My best friend and I have kids 17 years apart. It turns out that parental age plays only a minor role in how we parent our daughters—that’s what matters most.

My best friend and I have kids 17 years apart.  It turns out that parental age plays only a minor role in how we parent our daughters—that's what matters most.

  • My friend and I have known each other for over 35 years.
  • He had his daughter at 27 and I had mine at 42, making them 17 years apart.
  • Despite the age difference, we realized we have a lot in common when we parent them.

Fussiness, congestion and restlessness. I was wondering if these were symptoms of my baby having his first tooth cut or having COVID.

I called my best friend from high school, Molly, to get her opinion, even though she’d never had a baby during a pandemic. She answered my call while she sat in the dentist’s office, waiting for her daughter to come out of wisdom tooth extraction. Over the past couple of years, our relationship has seen a resurgence through sharing the joys and worries of mothering our daughters. But while I stocked up on plasters and knee pads while my daughter learned to walk, Molly racked up sleepless nights waiting for her new chauffeur to come home.

Molly and I are both 44 but raise daughters 17 years apart. We have been friends for 35 years. In our teens, we swapped babysitting jobs, always figuring we’d raise kids of the same age. Her daughter is almost 19 and mine is 2.

Society often assumes we’ll raise our children differently because we became moms at different ages, but research shows that age can’t predict parenting style. Even though we became mothers nearly two decades apart, the challenges and milestones we face as mothers will be more similar than different.

Mental health and social support play a bigger role than age

The same week I drove my daughter to her first kindergarten, Molly drove her freshman daughter to college. We called each other describing the corresponding lumps in our throats mourning our mutual losses. Even though my daughter knew I wasn’t missing, I feared she didn’t trust my return. And while Molly knew her daughter wasn’t missing, she was concerned about the house and everything she entailed had been replaced. While our minds may learn as children that objects still exist even though they can’t be perceived, our hearts never seem to learn object permanence, no matter our age.

I spoke with Amy Lewin, a clinical psychologist and professor of family science at the University of Maryland who co-authored a paper reporting on a longitudinal study of parenting styles. She surveyed mothers of 2-year-olds to determine whether certain factors influence parenting practices. Mothers were classified according to the age at which they first became mothers: teen mothers (18 years or younger), emerging adult mothers (19-25), and adult mothers (26 years or older).

When maternal education, poverty status and race were controlled for, the researchers found that some practices appeared to be age-related. For example, adult moms had a more positive opinion of their children than emerging adult moms who had a more positive opinion of teen moms. However, Lewin said factors such as a mother’s history of attachment, mental health and social support have a much greater impact on parenting behaviors than age. “This is aggregated data, so while we can see this pattern at the population level, there is tremendous individual variation,” Lewin said.

Some things are the same regardless of age

Some aspects of motherhood are timeless, regardless of the age we become mothers or the age of the daughters we mother. The means by which we do this may change, but the goal is the same. We want to encourage them to dream. We want to protect them. We want them to feel seen. We want them to learn healthy boundaries. The values ​​my friend and I share far outweigh the age we became mothers.

The technology we will have used with our daughters of the same age will vary but not the goal: Take safety, for example. When Molly’s daughter was 2 years old, she watched her sleep on a baby monitor that sat on her nightstand. I use an app on my iPhone connected to a camera in her room. Now Molly keeps track of her daughter’s whereabouts via an app on her phone. You know how fast you are driving and when you reach your dorm. When my daughter is in college, she knows what kind of technology she will use to monitor her safety.

The era in which we become parents shapes our safety parenting practices. My daughter was born during the COVID pandemic and Molly’s daughter was born right after 9/11.

There are so many important factors that determine one’s parenting style and age is just one of them. Ultimately, each of us carves out our own path as a parent despite how society tries to assign us certain “tracks” based on age.

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