Did We Wait Too Long to Have Children?

older couple under flowering tree

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.


Clock inside Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

“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.


ATM with sign on it
No money here

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.

Medical Issues

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?

Surprise Benefits

sidewalk chalk

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.

14 Replies to “Did We Wait Too Long to Have Children?”

  1. Excellent post on a topic my wife and I have pondered often. We are in a similar boat. First kid in early 30s and second and probably final (should I do the vasectomy under local or general??) in mid30s.

    I had a big debate with a female co resident several years ago about delaying kids for many of the same reasons you so well described. Lack of maturation, DINK lifestyle (wife is a PA), pay down the debt and nest egg and also. I wanted to be the best resident I could be and saw my coresidents with kids just not able to keep up like I wants to. This meant when I got home and over the weekend I was reading and doing research.

    Her and her husband argued that complications increase with age and also they wanted to be young and healthy with kids and there was no guarantee for any of us that would be so.

    You’ve exposed a Catch 22 in the FIRE physician crowd with late children. Basically, having kids early delays our FI. Having them late delays RE. Although like you say it’s mitigated if you prepare for the big costs like college with 529 early with kids. However, that’s money into your nest egg if you didn’t have kids.

    It seems many physicians have kids and have them late so I’m not saying to be childless, but I think reading this post and accepting what late kids entails is important for planning, especially if contemplating early retirement or part-time.

    PS hope the new baby is ok. Stay strong through the first “hundred days of darkness”. I just got finished feeding a 5am bottle to our 8 week old in full meltdown mode. Mom forgot to turn baby monitor volume back on last night and he was damn near inconsolable by the time we got to him 😭

    1. Thanks for the solidarity in these days of little sleep. Actually, that might be another reason to have children at a younger age: increased ability to recover from fatigue!

      I don’t know how my friends had children during surgical residency, but somehow they pulled through it and the kids seem fine. There are many roads to Dublin (and early retirement)!

      Dr. C

  2. We also started later (lawyers), and I have always thought we would have had at least one more child had we started sooner.
    It also complicates my early retirement plans. I was always looking at 50 as my done working year but my youngest will only be 14 and my oldest with be just starting college.
    Those sound like unpredictable years to me and has darkened the skies of my once glorious plan.
    That being said, we thoroughly enjoyed our 20’s being DINKs in the Big City, traveling, eating well and sleeping late.

    1. It’s rare in my experience for anyone to regret the freedom and relative lack of responsibility in their 20s. These days, it seems to extend to the mid-30s, especially amongst professionals.

      We are done after 2 kids 😉

      Dr. C

  3. Great to read this. We actually don’t have children, still DINK’s here. We’re not working in the medical field, but life just happened to be this way. We’re now 29 and 34, but still don’t feel that we are ready for children right now.

    A lot of what you mention are exactly the reasons for our delay, and we still don’t know when it will happen. Lot’s of uncertainty, and the ticking of the biological clock makes it more pressing. Interesting to see how it has worked out for you guys.

    1. Life has a way of just happening, doesn’t it 🙂

      We have friends and family that run the gamut from having children out of wedlock in their teens to adopting children in their 40s, and it seems to have less overall impact on the wellbeing of the children than one might think.

      Dr. C

  4. We waited as you did because we wanted time to enjoy each other before we took on the responsibility of children. We traveled and played and then had kids when we were ready. We still retired early-ish at 60 with all the kids out of college, out of our house and self supporting with plenty of investments to support us whether I decided to dabble in consulting or not. I think by being in our thirties while having kids we were more mature and better parents and now in our sixties we are still distance runners and competitive tennis players so we don’t feel or act “old” even though, as you said, there was a time when sixty sounded ancient to me. Every life choice has favorable and unfavorable aspects and you made a thoughtful and interesting presentation of the ones that accompany having children.

    1. You sound like our perfect role models! I might pick your brains about how you did it!

      We are thrilled that our 2 children are healthy, and that we were able to have children in the first place. Our greatest concerns with waiting were related to the risks of advanced maternal age and infertility, rather than finances. It turned out fine, but you can never know that ahead of time, and it’s a terrible thing to live life with those kinds of regrets.

      Tennis and distance running? Kudos on staying fit.

      Dr. C

  5. I was pregnant at my college graduation and my husband had just been accepted into a PhD program. We were in our mid 20’s and neither the kid or the marriage had been planned. I could write a tremendously long response, but I’ll try to keep it to the point.

    Why we had kids in our 20’s: I discovered way too late in my degree program that I wasn’t very good or very interested in my major. In fact I struggled the whole way through 6 years of college and I was going to graduate with no clue what I really wanted to do… but I always knew I wanted a family.. and the guy I was living with happened to want the same thing. Getting pregnant was a combination of a cop out and fulfilling a life goal. My husband also wanted a family, but he was also grieving the loss of his mother. I think starting a family distracted him from the extremely painful loss and gave him more focus and meaning.

    How it worked out:

    Time: We very much appreciate having had kids at a younger age than most upper middle class couples. If all goes well and we all live healthy full lives, it means we will have had an extra decade of life to share with our children. Our oldest is nearly 14 and I’m still in my 30’s…

    Money: Ten years ago I was WIC-eligible and our net worth was less than $20k: We were poor Yet, during those years we had an amazing life in two college towns in two different states. Graduate/family/international student housing is probably the most underrated living arrangement in the United States. Although the facilities were never luxurious, they were located in some of the priciest, convenient and interesting areas.. next to rivers, lakes, nature preserves and, of course, the university. Our rent was subsidized and we were surrounded by others just like us.. an intellectually enriching community made up of bright, young academically-focused families from all over the world, but without the snobbiness and one-upmanship associated to power and wealth..-because nobody had any yet! We had great health care. We had community programing to support spouses and children.. coffee and conversation for the wives, story hour, crafts at the community center for the littles.. and even some free childcare. Our oldest was discovered to be on the autism spectrum and we got a considerable amount of support and services for him free or at a sliding scale (probably doesn’t exist anymore..pretty sure Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislator disabled many of those programs). We also learned to manage our meager funds well (a la frugalwoods style) and so we moved on without debt. Now we’re just a few paychecks away from a seven figure net worth. We could be FIRE by 50 if pressed, but I think we’re going to focus more on real estate and that makes the process longer. I’m not sure if waiting would have made a difference. The fact is there just wasn’t much money to save or invest until we reached our early/mid 30’s. At least this way we didn’t have to claw our way out of student loan debt, save for retirement and pay for childcare…

    Health: Yep, no problem there… conceived first kid about three weeks into the relationship, second kid came first month of trying…

    Surprising benefits: Well, we also got free stuff and advice. Two of the universities had lending facilities where you could get everything you need to set up an apartment and also clothe and care for the babies and toddlers. Graduating students left their items for the next family: outdoor play structures, strollers, cribs, bottles, books.. even cloth diapers… We also had the benefit of the intellectual capital: we had medical students.. those getting advanced degrees in speech pathology, child psychology, education..

    Man, those were some good years…

    1. Wow, thanks SJ for the detailed and thoughtful response!

      It sounds like things turned out great for you and your family. You seem to be nearing a “second youth” of sorts, given your children are getting old enough to take care of themselves, and you and your husband are young and healthy enough to do pretty much anything!

      My parents were quite poor—lower middle class—growing up, but my brothers and I got by just fine without really knowing what we are missing. Took advantage of public school education, got good grades, and now we are 2 doctors and a lawyer.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  6. I’m another older parent here. I was 37 when I had my triplets (identical boys and a girl) and my husband was 53. I didn’t think too much about the age factor as I didn’t meet my husband until later in life and wouldn’t have wanted to have kids with anyone else along the way.

    From a financial point of view, I’m really glad I waited. We were well on our way to FI when they were born and I have been a stay at home mom since that time. My kids are now 7 and my husband is in the process of retiring (has his own company and is slowly ending his contracts).

    We are both still young (in our minds), healthy and will get to live out our lives doing what we want and sharing that experience with our kids, full-time. And the best part, our age has given us the wisdom to not worry about what the Joneses think.

    1. Glad to hear it worked out so well for you. I am shuddering at the thought of triplets! My wife and I each had nightmares that our second “child” would be twins. You seem to be over the hump, so to speak, since they have made it out of the toddler years.

      Feeling a bit older and wiser was an unanticipated benefit, to be sure. Ironically, having a child has brought out some of the goofier, immature traits of my childhood as well.

      Thanks for taking the time to read!
      Dr. C

  7. We have four kids. Our first when we were 24 and our fourth when we were 30. We purposely wanted to have kids when we were young so we would be young parents and grandparents. We will just be 52 when our youngest gradutates 4 year college.

    There are challenges and benefits both ways. We dont have large investment balances like some of my coworkers, but we’re ok with that. We got through the infant years while we were younger, which is helpful. I even was in evening grad school for two of the years we had out first. Thinking about doing that again makes me tired…

    1. Hi Mike! In a parallel but not-too-different universe, my wife and I could have been in your shoes. We dated each other starting at age 18 and got married at 26, but children weren’t really a consideration until after 30. We have come to terms that we will be the grayer and slightly more arthritic parents at college graduation.

      Take care,
      Dr. C

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