Why You’re Likely To Stick To The Family & Career Plans You Make In Your 20s

Photographed by Krystal Neuvill.
The following excerpt is from The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch The Rest of Your Life by Elizabeth Segran, published by Harper Collins. Copyright (C) 2020 by Elizabeth Segran.
“Liz! I’m freezing my eggs! It’s time.”
Luciana, one of my closest friends, was texting me from Buenos Aires. As the message bubble popped up on my phone, I was on maternity leave, sitting in a rocking chair with one-month-old Ella on my lap. I had finally gotten her to take a nap, so I took advantage of that rare moment of quiet to write back.
“Liz: OMG! OMG! OMG! You are?!
Luciana: Yup. All my business school friends are doing it. I thought it was a good idea to keep my options open, ya know?”
Luciana and I met in San Francisco more than a decade ago through mutual friends. We instantly hit it off, bonding over our shared love of British period dramas and utter bewilderment at American sports. As ambitious women in our early twenties, we spent a lot of our time chatting about how we hoped to make our mark on the world. At the time, I was working to become a professor and she was a consultant with big plans to climb the corporate ladder.
Occasionally, our conversations meandered to the topic of how children—if we had them—would fit into the equation. The vast majority of people will eventually become parents: 86 percent of American women will give birth at some point in their life. But like many of our peers, Luciana and I did not feel compelled to follow the most common path; neither of us assumed that parenthood was a foregone conclusion.
As we got manicures or went out for a drink, we would wrestle with the question of whether we wanted children at all and if so, when. As it turned out, we had very different impulses. I was in a rush to get pregnant before I turned thirty-five, the age at which everybody from the Mayo Clinic to my mom said my fertility would plummet. Luciana, on the other hand, wanted to devote her twenties and thirties to her career. Of course, neither of us really knew what we were getting ourselves into as we casually discussed our future babies. Most of our friends would not start getting married or having children until their late twenties, so we didn’t have very much to go on.
But as uninformed as our choices were, each of us stayed entirely on script, sending us on totally divergent paths. Luciana is now thirty-five. She’s just taken a top position at a fast-growing Latin American start-up that requires her to jet between Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Bogotá every month. She’s about to start injecting herself with hormones that will enable her to harvest as many eggs as possible in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I am thirty-six, and during my hour-long lunch break, I scramble to Target to locate a pair of Finding Nemo goggles for Ella’s swimming lessons. (They are apparently all the rage with preschoolers.)
Luciana and I were not the only ones who stuck closely to the family plans we had concocted in our twenties. This is, in fact, a common pattern. A 2009 study tracking the same group of American women over forty years found that by their early twenties, most women had a very clear sense of how many children they wanted. And shockingly, the majority of them managed to execute their vision with stunning precision: 67 percent said they wanted two children and gave birth to two babies. Twelve percent wanted three or more children and accomplished that. A smaller group—4 percent—started out wanting two but ended up having one or none at all. For that last group, fertility issues and life events such as getting an advanced degree prompted them to change their plans.
Since the plans we make in our twenties carry so much weight, it makes sense to spend time thinking about what kind of family will make you happiest. We’re fortunate to have more options for creating families than any other generation in history. Here are the decisions before you: First, you should figure out if you want children at all or if you would prefer to skip parenthood. If you decide you do want children, you should consider whether you want biological children or whether you will create a family through adoption, fostering, or surrogacy. And finally, if you decide you want biological children, you can ponder when to have them, since there are trade-offs to having children earlier or later in life.
It’s valuable to consider your ideal path early, because it will influence other decisions in your life. If you are certain you want a big family or know you don’t want children, for instance, you can pick a life partner who shares this goal. If you’re already in a serious relationship, you can start a conversation with your significant other about whether you’re on the same page and how to work toward common ground. If you’re sure you want kids, you might want to take advantage of the years before they arrive to travel or pursue career goals. (Take it from me! Climbing Machu Picchu will be much harder with a toddler!)
While you’re thinking all this through, remember that not everything is within our control. Things don’t always go according to plan. You might get pregnant unexpectedly. On the flip side, you may have trouble conceiving when you start trying. It might take longer than you hope to find someone to start a family with. All of this will force you to be flexible and resilient. You may have to go back to the drawing board and imagine a different family than the one you had in mind in your early twenties.
But here’s the thing: there is no one formula for creating a happy family. There are many ways to cultivate a network of love and support that will carry us through our lives.

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