Our first child was born when my wife and I were 35-years-old, an age at which—in some parts of the world or in past centuries—we might have reasonably been expecting our first grandchild. We were even late to the childbirth party by contemporary standards: the mean age of first-time mothers in the United States in 2014 was 26.3 years.
We were not, however, unusual among our friends and colleagues in the medical field. Via the “traditional” path—no breaks between college, medical school, and residency—the earliest one can expect to finish training is age 29. Some subspecialized surgeons may not finish training until age 36! Being a resident does not preclude having children, of course. But the necessary commitment of time and energy compels many doctors to, like us, delay starting a family until the completion of residency.
If and when to pass on our genes is one of the most important and personal decisions any of us will make. What follows are a few thoughts and considerations that factored into our decision to wait.
“Time is on my side, yes it is” — The Rolling Stones
Ah, to be DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) again! After years of school and residency training, each of us had jobs with reasonable hours (by doctor standards) and newly discovered free time on our hands. My wife and I love to travel, and took advantage of our minimal life responsibilities to jet around the world during the years before our son was born. Back at home, books, movies, time with family and friends, and Rio the dog filled our days.
Those years of ample free time and travel were not without consequence. My wife and I will be 60-years-old by the time our children finish college. As a teenager, I imagined a 60-year-old man was a smelly old grandpa with one foot in the grave. Twenty years later, 60 does not feel quite so ancient and crusty, but suffice to say we will not be spring chickens at our daughter’s college commencement.
Our childbearing delay impacts both the generation before and after us too. If our children, like us, don’t have children of their own until their 30s, we won’t see grandchildren until our 70s (and great-great grandchildren until age 130). Motivation to hit the gym and stay in shape!
Our parents let my wife and I know with regularity that they were by no means opposed to grandchildren. Alas, we made them wait—and now they are older, less healthy, and less able to run around with our son. Sadly, our grandchildren will never know their maternal grandfather, as he died while my wife was pregnant with our first.
We hope that our children and our parents have many years of chasing each other ahead of them, but we will always wonder what might have been if our children had been born years earlier.
Ah, to be DINKs again! The years after residency training and before children were kind to our bank accounts. We made conscious decisions during those high salary/low expense years to supersize our retirement nest egg, erase high-interest debt, and create a solid financial bedrock for the DIK (hehe) years.
Although we earned salaries during residency, our big household income bump came when I started my first big-boy job at age 32. From that point until age 35 (when our son was born), we packed away the money.
What financial impact would a child have made during this 3-year period?
ANSWER: $216,000 less in retirement savings by age 65
How did I get this number? Currently, we spend about $15k per year for direct childcare. Saving $15k/year (and assuming 5% annual growth) meant an additional ~$50k in our pockets after those 3 years. Allowing compound interest to work for another 30 years on that $50k, we arrive at $216k.
What if we had children 10 years earlier? How much money would this have cost us?
ANSWER: $856,000 less in retirement savings by age 65
The magic of compound interest is even more dramatic the earlier one starts saving. We in the medical field get a painfully late start. If we had started jobs in our mid-20s and saved $15k/year for 10 years of DINK life—instead of spending it on childcare—we are talking an astounding $856k by age 65!
All of these scenarios assume a family pays for childcare. The effect is much more modest with a stay-at-home parent.
Any negative financial consequences for older parents?
The potential financial downside is related to a shift of childcare expenses—college tuition, in particular—further into the future. In waiting to have children, we will incur the wrath of college tuition in our mid-50s, an age at which we hope to be retired or at least working part-time. Careful planning and savings (in 529s and taxable accounts) should help mitigate these expenses.
In general, should unexpected childcare or college expenses arise, the older parent has less time to recover financially.
The most weighty potential consequences of delaying children are health-related.
Fertility begins to slowly decline in all women beginning at age 30—the proverbial biological clock—but infertility can be due to a myriad of conditions affecting both men and women. Many couples first discover they are infertile upon initial attempts to conceive. After this devastating news is processed, options such as infertility treatments, surrogacy, and adoption might be discussed; the earlier a couple knows they are infertile, the sooner they can address these difficult decisions. Waiting to have children until a later age may limit the available options.
During her pregnancies, my wife was not especially pleased at references to her “advanced maternal age“—medical terminology reflecting the increased risks for pregnant women older than 35. Children born to older mothers are at higher risk for genetic diseases, particularly Down syndrome.
Advanced paternal age is less often discussed, but there is evidence older fathers give birth to children with a higher risk of neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. Recent borderline-stupid research suggests that I, as an older dad, might contribute to a higher “geek index” in my son. I’ll take that as a compliment?
Many of our friends had children before us, and we took shameless advantage of their advice and generosity. We learned from their parenting victories and mistakes. We got the scoop on daycares and schools. Perhaps most importantly, we inherited dump trucks full of used clothing.
In other words, we mentally and physically mooched from our friends, preventing headaches and saving money in the process.
Working for a few years before having children conferred the benefits—at least to this man-child—of increased confidence and maturity. Even in training, we medical residents don’t take full (medical and legal) responsibility for our actions; that burden lies with the attending physicians. I’d like to think some of that maturity and confidence gained from my years as an attending radiologist spilled over into other parts of my life, including fatherhood (I’ll ask Dr-Mrs-Dr. Curious).
What factored into your decisions when having children? I’d especially like to hear from those of you that had children in your 20s.