up. Diane Lowry, 41, of Bloomingdale, Ill., had her first child at 25, having dropped out of college when she married; she and her husband split up after her second baby was born in 1989. Now an administrative assistant, Lowry envies couples who waited to become established. "They built equity in their homes, put some money aside," she says. "We were always behind the eight ball." She advises her 15-year-old daughter to wait until her "late 20s or early 30s" to have children.

For stay-at-home mom Jane Collyer, 33, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, having her first of three children at 24 meant three words: mac and cheese. Besides getting by on cheap dinners, the Collyers drive a '92 Chevy Cavalier ("There's a lot of life left in it"), and husband Mike, an Ohio assistant attorney general, free-lances as a computer consultant. But, says Jane Collyer, they don't feel deprived, because they never had the perks--expensive cars, dinners out, overseas vacations--that some two-income couples get used to before they have to cut back for the children.

Paying the bills is one thing, of course; saving for college and retirement is another, especially on meager beginning-career dollars. Deb Cummings Dunne, 45, of Dallas, postponed her nursing career to have the first of four babies at 19. When college rolled around for the eldest--with three more tuitions to come--she and her husband thought, We'll have to sell the house. They had to cut back on luxuries, but Dunne says the skimping was worth it. "I don't want to be a Pollyanna, but this is great the way it worked out. How much fun to enjoy your children when you're young."

Growing Up in a Hurry

We live in the age of extended adolescence. Pop culture is full of characters like Bridget Jones and the Friends gang, waiting until their 30s to start thinking seriously about marriage and kids. But nature still keeps to the same schedule. Many twentysomething mothers and fathers take to the role easily, but others feel they are still kids themselves, and the sudden responsibility can threaten a relationship. "My husband wanted a softball team," jokes Theresa Mathis, 35. She had scarcely graduated from Virginia Tech when the couple built a six-bedroom farmhouse by hand in southwestern Virginia and set out to fill it with children. But her daughter Jessica, now 10, was born prematurely and required special care; son Duncan, now 8, had an underdeveloped heart. The kids thrived but, under the added strain, her marriage didn't. "My ex was more into the idea of family life than the reality," says Mathis. "He never understood the kids' needs came before his."

The extra work hours needed to make ends meet can deprive the family's breadwinner of time with the children and create distance in a marriage. So can the stress of full-time motherhood. The challenge is to make sure that both partners will be comfortable in their roles and maintain their sense of self-esteem. When Donna Ballard quit her job as an office manager at 25 and stayed home with her two children, she was miserable, her marriage suffered, and she separated from her husband Tim. Now she is back at work, and the couple are back together. "In my experience," she says, "you become a lost soul when you are at home. When you start losing respect for yourself, your spouse loses respect for you."

The Resume Gap

It's a universal conundrum for mothers in their 20s: the best years for having children coincide with the best years for establishing a career. Hewlett suggests "backward mapping": decide what you want from life by a certain age, and plan backward from there. Easier said than done, perhaps, but not for Leah Halpern, 27, of Hillsdale, N.J. Determined not to end up "a 35-year-old assistant," she took a big pay cut to move from Vanity Fair to a smaller magazine before having her baby, so she could get the more elevated job title she will need on her resume when she goes back to work.

But the isolation and condescension "nonworking" moms face in a career-woman's world ("Oh, you stay at home! And what else do you do?") can be especially hard on women who don't have a long list of work accomplishments behind them. And taking an early break is tougher in some fields than in others. For Susan Stevens, 30, a mother of three in Birmingham, Ala., plans to have children early meant deciding to become a teacher rather than a doctor. "I'd be 30 before I was finished with medical school," she says. (She ended up leaving teaching with the birth of her second child.) Former fashion designer Daisy von Furth, 33, of Northampton, Mass., dropped her X-Girl clothing line after having her son Wolfie when she was 26. Von Furth is enjoying stay-at-home motherhood but says going back into the fashion business probably wouldn't be an option, even if she wanted to. "You've jumped off the career train at a certain point," she says. "How can you come back at 36 or 37 and say, 'I'm here, guys--snap, snap, let me start another line of hip-hop clothing'?"

Some women, however, see a "baby sabbatical" as a chance to define what they want out of work, like Lu Dayment, 46, of Indianapolis, who had three kids in her 20s and at 35 went to graduate school in library science. "It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up," she says. Others take time off but maintain close connections to their former jobs, to ease their eventual re-entry into the working world--or simply to avoid going insane after reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 2,000th time. A former saleswoman in the distribution department at the movie studio DreamWorks, Gioconda Mitas, 31, was the first of her work friends to have a baby, three years ago. Once a week, she dresses up and drives from suburban Granada Hills, Calif., to have lunch with three former co-workers and pump them for office dirt. "What I miss most about working is the feeling that I have something that is mine--a desk, an area that belongs only to me... I know I'm important in my son's life, but at DreamWorks I was also valued. I miss that."

Raves to Rattles

In a society that fetishizes fun yet also equates career with identity, young moms are double outsiders. It can be isolating to feel your old cronies are living the Sex and the City life while you're stuck on Yes, Dear. But if their childless, swinging friends see them as old before their time, older moms--especially in communities where putting children on hold for career is common--can look down on younger women as babies with babies. Single mom Kim Howell, 25, of Oak Park, Ill., finds she can't go clubbing as often now that she has a three-year-old; her friends "can't understand that I can't stay out till 4 a.m. every Monday." Yet Howell, a restaurant server-manager, also has little in common with the older, upper-middle-class moms at her daughter's preschool. "Some of them look at me funny because I'm young," Howell says, "but it doesn't bother me. I'm proud of my daughter." And, she adds, "when my daughter is 18, I'll be only 40."

The Payoff

Yet for all these costs, many of our young moms believe they did right by themselves and their children. Young parents, they say, have certain intangible advantages money can't buy. They have greater energy to keep up with young kids and can look forward to a longer empty-nest life. In addition to the reduced risk of running into fertility problems, some moms say they're glad they took the physical beating of pregnancy and labor while still in their more resilient 20s.

Babies cost you dearly, no doubt about it. And earlier in life is when you have the least, literally, to spend. But, as Jane Collyer notes, young mothers have more of one important asset in the bank: life itself. "You know what the best part is?" she asks. "I really hope I'll get to see my great-grandchildren. I don't want not to be able to lift [my grandchildren] up because I'm going to throw out my back. I know I'm thinking way far ahead, but I love my kids so much, and I know they're going to have great kids."

Reported by Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas; Wendy Cole and Maggie Sieger/Chicago; Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles; Collette McKenna Parker/Atlanta; Sarah Sturmon Dale/Minneapolis and Deirdre van Dyk/New York

© 2002 Time Inc.