Beating the Shame Game: On the Stigma of Early Marriage and Young Parenting

It seems that there is a very narrow time frame when it is acceptable to have children in our society. If you have children too early, you will be judged for it, and if you have children too late, well, you’ll be judged for that as well. And of course, exactly what age is acceptable for child bearing varies from region to region and subculture to subculture.

I grew up in a family and community where early marriage and early child rearing was seen as desirable. Perhaps not surprisingly, I married fairly young. Also not surprisingly, I had my first child young as well. But at the exact time I did those things I also moved out of my parents’ conservative evangelical homeschool subculture and moved on to graduate school, entering the culture of liberal academia. Suddenly my early marriage and early child bearing started to feel like a liability rather than an asset.

For the past several years I have avoided questions about the age I was when I had Sally, and about the age I was when Sean and I married. I have wanted to avoid shocking people, or seeming weird. As a consequence, I think everyone takes me for some years older than I actually am. When these subjects have come up, I have been quick to emphasize that Sally was not an “oops baby” and that mine was not a shotgun wedding. I suppose I haven’t wanted to be seen as “irresponsible.” And also, I have to say, the conservative evangelical patterns of thought imprinted in my youth have been hard to kick (“hard” is an understatement here – these things get into your brain!).

But I’m so done with all that. It’s not helpful, it’s not fun, and it’s not beneficial to either me or anyone else. Sean and I chose to get married when we did, and we chose to have Sally when we did, and we don’t need to be ashamed of those decisions. Would I make different decisions if I could go back and do things over again? Maybe, but I actually don’t think so. I wouldn’t give up Sean or Sally or my life now for anything. And besides, even if I would go back and change it if it could, what good would that do? Life is a series of forks in the road, and once you choose one you can’t go back and undo it, you can only move forward and make the best of what you have and of the forks in the road you still have coming. As Edna said in The Incredibles, “I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now.”

And there’s another thing, too. It doesn’t matter one whit whether Sean and I were married when Sally was conceived or whether I was pregnant at the alter, and going out of my way to make sure that people know I wasn’t an unwed mother or knocked up only plays into the social constructions that function to shame women who don’t behave in the “appropriate” manner. And just to state the obvious, that’s not a good thing.

With all that said, I think I’ve finally hit a turning point. Yesterday I was talking to a woman I’d just met about how much more involved and comfortable Sean is being with little Bobby than he was with Sally. Then came the question. How old were we when Sally was born, she wanted to know. And I set my chin and answered her honestly, and for the first time in years my voice wasn’t tinted with guilt or embarrassment.

And you know what? Life went on. Sure, this was just one conversation, and a conversation with someone I had just met so I knew that I didn’t need to worry about fallout. But it’s a step, and I’m grabbing onto whatever I can here. I’m tired of the second guessing, tired of trying to fudge details about when I married or why I began my family so early, tired of all of that. Sean and I chose to marry and have children early. It’s not like we can go back and do it over again now, and besides that, it’s not like we have to live our lives according to anyone’s line by line playbook. We are who we are, our lives are our own, and if someone doesn’t like that, too bad.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Karen

    I waited until I was 35, and if I had it to do over again, I would have had kids at least five and probably ten years younger. It is no one’s business at all, and I am so glad you don’t feel any shame about being young when you married and had kids. Go!

  • Meyli

    This this this.
    When is the right age?! When you’re over 25 but under 35, have a stellar career and own your own home and your husband just got that promotion. And all your friends are having kids.

    I’m so tired of it!
    I’m 22. I’ve been in a relationship for 6 freaking years, but part of me is afraid to get married only for the stigma that would go with it. I’m so done with that.

    • Christine

      Coming from a background where pretty much everyone I know went to university (the exceptions are going through now, in their late twenties, or taking longer), isn’t there more stigma from marrying a high school sweetheart (because you didn’t date around “enough”) than marrying at 22? I know lots of people who took longer to graduate for one reason or another who got married in undergrad at about that age, instead of waiting to graduate and getting married older than everyone else.

      • Libby Anne

        This is why I mentioned that it depends on the community. And to be clear, while I married young, it wasn’t in high school. After all, I didn’t even meet Sean until I hit college.

      • Christine

        In fairness, I know a lot of people who consider getting married before graduation to be too early, no matter the ages. I’ve never tried to find out whether they think that dating in undergrad is bad, or if you should just risk breaking up with “the one”, or if you’re supposed to just put off getting married until you reach the arbitrary deadline of graduation (or why that deadline matters, given that many of these people see nothing wrong with living with your SO).

      • Libby Anne

        Yep. And I’ve also found that there are a lot of people, a lot lot lot of people, who think young people should get experience “in the real world” after graduating before settling down and marrying. And really, it makes sense. You want to know who you are before getting married. But the thing is, there is a difference between giving (solicited) advice to a young person and being weird/judgy toward those who, whether they heard the advice or no, made different decisions.

    • Rilian

      My sister got married when she was 22, to another 22-year-old. They’d met in middle school, been friends forever, then dated for 4 years. I don’t know why people think it’s so bad. You know on tv they always show older people who’ve gotten divorced meeting and getting married again within like 3 months. If that’s ok, why isn’t it ok for my sister to marry someone she’s known and liked for 10 years? Maybe marriage isn’t so much about finding the exact “right” person as it is about making a decision. There have even been plenty of people who were happy in arranged marriages.

  • Don Gwinn

    We had a version of that dilemma, but not really . . . we adopted our oldest sons when they were six years old. They were actually born when we were fairly young, about 18. So, when people who didn’t know us looked at us and did the math, they assumed that we’d had kids pretty young (and there were a few years there where friends who hadn’t seen us for a couple of years would look confused when we introduced our 9-year-old sons. You could see them thinking “Wait, did I forget that they had twins?”)

    Like you, we started out explaining over and over, not wanting people to get “the wrong idea.” Unlike you, we had some explaining to do anyway, because for some of our friends, the problem wasn’t a stigma, it was just odd that we suddenly had children who must have been born before they met us, but hadn’t been mentioned before. And like you, we eventually got over it and just started letting people do the math if that’s what they want to do. Life went on much as before.

  • Mogg

    This is an interesting topic, and I don’t think I ever realised how much I automatically assumed that older mothers (or people who chose to have only one or no children, for that matter) were “bad” or “selfish” solely because of my background in ultra-conservative Christianity. I can certainly report that I had a massive case of “biological clock” when I hit 33 and was still single, because even though that’s not particularly old to be a mother in today’s society it was definitely when I realised that I was in that dreadful category, the older single Christian woman. Huge angst! I’m glad to say that it caused me to re-examine my assumptions about why some or many women have children later, have only one or two, or choose not to have any, and to understand that all kinds of circumstances can affect the timing of a decision to have a child or children.

    In the end, I’m glad in many ways that I was not a young mother. I had so many things to sort out in my early twenties that I don’t think I would have been a particularly good parent. It’s not just that I studied until my mid-twenties and am now much more financially secure – I’m also much more emotionally stable and have my own issues sorted much better now than I did then. I was much fitter in a physical sense in my early twenties, though! I must admit that contemplating pregnancy and child rearing when I’m in my late 30′s is rather daunting.

    • A Random Claire

      Mogg, I was 39 when I got pregnant and had my son. Having not had a child when I was younger, I can’t compare, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad for me as some of the stories I hear about “older” mothers. And now he’s nearly 3, I am having the time of my life playing with trucks and crayons and soccer balls.

  • machintelligence

    The problem is somewhat different at the other end of the age spectrum. Since we had our children in our late 30′s and early 40′s we got mistaken for grandparents occasionally. That and the possible problem of living long enough to see grandchildren (generation times run long in both families.)

  • Wendy

    I had a big, pregnant belly at my first anniversary; you’ve never seen so many people counting to nine backwards. (I’m a 47-year-old empty nester; I recommend it.)

    • machintelligence

      The first baby can come at any time. The rest take nine months.

      • luckyducky

        My husband’s parents have long been stressed waiting till marriage and not in the learn-from-our-mistakes kind of way… and my husband takes great delight in claiming to be a premie as a way of reconciling the apparent contradiction between this message and the fact that he was born quite a bit less than 9 months after his parents’ wedding.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        LOL. My husband’s parents are so fundy that there isn’t a church on this planet good enough for them. When they found out about his daughter, they insisted he marry the mother ASAP or else my stepdaughter would be a ‘bastard’ forever and ever. Then they found out that he had broken up with her and that we were in a relationship. OMG! From that point on I was the fat whore who was ruining everything.

        My husband was born about 8 months after the wedding of his parents. Mommy dearest insists that he was a preemie, but we both seriously doubt it as he was taken home right from the hospital.

      • ButchKitties

        My mom grew up honestly believing that a person’s first pregnancy always took less than nine months. She heard lots of people say stuff like, “The first one always comes early.” She realized later that this was just her Catholic community’s way of ignoring signs of premarital sex.

    • Eamon Knight

      Yeah, we became empty-nesters in our late 40s (well, aside from summers, and a bit of boomeranging when #2 Son was between degree programs), and we’re loving it. Of course, that was only possible because by our mid-20s we were financially stable and debt-free (other than a non-onerous mortgage), and had been married four years, and a steady couple for four years before that (we were high school sweethearts who married right after university at age 21 & 22). Not everyone is in that position, not even 30 years ago, and even less so with the current generation.
      The “right” time to have children is (if and) when you want to, and realistically feel you are in the emotional, relational and financial position to take on a 20-year commitment.
      However, the OP prompts me to ask: what is the deemed “acceptable” age range that Libby Anne is violating? I have only a rough guess at her age, which is that she’s about the same age as my kids, ie. between 25 and 30.

  • Katherine

    My parents came from fairly different backgrounds, one of my grandmothers got married at 17 because it was fairly expected for her to do so, and the other got married at 17 because she was pregnant in high school and it was the most horrible scandal (my great grandmother had worked incredibly hard to be able to go to college, and refused to get married before she graduated, and expected her daughters to do the same). My own parents chose to get married and have kids rather young, though not quite as young. My mom was 20 when she got engaged, and then got pregnant during the engagement. My parents never hid any of these facts from my sister and I, and yet, growing up in a fairly middle-of-the-road, mainstream American suburb, I was sometimes ashamed of them. People would comment on how young my mother looked and I always winced. I knew that my mom had consciously chosen to be a young mother, and get it still felt like this shameful detail of our family. On the whole, they were very good parents – my mom was a kick ass stay-at-home mom who ran a tight family budget, babysat neighborhood kids, baked cookies and climbed trees with us, at an age when most of my friends were still in college and trying to figure out how the hell to pay their own rent. Looking at my family, I can say with confidence that the thing that matters about the age at which you begin to parent is only that it is an age you feel comfortable.
    The flip side of that is that as I grew up I entered first the liberal world of arts, and then gay culture, and the norm age for marriage and reproduction seemed even LATER than around the kids I was afraid would find out how young my mom was. While once I felt ashamed of my parent’s young parenting, seeing it done well clearly affected me, and despite all of my logic, I still feel like a horrible failure for being 27 and not yet a mother. I’m engaged, but it will likely be a year or two before my partner and I are fully ready to start the process to becoming queer parents. Since I’ve always wanted to have kids, it seems somehow wrong that I’ve waited this long, and the fact that I am incredibly happy with my life the way it is, it doesn’t really change that feeling. When I talk to people in my community about it, and tell them how I feel, their endless refrain is “but you’re so YOUNG!” which really just makes the chasm feel wider.

    Obviously, if it’s too person, you don’t have to share, but I’m curious about Sean’s thoughts and feelings about young parenthood, since he wasn’t raised in the subculture you were raised in. Did he have reservations about it? Did it surprise his parents, extended family, or friends?

    • Katherine

      oops, last paragraph is meant to say “if it’s too PERSONAL”

    • Basketcase

      “I still feel like a horrible failure for being 27 and not yet a mother.”
      I get this.
      My parents were 18 and 20 when I was born. And unmarried. They got married when I was about six months old.
      I hit 28 and engaged and felt that I was “too old” to be starting a family, regardless of the fact that my similar age and slightly older friends were all only just going through it (except the church friends, who all had two or three kids already). Now I’m pregnant and 30. I’m glad I didn’t do this any younger, and also that I didn’t wait any longer.
      But my parents have had a basically empty nest since Mum turned 40. I’ll be 50 before I get to that point. And with all the things they have done in their 40s, I’m already jealous of the fact I’ll still be dealing with a teenager at the age they spent months at a time overseas…

  • luckyducky

    I’ve struggled with this as well, we got married at 21 and our first was born when we were 23. I travel in academic circles, so this is unusual though not shocking. I was at a European conference and my age came up. I decided that it was humorous rather than offensive that the man guessing started at 40 and went up… And I was all of 27. But I was (am?) usually self conscience about it.

    It gets to be less of an issue as we get older though. Whether it is because I have gained perspective and don’t feel the need to prove myself or the difference is less obvious and it doesn’t come up as much, it has gotten better. However, it is odd sometimes and socializing with other parents can be weird. I had a meeting with some other parents last night and between them being “older” parents and my older child being their younger/est child’s peer, they were all close to 20 years older than I am. I admit despite the discussion and the fact our scouts (BPSA – I recommend it) have repeated made the observation that that the other leader is obviously the “older wolf” that I have not given them a clear indication of my age and would bet they think I am at least 5 years older than I am.

    My brother and his wife are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are 10yr s old than we are and got married a year later and waited several more years to have children. But they love in a rural area where the age to marry and procreate hasn’t drifted up as far. So they are about the same age as their babysitter whose granddaughter is the same age as their children.

    • Christine

      I’m quite impressed that they started guessing at 13 years older than your age (and assumed they were guessing young). You’ve obviously got quite the career going that they assumed you were just very young-looking.

      • luckyducky

        Nah, he wasn’t taking career into account and he probably didn’t have a good idea anyway. He was just going off of when he and his European peers did or anticipated “settling down”… by his calculations, you aren’t ready to marry (or settle into a long-term monogomous union) until 30 or later and then you take a few more years to have children, then you have the 2nd 2 or more years apart and he knew my children were preschool/grade school.

        Like I said, it was mostly amusing because it had almost nothing to do with me but reflected his assumptions.

  • Caitlin

    I married at 21 and had my first baby at 24. I lived in a rural area at the time where this was more or less ordinary for an educated woman. I particularly remember a visit to Washington DC when a woman who had her children around age 40 told me that I was “practically a teenage mother.” Um…what?

  • Kit

    This is definitely something that goes both ways – compared to many people I grew up with, I’m pretty much an old spinster (at the wonderful age of 24…). I second the comment that the best age to marry or be a parent is whenever you’re comfortable with it.

    I’d also like to point out that many trappings around parenting and marriage make it a no-win proposition. Unless you want to wait until your mid-thirties, many of us won’t even have paid off school debt yet. In my generation, we’re not going to own homes when we start having kids. The most fortunate of us will have purchased a home and will just be paying a mortgage, and ends are going to meet with a bit of breathing room. With this economy, it’s very hard to have kids at the “right age” with all the right trappings like the home, the stable job, etc. I don’t know about anyone else, but like many in my generation, I’m not getting hired – I’m getting contracts to cover people for maternity leaves, sick leaves, etc.

  • Tonya Richard

    Gosh, I so relate to this. I hate that I am sometimes hesitant to tell people that I was married at 19 and have 8 children. I love my children and am very proud of them, but I can see the judgement on people’s faces when I tell them. Funny thing, even though I was evangelical when I got married, I was not in a quiverfull community. We got a lot of flack for getting married so young and having so many children close together. That is why I think I got so involved in the quiverfull movement. It was the only place where my young and large family was celebrated. I know that I would do it all over again, even though I am no longer quiverfull or even a Christian. I love my large family and am proud of what I have accomplished raising and continuing to raise them. Even if in liberal society, I am seen as not living up to my potential as a woman. This is MY life, and I don’t have to explain it to anyone. Just like the woman who makes her career her life and remain childfree doesn’t have to explain it to anyone either!

    • Lana

      love your story! Although I didn’t have that many siblings, my parents got involved in the movement for similar reasons — we just weren’t accepted in mainstream. We need to work to take away this stigma towards large families.

      • Anat

        We are living in the days of ‘peak child’ (according to demographer Hans Rosling). The number of children in the world will soon start declining (at long last) as people adapt to the decline in child mortality. While I doubt large families will disappear completely barring extreme population control they will become even less common.

  • AnyBeth

    Yup, shouldn’t be shame either way. Well, it may not be a good thing at biological extremes (like before physical maturity or at such a time one is likely to die before the child reaches adulthood) but shame still wouldn’t be appropriate.
    I’m kinda with Kit, though it was culture rather than religion, per se. See, my family is from lower Appalachia, though the nuclear family moved away. My mom’s family is really close. I was the first female that wasn’t married or a mother by 20. (Great-grandmother first married unduly early (like at menarche), and everyone but my mom married before 18.) Though my parents never exactly said so, there was huge pressure to marry and have kids coming from the family. It started when I was 17 and by 21, I was treated as an “old maid” with incredible pushes to marry and marry soon. But then disease and disability came to light and they suddenly never expected me to marry or reproduce. Eh, it was an expression of ableist bigotry, but I was glad the pressure disappeared. I’m now in a long-standing relationship, but nearing 30 and never married. I’m no longer seen as a spinster, though, because disability means I’m supposed to be sex-less, I guess. (Yeah, right.)
    Fwiw, my little sister and a younger cousin were glad I blazed the trail of not marrying or having kids. It meant they didn’t get the same pressure I did.

  • AztecQueen2000

    I married at 24 and had to find a babysitter for my first anniversary. Both of my girls were born well before my 30th birthday. I have one college friend who has a baby–and she’s five years older than me, and her kid is an infant. Most of my “mom friends” are 5-10 years my senior, despite having kids the same age as my two. Almost none of my friends who are my age have children at all.

    • Libby Anne

      This. So much this.

      I was out with a mom friend the other day, whose kids are the exact ages of my two (it’s kind of uncanny, actually). Turns out I’m fifteen years younger than her. Oh well, we still seem to get on just fine!

  • Christine

    There definitely exists a subculture where it’s the norm to get married later. My sister’s boss (retail job) was shocked to find out that I was getting married at 23 (you know, after finishing my first degree…), as were some of my mom’s friends. But only the ones who didn’t know me…

    I have to agree with Kit it’s an awful situation. My choices were: wait until it was getting iffy that I’d be able to have a baby (I know that lots of women manage to get pregnant in their mid-thirties, but they probably aren’t the ones who start with sub-normal fertility), or else risk one of our careers. (I could make enough money to afford to get a job now, after my pseuo-mat leave, but it would jeopardize my husband’s degree). There is a definite cost to waiting longer (and the general response of “oh, I had babies at 40 so this is bunk” every time someone mentions it doesn’t help), but there is a financial cost to not waiting. I was shocked that my in-laws agreed to be guardians if need be, as neither of them have started their careers yet. (Although I suspect that a toddler would hurt less than a baby).

  • Lynn

    I grew up in a culture where getting married young was the norm, but then after college I moved to a big city where everyone I knew married late. I loved the change. I no longer had to feel like a spinster at 25. I didn’t feel pressured as much to find a husband asap. I could be me and take life at my own pace. For me personally, it’s a good thing I didn’t find a husband back in my early 20s, because I’ve changed in ways that have drastically affected what husband I would choose: namely, my faith and politics have changed a lot, and I realized I never want children.

    Sometimes I wonder if I would be the same person I am today if I had married young. And when I see couples that married young, I wonder how their growth into later adulthood has been: how much it was influenced by their spouse or kids, and how much they may have changed. Some couples seem to grow together and some grow apart. I also wonder how many of them would advise their children to get married young.

  • Anonymouse

    I got married at 23. I was finishing up my masters degree at the time, and was shocked at the people who were pushing me to start having kids. From my family doctor to neighbors to complete strangers on line at the grocery checkout; they saw the wedding ring and immediately began haranguing me about not waiting until I was ‘too old’. I waited until I was 29; that was the perfect age *for me* (owned my own house, had my post-grad work out of the way, had lived overseas, was settled in my career, and most of all, felt ready to have children), but along the way I had to hear how “selfish” I was…for what? Giving my child the best start in life I could, which was when I was ready to be a mother? I found it all very offensive.

    • M

      I got married at almost exactly the same time- 23 years old, married in June, finished my masters in August. People were super shocked I was getting married “so young”, even though we’d dated for five years at that point. People were actually very pushy about us not having kids yet- my grandmother had 4 kids by the time she was 25 and told me repeatedly that it was NOT a fun experience. At 27, I have no kids yet though my husband and I are thinking of trying for one in about a year. I’ve had a little pushing from both my parents and my in-laws in the past year, but not much. We tell them that when we buy a house, they can ask about grandkids :)

      • sylvia_rachel

        I also got married at 23 after dating my DH for 5 years. But we actually did start trying to get pregnant right away, because I had already lost half my reproductive system to cancer and we didn’t want to wait. In the end, though, that didn’t work out — I wasn’t able to get pregnant, I ended up having to have my other ovary removed about 2 years later, and by the time we finally had DD (via ovum donation), I was 28.

        Honestly, that was a good age. DH and I had had plenty of time to be young-marrieds-without-kids, so by the time DD came along we were quite happy to be parents and homebodies for a while; I was a bit older and more self-confident (which I needed to be, since my ILs second-guessed every. single. parenting decision we made, loudly and often); but I had more energy than I have now, 10 years later. The only regret I really have is that we haven’t been able to have more kids, because we always wanted several, and I think DD would be a great big sister.

        What’s funny is that I have both friends my age with much older kids (those who got married at the same age or younger, and started having kids right away) and friends my age with much younger kids (those who got married much later). As well as, obviously, married friends with no kids, unmarried friends with no kids, etc., etc. Very few similarly-aged friends or acquaintances with similarly-aged kids, and DD’s friends’ parents are mostly 5-10 years older than me.

  • Liz

    Here’s a hypothesis for the different reactions people have to young families.

    In a culture where marrying and having children young is normal, the people who do so are… normal. They’ve generally given a lot of thought to their decisions.

    In a culture where people marry later, like where I’m from, those who marry young are generally very impulsive people. There were several engagements and pregnancies in my high school; the engagements were generally between people who had met recently and broke off quickly, and the pregnancies were unintended. This is harsh and judgmental, but to be honest the people who got engaged young were… having a lot of problems, and didn’t make great decisions in general.

    So when someone from a town like mine meets a young mother from a culture like Libby’s, their mind immediately jumps to the sort of person who would’ve gotten engaged young in my town. When my college friends started getting married my parents were dumbfounded: Does she plan on graduating? Is she pregnant? Do they know each other well? (Yes, then go to grad school; no; of course!)

    Just an explanation; I don’t think the shaming is helpful. (Of course if you are close to an impulsive teenager about to marry someone she just met, an honest discussion may be in order.)

    P.S. This dynamic has influenced my decisions a lot. My boyfriend and I, both college seniors, have been talking about long term commitments for a long time and considered marrying, but we felt that part of the point of getting married is the support that comes from friends and family, and we should wait until we have that support. At 21 and 22 we’d meet mostly disapproval.

  • Teri Anne

    The expectation that young people should wait until their late twenties to get married to get more life experience implies that marriage is a horrible ball and chain, and that a person’s life is over after marriage. What prevents a young married couple from growing together as they share life experiences? Christian young people are placed in an impossible situation. They are expected to wait until marriage to have sex, yet they are also expected to wait until their late twenties to get married. As a result, a large percent of Christian young people probably do have sex before marriage, an issue which churches seldom address honestly.

    I think the stigma against early marriage is harmful to young people. I would not have been ready to get married at 19 or 20, but many young people are mature enough and ready for marriage. I recently attended a wedding in which the bride was 20.

    • Anne

      I don’t think that’s entirely true, I personally have read enough stats on early marriages and their high divorce rates that I wish extra luck to people I know who marry young. For the record, that includes many of my friends. Some are still strong but some divorced, and the young-married were more likely to divorce. It’s true that no one knows what goes on inside a marriage, but it’s hard to predict how people will function as adults until they actually are doing it, and I think that’s one reason the marriages foundered. Marriage is about building a life together, and most of us have a better idea of the life we want to build with our partners when we’ve been out in the world for a few years. It’s not that marriage is a ball and chain, it’s that it’s a partnership and you want to be sure you partner with a person wanting the same things.

    • Anne

      I don’t think that’s entirely true, I personally have read enough stats on early marriages and their high divorce rates that I wish extra luck to people I know who marry young. For the record, that includes many of my friends. Some are still strong but some divorced, and the young-married were more likely to divorce. It’s true that no one knows what goes on inside a marriage, but it’s hard to predict how people will function as adults until they actually are doing it, and I think that’s one reason the marriages foundered. Marriage is about building a life together, and most of us have a better idea of the life we want to build with our partners when we’ve been out in the world for a few years. It’s not that marriage is a ball and chain, it’s that it’s a partnership and you want to be sure you partner with a person wanting the same things.

      And, as When Harry Met Sally pointed out, “when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want that the rest of your life start as soon as possible!”

    • Aighty

      Yeah, I never really understood that either. I know I can’t think of anything I might want to do in the future that would be prevented by my being married. Personally, I know I’m not ready yet. However, I know of a few people getting who are my age (early 20s) and even younger who are engaged. I have no idea if their relationships will work out, but I definitely don’t get the sense that they’re doomed.

      I actually have a friend with Christian parents who are simultaneously pressuring her to get married/have kids soon and not to date anyone ever. In fairness, I think they care more about the “kids” part of that, but…she is really not pleased with it, as you might imagine. I certainly can’t imagine what they expect her to do about that.

      • Christine

        Eh, I had to turn down a (good) job after undergrad (I was going to quit school and work then) because it wouldn’t have worked with the amount of being settled that marriage would have required. I mean, I probably could have done it if my husband stayed at home or just worked part time, but no more than that (we’d have had to move, or at a minimum buy a car in addition).

        And having kids can be a limitation. When my daughter was 6 months I realised I’d never be able to audit the course I wanted to take, because she needed me home at bedtime, so I was going to have to miss the last time it was offered.

        So not a lot of opportunities, but they exist.

      • Aighty

        Oh, yeah, those are good points, Christine (although I was really only referring to marriage, not having kids–there are definitely things that are harder to do with kids). That did not occur to me. I guess I was thinking of things in the realm of, “Well, you need to find yourself.” That’s the theme I mostly hear when I hear people talk about what people need to do before they settle down. I’ve never heard anyone discuss logistical problems which could arise with marriage–mostly just what you “should” do while single. :\

      • Liz

        Yeah, logistics are a huge hassle, especially for a career-minded person in this economy. I applied to 12 grad schools in the hope that I’ll be able to stay in the same city as my boyfriend, who is also applying to grad school. I know an extremely talented couple who tried the same thing last year and almost failed to get into schools in the same city; they were planning on having one of them work instead of getting a PhD.

    • Anat

      The expectation that young people should wait until their late twenties to get married to get more life experience implies that marriage is a horrible ball and chain, and that a person’s life is over after marriage. What prevents a young married couple from growing together as they share life experiences?

      The risk is that as young people mature further they may grow in different directions and find themselves no longer compatible. Or may find out that the person that looked like their dream partner from the POV of a young adult is not as dreamy to a more mature adult. It’s not that life is over after marriage, but that divorce is one of the worst stress-inducing situations and perhaps making the choice of a life-partner from a more mature perspective can reduce the risk.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        This is very true but it’s not something nice to hear. The teacher I most respected in high school said this commenting on how few HSS remained in adulthood and it stung even if I knew it wasn’t personal. We really mature a lot from how we are in high school to how we are after college so it’s something to take into account. I realise how lucky I was of finding someone who matched weird me so well even as we both grew up.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    Got married at 31. My husband is 8 years older than I am and has a daughter from a previous relationship. We’re hoping to add onto that ourselves! What frustrates me tho is the push from family to wait until everything is perfect before we start having our children. Umm…I’m 32 and graduate in the spring. While I know many women do have children at my age and later, I don’t want to take the risk.

    Libby, have you ever read Podkayne of Mars? In the novel, the protagonist talks about how the best time physically to have children is when you are young, but mentally, older adults are more prepared and capable. The solution? Have those babies one after another and stick them in suspended animation until you are ready to raise them. For an extra fee, the facility will raise them until they are 6 months old.

  • K.

    Great post!

    I married for the SECOND time at age 21, and had my first child at 24. Around here, the “right” age for starting a family seems to be 28-32. I always feel a little weird telling people that I got married to my ex one week after my high school graduation. But, that’s where I was at, at that point in my life. No reason to be ashamed of it.

  • alwr

    This goes both ways, I hope you know. I got married when I was past 35. I was told I should not have any sort of a wedding celebration at all as I was “past that point”. Never mind it is a first marriage for both of us. Some people refused to give us gifts because we were so old we obviously don’t need anything. (Not that I had a wedding for the gifts, nor am I bitter that these people gave us nothing because I wanted “stuff”…BUT several were people I dutifully have bought wedding and baby gifts for as well as (for two of the couples) had the expense of being in their wedding parties in one capacity or another). As to parenthood–I was recently told we should never have or adopt a child because the burden of the poor thing having geriatric parents by age ten would be too much to expect him or her to bear—as if I am planning on IVF at 67 or something. Reality is that although conceiving may not happen at this point, I have high school classmates who are currently pregnant or are new mothers by natural means. It isn’t impossible.

    • Eamon Knight

      A colleague of mine had her first child (and I’m guessing she’s done) at 41, and AFAIK she didn’t need any hi-tech help. My *mother* had me (her only) at 36, which was very unusual for her generation, and of course none of the hi-tech help even existed at the time. So don’t take the doom-sayers too seriously ;-).

    • Anat

      My youngest brother was born when my parents were in their late thirties. He said a few times that he ‘deserves’ a larger share of the inheritance because he got our parents when they were older. (Parents are still doing strong. When the time comes I don’t mind if little brother gets my share too, he is a much more dutiful son than me.)

    • sylvia_rachel

      My DH was born when his mom was 41 (he was baby #4, though — she had baby #1 at age almost 20, about 6 months after the wedding ;)). My aunt was born when my grandma was 41 (baby #3; but she didn’t have my mom, her first child, until she was almost 30, which was considered pretty old to be starting a family in 1941.) I don’t think women having babies into their late 30s and early 40s is a new thing; what’s new (relatively) is having your *first* baby at that kind of age. Even my mom, when she was 32 and having me, was considered high risk because of her “advanced age”, and when she was 36 and having my brother, well … !

  • Chryssie

    love the Incredibles’ reference!

    I got married a month after I turned 20, and my husband was barely 21. We have never regretted it and are quite pride to tell people that we got married young because we both believe it was best for us and we totally chose it for ourselves. I’m hoping a baby comes along soon simply because I want a baby and because we would both rather get started on our family sooner so that when we reach 40-50 we won’t still have little guys like my parents.

  • Lassou

    I live on a college campus, and we have chaplains in all the dorm. My chaplain and his wife got engaged when they were in college at 19, and got married at 20. They’ve been married for over ten years and they have a three year old, and honestly, we all admire and look up to them as an example of a solid, happy couple. If you have a beautiful happy family, that’s something to be proud of. Maybe some people are a little judgmental, but I bet a lot more people think it’s sweet and think you’re doing it right.

  • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    I turned 25 this summer and had a bit of a shock when I realized that I’m now the same age as my mom when she got pregnant with my older brother. And I just got an IUD that can last for 10 years, although I don’t think I’ll leave it in that long! I can definitely see that there are advantages to having children younger.

    I grew up in Massachusetts, where people on average marry and have their first child in their late 20s to early 30s, and I accepted this time frame as normal and expected. Now I’m in a committed relationship and I see a lot of people in my peer group getting married younger. I think when I was in high school I had it in my head that you had to have yourself fully established as a person (education, career, etc) before you could contemplate getting married, but now I see that working toward those goals together as a couple can be really positive.

  • Joy

    That’s what it is to be a woman: you get judged for getting married too young or having children too young or too old; for breast or bottle feeding your baby; for having too many or too few children; for not having any children at all. There is no way to win except by ignoring the busybodies.

  • sylvia_rachel

    I was 23 when I got married, and my DH was 28. We’d met at university (I was 18, he was 23) and dated for 4 years before we got engaged, then married a year later. I did get some flak from some people for getting married that young; but when I pointed out that we’d been together for ~5 years and had been through some serious bad sh!t together (most notably, my cancer diagnosis and treatment when I was 21), they would often back off.

    When I was a married young twentysomething, I had a whole passel of friends who were also married young twentysomethings, all married at around the same age as me. Then at a certain point those marriages started imploding — I’m talking half a dozen divorces within an 18-month period. It was very weird, and it made me wonder. I also now know a couple of other people who married very young (22 or younger) and have since split up. I know that some of those people would say the problem was they got married too young, and some of them would be right. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though — it’s not your age (or not *just* your age), it’s other things, like why you got married and how long you knew each other and how much effort you both put into it and what other things have happened and are happening in your lives. As usual with things involving people, it’s More Complicated Than That.

  • Alexis

    When Peggy, now in her sixties, turned twenty, her aunt made a fancy family tree and put Peggy at the side with no space to add a husband. Until then no woman in the family had ever reached the age of fourteen with getting pregnant and marrying (in that order). Peggy did get married later on.

  • Annie

    I got married at 21 (summer after I graduated college – I was young for my grade), and people are generally surprised but I can’t say I’ve ever felt particularly judged for it. I usually just tell people, with a big smile on my face, “yup, hubs and I figured neither one of us was ever gonna do any better and happily settled.” Still think it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, we make a good team. We’re due any day now with our first, having been married for 5 years, and, honestly, I can’t imagine trying to do this any older. I’m in academia too and so many of my colleagues waited until they were done with their graduate degrees to marry and have kids, putting them all well into their 30′s and 40′s. I’m exhausted, I have no idea how they did it.

  • Sophie

    My parents were 17 and 19 when my older brother was born, and that was a huge family scandal. They got married six months later. Then I was born when my mum was 24 and my dad was 26. When I was growing up almost all my friends’ parents were at least a decade older than my parents. My mum had another two children with her current partner, the first when she was 38 and the second at 40. I’ve written in another post about my childhood and my mum’s behaviour but basically she failed to bond with me due to postnatal depression and she was a fairly lousy parent. She’s still not the best but she is a better parent to my younger brothers. She would never admit that there was a problem with her parenting of my older brother and me, but she does say that parenting as an older mother has been easier. She is more financially stable, her relationship with her partner is better and she’s more patient.

    I’m 28, been with my partner for 6 years and have no children. I’d always assumed I would have a family young like my parents but it didn’t work out that way. I would really like to have a child in the next couple of years but it’s unlikely to happen. Last year my chronic back pain became so bad that I’m now a wheelchair user, I had two surgeries to try to fix the problem but the first failed and the second has a low chance of making any difference. Pregnancy would have been very hard on my body before, it would be very risky now. On top of that, my partner doesn’t want children. I had hoped that he would change his mind, or that when the need to have a child became stronger than how much I love him I would leave and do it on my own. That isn’t really an option open to me anymore, I can’t take care of myself never mind a child.

    On a less personal note, my friends have been a mix when it comes to marriage and babies. Some got married at 21/22 and then had their first baby within a couple of years and others have just getting married in the last couple of years and are trying to get pregnant. The majority of those who got married younger are 5/6 years younger than me, whereas the ones who married later are my age or older. It’s nothing to do with length of relationship, all of them were together with their spouses for a minimum of 6 years prior to marriage. The majority of them have a university degree. I don’t know why my generation is so polarised on this issue.

  • Elin

    I was just above average age in Sweden when I had my daughter (at 29, one day before my 30th birthday). However, already at 24-25 my sister started talking about how I was starting to get old and that I would become too comfortable to find a husband if I was not getting started soon. When I had just met my husband and came home for Christmas my sister asked if we had gotten started on having babies yet and if we were not going to move in soon. We had been dating for about 2 months then… Well, we finally did decide to have a baby and we got married when I was 8 months pregnant, mainly for pratical reasons but now when my daugther is 6 months, guess what my sister has started taking about now? More children! Besides from her, no one has really meddled that much into my life and most people think I am a just another mom.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      Isn’t it funny how you’re body has barely started recovering from one baby when people start asking you when the next one is coming? ONE THING AT A TIME, PEOPLE!

  • JethroElfman

    I had the oops baby and the shotgun marriage. Talk about embarrassing! Feels like I’m doing the Monty Python “You were lucky” (Four Yorkeshiremen) sketch. I don’t think people are trying to shame you so much as enjoying the schadenfreude of the gossip… and you’re denying them that! Letting your personal life hang out on the internet like this must sure help when asked these questions in person. It’s not about you, it’s about them and reassuring themselves that the measure of their life is better than yours.

    Getting married was reflexively the “right thing to do”, but turned out be a total nightmare. We were to busy fighting to be bothered worrying about what anyone thought. Anymore, I like telling the story, since the traditional approach was so much the wrong thing to do, and I want to warn kids off the idea. (Plus I try to tell it in a funny way so they can laugh with me.) I knew better, but did it anyway. I tell young people that getting married won’t make them any happier, and that they should feel no need to procreate just because it’s the popular thing to do. Fortunately it only lasted four years until the divorce. Then came the single parenting! Can’t wait for the right opportunity to bring that up, so I will mention it now. It was a tremendous relief and so much better than being married to the wrong person.

    I’m sure that one reason I come here is for all of these “boy, I know what that feels like” topics.

  • RMM

    Hubby and I got married at 23 and 22, respectively, and if anyone doesn’t like it they can kiss my booty. Way to stand up, lady. There are pros and cons to doing these things at any age and you shouldn’t have to feel ashamed because you picked differently than someone else!

  • pagansister

    My husband and I got married at 19, when we were both still in college (met him in college freshman year), and we turned 20 the month after we married. We married between fall quarter and winter quarter. We both graduated, and I was 3 months pregnant with our first child when I got my degree. Our 2nd and last child was planned, as was our first and was born 3 years after his sister. Never regretted being married that young—-48 years ago. I think the right age depends on the 2 people involved.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    My husband and I met at 16, fell in love instantly, and moved in together at 18 – the same month we graduated high school. We were ready to get married right away, but waited until 21 because our parents would have freaked out. It’s funny, most of the people we meet through out toddler playgroups have only been together under five years, whereas we’ll be celebrating our 12th anniversary in a few months.

    We waited to get pregnant because of The Plan. We do still get some comments about being too young (we were 26 when our son was born, and most of the other parents we meet are in their early 30s – though it doesn’t help that we both still look like teenagers), but it’s not too bad. For marriage, though… oy. As soon as we started dating, the comments were incessant. Even close friends and family members were wagering on when we’d break up. We wouldn’t last a year! Okay, but we wouldn’t last two years! Okay, but not five! That’s finally died down now, though we do still get the occasional lectures.

    I really don’t know what makes people think that they know more about our private lives than we do… I knew I wanted to be with my husband for the rest of my life within a month of meeting him. And I still feel that way, 12 years later. Why do people feel the need to tell me that this feeling isn’t “real”?

    • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

      My aunt and uncle met at a school dance when they were 13 and are still together in their 60s. Sometimes you just meet someone you’re compatible with really young!

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      ¡Oh, the plan! We also made a plan, a very sensible plan in our eyes that didn’t count with my depression setting me three years back in finishing my med degree at least. We decided (without any input form our parents) that we should have lived together and be both economically self-sufficient (both have a job) before getting married however many years that would take (10-12 years) since we were only 14 and 18 when we started dating and we were planning on living together the second we could which was when I started uni 3 years later. The thing is marriage has never been an important thing to us (just a paper) and we both hate wedding stuff (me more than him) and we were naive in thinking real stuff doesn’t happen that f**ks your plans and, even if I think being mature and living together are good things to before getting married if you want to decrease your chance at divorce, life is life and the important thing is you choose what goes best for you. In fact, we might get married in 9 months because Remus may get a job in Japan and I may go with him (living in Japan is one of my dreams) but we may need to get married for that.

      Relating to kids, I always wanted to have the first between 25-30 years but as with marriage, it seems that circumstances are the most important factor and I don’t see myself with a kid right now even if I’m 25… I don’t want to mess my kid’s life the way my parents did with us and my boyfriend is having second thoughts about having kids after we got ourselves a cat. I may have biological kids ‘though because I once donated ova to a fertility clinic (btw, consider donating your ova, there are many women out there who need them! and you also get some money (probably a LOT more in the US :P)).

  • Second Thought

    It is interesting to note how much your environment can effect your responses to things without you even realizing it is effecting you. After living well into adulthood in North America I moved to China to work for a while. For the last twenty+ years China has had a one child policy so it is very unusual to see families with with more than two children (the policy allows rural folk to have two children and there are a few other exceptions that allow for more than one child). I didn’t think much about the policy as it didn’t have any direct impact on me, but one day, after I had been living in China for several years I saw a foreign woman (European or American) walking down the sidewalk with four young children who looked like her children and I noticed the thought that came unbidden to my mind was ‘how selfish’ to have so many children. I don’t think this was something I felt strongly and deeply and I wondered at where the thought had come from. I think we pick up more from our environment than we realize.

    But having a reaction or a fleeting thought is far different than feeling you have the right to inflict your ideas on others.

  • Joolz

    I wonder if this is more of a US “problem” because it seems as though Americans consider their offspring to be children for a lot longer than in other places. In the UK it is legal to get married at 16 (with a parent’s permission in England and Wales, without in Scotland). The age of consent is 16 and nearly all other legal rights are given at 18. I got my first full-time job at 17 and my first mortgage at 19, and that wasn’t particularly unusual. I don’t think it’s particularly young to start having children in one’s early 20s, or even at 18 or 19. What I do find strange is that in the US it appears as though adults in their early 20s appear to often still be treated like children.

  • Sarah Moon

    I probably would have married my fiance a year ago if it weren’t for the stigma attached to early marriage. It’s weird because I’m 23–nearly an “old maid” by fundamental standards that I grew up with, but young by standards of wider culture–so I feel stuck in the middle. Ah, oh well. I’m going to be proud like you. I’m done being embarrassed to tell people I’m engaged and sometimes when I don’t have homework I plan a wedding!

  • Little Magpie

    Some of this, as other people have hinted at, is generational. I’m 34, and while I’m going to say right off that children have never been in my plan, even if I did want kids there’s no way I would have had them by now. For one thing, I’m living at home with my parents – also a generational thing as a lot of people my age and younger have a harder go of it with jobs/careers/student debt/finances than was the case in other eras; for another thing, I’m not in a committed relationship and there’s nothing on the horizon in that regard..

    By way of contrast, this past summer (at age 33 1/2) I realized that I was precisely the age my mom was when I was born – and I’m the youngest of 3, with a biggish gap between #2 and me. Yeah, by the time my mom was my age, they were *finishing* with the baby-having. My parents were married when they were 25 and 27 (or rather, just shy of 25 and 27 – their birthdays are both later in the same month as their wedding anniversary); the eldest was born a year and bit later. I gather he was kind of an ‘accident’ in that he was conceived after they were married, but, urm, contraceptive failure. While the timing might not have been what they as individuals would have planned for in terms of careers and stuff, I don’t think marrying at 25/27 and first child born at 26/28 was shocking, or even noteworthy, in the early 1970′s. (In terms of careers: my mom was pregnant with my older brother, #1, when she graduated from medical school. Not, mind you, visibly so, or anything.)

    My two cents.

  • Riza

    I agree with you on almost everything, Libby, but not this.

    Older parents are more stable than younger ones. It takes money to raise a child (as you’ve mentioned in previous posts) and that money usually doesn’t come to you until you’re a bit older.

    Also, for most people, I think it’s important to really consider how difficult parenting is- however, you’re already extremely aware of what that entails, so you knew what you were getting into.

    Another objection here, pretty much only applies to teenagers. The reasoning behind not getting married in high school, is because the human brain doesn’t stop developing until we reach at least age 21. As such, teenagers are less capable of making long-term decisions, and weighing risks and rewards- and settling down that young also comes with the risk of changing dramatically. I imagine, if Shaun had met you when he was in high school, your encounters would have happened very differently.

    Furthermore, teenagers and younger women need to be very careful about getting pregnant, because it comes with all sorts of health risks that affect younger women more acutely. This applies to older women as well, of course, but I think it’s worse for young mothers (who have less money, are less likely to have health benefits, and aren’t prepared for even normal parenting).

    Just some things to think about.

    • ki sarita

      This is so, so individually varied, and what’s more, culturally variable (remember libby didn’t grow up in this culture) so I would hesitate to make such a huge generalization.

      Regarding health risks to young mothers, WHAT health risks are you talking about? Women in their early 20′s?

      I think the biggest risk to early childbearing is financial…. because nowadays it takes longer and longer for people to get financially stabilized at kickstarted in their careers, and I think the emotional unreadiness is a corollary of that. That’s a specific function of today’s economy, not an essential developmental pattern.

      • Christine

        Riza does have a point – the literature I got when I was pregnant had a lot of information about additional risks for teenagers who were pregnant. However, given that the discussion here has appeared to be more about women in their early twenties as “young” mothers, it doesn’t really apply. Health risks are lowest in your twenties (as you get older again the risk of gestational diabetes goes up, as do fetal risks).

        I’m not sure I agree about the money. You’re never going to have enough money – as you earn more you spend more. We’re doing quite well with a baby on one studentship. (No, we won’t really be able to have a second one until we move, but that will happen in a couple of years, and the only problem with that would be that we only have two bedrooms, so moving the crib back into our room would be a problem, and if we had a boy there would be problems when he got too old to share a room with his sister).

  • Emmie

    I understand this feeling like you are being judged about your choice to marry and have children young. I married when I was 20 and got pregnant 6 weeks later so I had my oldest son 2 months before my 1st anniversary at 21. I believe my mom led the hordes in the counting backwards from nine, lol. My younger son was born when I was 24. None of my friends of the same age were married or having children for several years afterwards so now that my boys are turning 18 and 15 this year most of their children are in middle school and elementary school and a few have infants. I am almost always the youngest mother when I interact with the other parents of their friends and classmates and it doesn’t help that I look considerably younger than my age to begin with. People often assume that I had my children in my early teens (if they realize they are my children and not my siblings) and being a minority I have often felt an added internal pressure to refute that assumption that I was a teen and/or unwed mom.

  • Jaimie

    I got married when I was twenty and had my first child just before I turned twenty one. The second and third came close after. I missed out on much of my supposedly fun years that everyone else had, which in retrospect, did not seem so fun. I am a grandma now and people say to me, You don’t look old enough to be a grandmother! I always joke and say, I FEEL it! But I know I don’t look typical.

    So what of it? I had my children because I wanted them. I gave it all to them at the time they needed. That was my choice and I don’t regret it or say, if only. Now they are grown and I am free to do what I want, and am old enough and mature enough to handle the stresses that go along with it. There are tradeoffs having children in any age group.