The difficult convergence: Work and family by age 30

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Thirty is a magic number for the new generation — a time when people want their career path and their family life in place. This is a difficult convergence to pull off, but more and more people are aiming for it.

Jessica Marshall Forbes summarizes these feelings as she describes getting married: “We always knew we wanted to get married before we were thirty. When you’re younger, in college, thirty seems like a turning point. And as I’m nearing that age, the significance hasn’t changed. Thirty is when you’re really grown up. At thirty you should know what you’re doing.”

For both men and women this is a key age to have their career goals in place. Lia Macko is co-author of the book, Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation — And What to Do about It Macko writes, “It may be socially acceptable to spend time searching for a professional calling during your twenties, but after 30, that grace period ends fast. Adjectives begin to change — ‘aspiring’ actors/filmmakers/musicians/writers are recast as ‘wannabes’ or ‘dilettantes’.”

However women have a more loaded marker of age thirty: Their biological clock. “Women take into account their reproductive potential is diminishing,” says Jeffrey Arnett, professor at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood. “Women think if they marry at thirty they can have two years with their husband and have a kid and then wait to years and have another kid. But if this doesn’t happen then they worry about the impact on their reproductive life.”

The worries are well founded: The chance of birth complications skyrockets after the age of 35. It used to be fashionable to tell women, “Don’t worry about babies. You have time. Concentrate on your career.” But now that the statistics on late motherhood are clearer, fears have set in. For Forbes, the self-imposed deadline for having children has everything to do with medical risk. She says age is not a concern “as long as I’m not getting to the point where complications start.”

So today many women find themselves in a position where they are struggling to line up a grand convergence of career, marriage and motherhood within a couple of years of age thirty. Lia Macko says, “In the past, women had kids when they were lower in the masthead. Now women are making decisions about kids and earning potential and marriage all at the same time and this is specific to their generation.”

This convergence means that it’s the first time in history that a large proportion of women have a big career and small children, and it appears that the combination is almost impossible. For example, sixty percent of women with MBAs are working at home, and an epidemic number of women are leaving corporate life when their children come. Women approaching age thirty face these statistics.

How can women alleviate some of the pressures of turning thirty? For one thing, Macko advises that you “Tune out the cultural white noise” and figure out a plan that will meet your own needs, regardless of the expectations people place on you.

Starting your own business is a great way to ensure that you can control your time as your thirty-year-mark approaches. Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, author of How to Run Your Business Like a Girl, says that most entrepreneurs she interviewed for her book, “tried to do kids and corporate life and they couldn’t.” But Baskin encourages entrepreneurship at a relatively young age. She says “younger women are smarter about these issues from the get go” and realize before trying that corporate life is not compatible with family life.

Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie-Mellon University and author of the book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide encourages women to manage the convergence of fertility and finances by negotiating up front with their partner. “Ask questions like who will find the nanny and who will change jobs. You might change your mind, but you will set the tone for both parties making an adjustment when the baby comes.” Managing the changes one faces at age thirty is much easier if both partners are committed to absorbing some of the shock.

For those of you who are not in a position of convergence – for example, fielding the annoying question: “So you’re already 30. Where is your husband?” – recognize that all women face crisis issues at 30, it’s just that some issues focus on finding a partner or career and some focus on coping with having found them.

And while everyone has a different opinion about how to make women’s decision points easier, there is unanimous clamor that women must talk. The women who are most successful at navigating these issues are those who help each other, and talk about it with their significant others and their community. Dialogue is the first step toward finding a solution that works: Talk to your friends, and even your enemies – the wider the discussion the better.

36 replies
  1. Tim Ferriss
    Tim Ferriss says:

    I agree with Baskin that women are smart to test the waters of entrepreneurship early, but I would add two caveats. Before I do so, I should mention that I’ve spent the last three years interviewing people who design lifestyle businesses, including mothers and single mothers.

    First, starting young is helpful because your perception of risk is less, but being 30 or older by no means that you can’t strike out on your own. The women I’ve interviewed all have children and observed that children (or plans to have them) are often used as excuses to stay within one’s own comfort zone. For these interviewees, it was the opposite: they felt that having children was the best reason to liberate income from time and do things perceived as “risky,” such as world travel.

    Second, striking out on your own does not automatically create more time for family. Indeed, if you don’t set boundaries well, and if you don’t have a clear lifestyle goal for the business (fewer phone calls, fewer e-mails, four days off per week), the outcome is almost always less separation of business and personal life, which leaves women, in particular, feeling overstressed and guilty. It is critical to be begin with a clear personal end in mind — “more time” is too ambiguous and thus unactionable. It needs to be specific enough to be enforceable on a daily basis.

    Great topic and a supremely important one!


  2. Amy Vachon
    Amy Vachon says:

    Thanks so much for linking to our website, I fully agree with your thoughts and fervently hope that someday the arrival of a couple’s first child will not automatically mean a huge career sacrifice for the mother but rather two smaller career slowdowns by both parents. This has worked well for us, and we want to encourage others to make the changes needed to share equally and enjoy balanced lives with their children.

    – Amy

  3. Dave
    Dave says:

    Best advice: tune out the cultural white noise. There is just way too much information out there and far too many people writing, at least in part, to justify their own choices. Each family has to chart its own course and modify that course over time as circumstances change.

    It can be easy to get lost in thinking about it too much. I’m not saying don’t plan and I’m not suggesting that having an idea of scenarios for what you will do isn’t valuable. But my wife and I have found that it is a constant adaption as the babies grow. We went from no plans to ever have children, to 8 years after getting married, deciding to have our first…then having another 17 months later…downsizing our home so we could operate on one income for the next few years…then, probably she will want to work outside the home again in a few years…and I…will probably really change careers at some point in the next 3-5 years. So who knows what we will do. But I’m not signing up for anyone else’s grand plan; we’ll figure it out as we go.

  4. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    I love Dave’s comment. While being planful is important, so is putting “blinders” on and focusing on what is important to your family. A lot of women cross the 30 threshold and suddenly are on the hamster wheel – frantically making sure everyone else is on the same track and they aren’t “falling behind,” in some category. Personally identifying what is important and shutting out the rest seems like a key component to professional or personal happiness.

  5. Carmine Coyote
    Carmine Coyote says:

    Great post, Penelope.

    Isn’t it interesting that the pressure to meet your life’s major goals seems to be arriving at a younger and younger age, at the same time that most of us are living longer and longer? Why are we all in such a rush to get through this one life we have?

    It’s hard to make true comparisons with the past in the case of women, since social attitudes were so different then. Women were condemned to lives based purely on serving men, typically as wives and mothers. That’s why marrying and having children was so important then. Men wanted legitimate heirs (male ones) to inherit the family wealth and property, and women were judged to be there purely to provide them.

    But if you look at men, most – especially those who had the opportunity for a professional position – rarely married below the age of 30, let alone started a family. They had so many other goals, before and after.

    What’s the rush? This is nothing but cultural faddism. As you and many of those commenting have said, what matters is doing whatever is right for you. Thirty is nothing special. Just an arbitrary point in time. Nor are marrying and starting a family anything in themselves: merely options that some will choose and others should be free to leave alone. The cultural pressure on women to worry about them is simply a hang-over from the past.

    Yes, womens’ reproductive potential diminishes with age, but is that still the only female potential that matters? If there is to be true equality between the genders, there needs to be less emphasis on childbearing as a woman’s “natural” desire in life.

    In Europe, birth rates have been falling rapidly as more and more women make independent decisions on having children. In America, families are generally larger; mostly, I suspect, because the USA is a far more conservative and traditional culture.

    It’s time for some serious heresy on this topic!

    * * * * * * * * *

    Hi, Carmine. Thank you for your comment. I really like your blog, and I have been trying to contact you, but I don’t find an email address for you anywhere. Can you please send an email to me that I can respond to?



  6. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Penelope –
    Great posting. Two important aspects of the opt-out revolution” that I would like to see more mainstream in the conversation are:
    1) Who is funding the option out? Meaning, most of the young, educated women who opt out for the sake of balance have a full-time salary and health benefits still coming into the household. In essence, the extra time with kids is coming at the expense of their husbands.
    2) Opting out is essentially an upper-middle class phenomenon. History shows us that poor women have always had to work to help provide for their families, and usually their jobs offer them less flexibility and their childcare options are more limited in terms of quality and availability that those of us in the middle class have. How do we help poor women have more and better choices?
    Great blog!

    * * * * * * *

    Peggy,Thank you for bringing up these important topics.

    I struggle a lot with trying to figure out how much money one needs to opt-out. I’m not convinced it’s an upper-middle-class thing. I think it’s more about lifestyle choice. Now that I have moved from New York City to Madison, I am struck by the large percentage of stay-at-home parents I have met in Madison. It’s not because they have more money than people I knew in NYC. It’s because the cost-of-living in Madison is a small fraction of the cost fo living in NYC. So people who want to opt-out to take care of kids might need to understand that they also have to opt out of expensive city life.

    It is another story altogheter about how to bring people out of poverty. I’m not sure I can tackle that one on this blog. My husband has worked on this problem for a while– think tank projects and other nonprofits. It is very complicated and overwhelming to me, to be honest.


  7. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Another great column.

    I know that for me, it’s starting to be a big wall staring me in the face – the career is taking off, right when I NEED to get going on making babies if I am going to do it at all. I am lucky enough to have a stable relationship, but I’m now over 30, and we’d like to start a family in the next 1-2 years. But I’m a manager at work, and my “family friendly” company is not, really. It is if you’re a male manager – look, you can take (limited) time off! But if you’re a woman? One of my mentors was back at work after 8 weeks (and has intimated that this was VERY hard). She’s at the US head office, and I’m in Canada, so the legal entitlements are different. It’s just that yes, I’m legally entitled to a year off, but it would kill any forward progress I have in this company. So we’re discussing how we can both scale back our careers a little bit, to try to work this out. Thanks for the helpful links, I will definitely be checking them out in more depth!

    * * * * *

    This seems like a really good time for me to poke my nose into what I am not totally convinced is my business. But I just really feel that it is a mistake to put off having kids becuase it’s a bad time in one’s career.

    1. There is no good time.

    2. Until the baby is right there, you can’t really know what you will want to do once the baby comes.

    Here I’m speaking from experience and feeling obligated to protect others from what was my own state of ignorance.


  8. Nyrie
    Nyrie says:

    I’m feeling the pressure to have children since I’ll be 30 in three months. I’ve suffered losses already, so getting emotionally back on track was very important. Now, I’m concentrating on a career-change, but the pressure is on all sides and within myself. My husband and I are coming up with a plan, but I agree you just have to figure it out at it comes. I just hope we can survive the changes; career-wise and for family sake.

  9. Dara
    Dara says:

    I find this topic immensely interesting because, at a young age, I always thought, “I want two kids and I want them before 30.” I’m a greatly blessed individual, with the “perfect situation” and it doesn’t make the decision to have kids or not any easier. I’m going to turn 25 this month. I’m married to a wonderful man who I firmly believe would make an awesome dad. We could easily make it with two kids on just his income alone. I also have a great professional part-time job and own my own business which both, if finessed, could be very flexible for me to raise my own kids w/ minimal daycare help.

    The time couldn’t be better, but I’m balking. I just don’t feel ready for motherhood (I’m too selfish), but have always thought I’d have kids. It’s like I’ve always had this Pleasantville view of what my life would be as I got older, but never really understand it would be ME living it. I don’t have the biological yearning for children some women have, but still can’t imagine NOT ever having them. So, I’m stuck asking myself if I ever really wanted them or if it’s just a societal expectation I grew up with. Is it unfair to my husband, who I think really wants children, but hasn’t really asked yet, if I say no?

    With birth control, I HAVE to decide. I almost wish I’d be in the .1 percent where the BC fails and have an “accident”. Then I’d just have to deal with it. I honestly don’t think it’d bother me either way (children or no). I ask my mom about how she decided and her answer was “I just didn’t think about it as much as you.” Sheesh. What have we women done to ourselves over the last few decades?

  10. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    “So today many women find themselves in a position where they are struggling to line up a grand convergence of career, marriage and motherhood within a couple of years of age thirty.”

    This sentence describes me. I am 27 and getting married in two months. After spending six years in finance, I finally was honest with myself about needing a career that spoke to my interests rather than my bank account. I am starting an MA in Organizational Psychology this fall.

    Without having spent six years at a major financial institution, I never would have discovered that my passion is really how to make employees happy and efficient. I believe others have had similar experiences, spending years in a field (mostly finance and consulting) while figuring out what they wanted to do. By the time we’ve figured it out, we are already in our late 20s and are starting to think about other priorities. I am nostalgic for my 23-year-old lifestyle where I could just focus on my career.

    Now, at a time when I am ready to throw myself into school, I am planning a wedding, meshing with my new family, supporting my fiance while he gets his MBA, and thinking about the changes my body is currently undergoing. The difference in what I think about and what my fiance thinks about is astounding – he feels no convergence whatsoever.

  11. regina
    regina says:

    How boring; another throw away ‘lifestyle’ book telling us how to live our one and only lives. It’s narrow minded and ageist to decree that people need to have everthing in their lives in a particular place by the age of 30. Some of the most wonderful debut books in the world were written by people much much older than 30. Anyone who buys into Marshall Forbes clap trap needs to grow a mind of their own.

    • Kyle
      Kyle says:

      I completely agree. This is a phenomenon that really is coming from WOMEN. I’m 29 & most of my friends are still single, many don’t even have girlfriends. They’re in NO rush to get married or have kids.

      It seems that women, especially older women, have this weird obsession with trying to do everything by 30, as if that’s some magical number. I can tell you right now, if I had a kid, it’d be ashame for the kid, because I’m just not ready financially or emotionally.

      It’s articles like this that perpetuate this almost stereotype of, MUST GET MARRIED HAVE YOUR CAREER & HAVE A BABY BY 30! It’s ridiculously stupid.

  12. JMN
    JMN says:

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  13. JerryRansom
    JerryRansom says:

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  14. rJs
    rJs says:

    “A lot of women cross the 30 threshold and suddenly are on the hamster wheel – frantically making sure everyone else is on the same track and they aren’t ‘falling behind,’ in some category.”

    And many men cross the 30 threshold feeling the same way. I’m trying not to fall into that trap. I’m 34, and have had great experiences since graduating college (I moved to New York City, got a good publishing job, lived in a Zen Temple for a year (in Brooklyn), quit my job at 29 to live in Berlin for 1/2 a year, traveled, made some excellent people, and now have a great girlfriend.
    Now, having said (and done) all that, I still feel inadequate. And it seems that our country is hyper-obsessed with age, which I internalize too much for my own good. I’ve got so many more miles ahead, so many more dreams.
    But I understand the 30 year mark because I obsessed over it myself. I set steps for myself, which for the most part I’ve made.
    But it is all too linear. Please, don’t rush. Stories come from unique circumstances. Be your own story, not a polished package. Even in Japanese art, with all its intricacies, the artist skews the painting ever so slightly so its more interesting.
    We’re all born complete human beings. Learn to let go once and awhile and it might not be so painful.

  15. rJs
    rJs says:

    Holy crap! I just realized this was written 3 years ago. I had just turned 31 then! I wonder what my 31-year-old-self would have said.

  16. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I have a response to those who are married and are trying to negotiate with their husbands about when to try and are praying for birth control to fail. Ask your husband or ascertain if he generally would love a child if he had one – if you believe that he does, then axe the birth control. Yep, that’s right, consider lying to your husband if he is never going to be ready to do anything. My husband told me after the fact that he wished that I had done this. We spent alot of pain and agony dealing with infertility because he was just never going to be “ready”. I started trying at 30 and it took me 3 years and a bunch of miscarriages to get #1.

  17. Jan
    Jan says:

    Following up on Jenny’s post, please don’t have children if you and your spouse don’t communicate well enough to have simple, honest communication about values and goals. Maturity is far more important than anything else mentioned here, for having children. And don’t assume that your spouse will react well to an intentional “surprise” because you think he will. True, some couples will never be ready–and they would be better off not passing on their issues to their children.

  18. Rue
    Rue says:

    Good article. I was married at 25, had my first child at 36, and my second at 40. I worked the whole time, except for the past two years (I am 46). Life is good. We never felt rushed to do anything even though we married young. Maybe that was naive, and we were just lucky. Of course it is worth while to pay attention to your age when contemplating children, but don’t over-stress, or over-think it. Just do it and enjoy your life and take what comes. It might not fit in with whatever everyone else is doing, but so what?

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