When I was in middle school, I knew what I wanted. I was going to be married at 22 years old and have three daughters (based on the Tanner family from “Full House”). I was going to space them out two years between each girl- the oldest would be Chloe, the middle would be Tessa, and the youngest would be Monica. They were going to be super close-knit with each other, me, and their hypothetical father. Since I was adopted and have known so from an early age, the idea of adoption has always been in my head. However, as a pre-teen, I wanted biological children because I figured if I did not have any biological parents, I could have biological children instead. 

Now I am almost 22 years old and definitely very far from marriage. I am not even sure if I want two children, one child, or maybe just a handful of pets. Additionally, I have abandoned all my hypothetical children’s names from 2010 and replaced them with completely different names. 22 year old me is not as put-together as pre-teen me would have hoped. Although I have come a long way in the past decade, I am somehow less sure of my future plans than when I was younger. I envy my young self sometimes for speaking and thinking with so much conviction, but I am also happy to be where I am because everything is more real. I would have never anticipated studying law when I was in middle school. I would have never thought I would have the family or friends I have. When people and situations change, plans change, and that is completely normal. 

We pick families our whole lives. Some people have the family they were born into. Some people have families that chose them either through adoption, foster care, marriage, etc. Some people have friends who act as their family. Families are made in every way imaginable, and humans continue to make real connections throughout their lives. In this article, I will focus more on the timelines and logistics of different means of having children. However, it is important to note one does not need a spouse or children to have a family. (Disclaimer: I do not have children, I am writing solely based on observations of those around me and accounts from friends. I would definitely recommend talking about family planning with family, friends, medical professionals, and any other trusted people.) 

So, How Long Do I Have to Pick a Family? 

I would say the answer to this question, as in most things in life, is “it depends.” It depends on what form of family you would like in the future. With biological children and adoption, there is a pretty concise timeline to consider. However, our families are constantly growing. Most of us have friends who have become family members over time. Those relationships arise during all parts of life. 

On the other hand, sometimes our families choose us. Some people fall into parental roles without ever seeking them out, and they end up being great parents even though they did not plan on having children. Humans are generally resilient, and we can adapt to most situations, which is always important to remember. 

Considering Biological Children

With having biological children, the timeline is fairly set. There is still a lot of leniency for the most part. Still, unfortunately, for women, there comes a time when biologically having children is pretty much impossible. According to the Guinness World Records, the oldest recorded woman to conceive naturally (without in-vitro fertilization) was 59 years old when she gave birth to her son in 1997. However, most medical professionals deem pregnancies of women over 35 years of age as “high risk,” meaning they are more likely to face complications arising from the pregnancy. The fact of the matter is that for women, we all have biological clocks which dictate the period in which we can naturally conceive and birth children with minimal complications. 

I know plenty of women who have had children in their late 30s and early 40s with very little trouble. However, I also know women in their 20s and 30s who have trouble conceiving or carrying their pregnancies to term. While there is a general timeline, it comes down to each woman’s individual body. 

According to Healthline, the ideal age for a woman to get pregnant is in her late 20s or early 30s. When deciding whether to have biological children, one thing to consider is how many biological children you would like. For instance, if A and B both want to have all their children before they are 35, but A wants two kids, and B wants four kids, B will have to start earlier than A or space her kids out in shorter time intervals than A. 

Another thing to remember with biological children is although planning how many children you want and when you want them is fun, there are times when families may pick you rather than the other way around. I have many friends who have “unplanned” siblings- kids whose parents were not necessarily planning to have them but now cannot imagine their lives without them. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 45% of pregnancies are unplanned. Although we get to choose our paths, sometimes things do not go according to plan. Being able to live openly with some goals yet having nothing carved into stone is probably for the best. 

Considering Adoptive Children

I have a few friends in their early 20s who would love to adopt. For me, adopting has always been on the horizon because I was adopted. I would love to start a family in the same way that my family was formed. One of my friends went on a mission trip to India and spent time in some orphanages there, prompting her desire to adopt. Another friend has had female reproductive health issues all her life and does not want to have a high-risk pregnancy. These reasons are equally legitimate, and it is uplifting to see so many of my friends want to adopt. 

Unlike biological children, adopting children has more external factors to consider (as opposed to biological factors). All countries (including the United States) impose restrictions on potential adoptive parents, such as age limits, income thresholds, marriage requirements, and health requirements. Because of this, like with biological children, age does matter. Most international countries require adoptive parents to be between the ages of 25 to 30 on the low end and 50 on the upper end. However, with all the paperwork, background checks, and health exams, adopting children arguably requires more planning than having biological children. The age and income restrictions come with the benefit that parents have to wait a little longer and are more likely to be financially prepared. 

Like having biological children, however, adopting children generally requires some level of planning. Of course, adoption does not require a potential parent to have considered adoption since they were teenagers. Some people decide to adopt after discovering they cannot get pregnant and are generally successful in doing so. Either way, there are options, and prospective adoptive parents have a pretty large window of time to consider adoption and actually adopt. 

Considering Foster Children

Fostering children is another popular path to parenthood. Although foster parenting requires classes and paperwork, the timeline for fostering children is much more lenient than having biological children or adopting children. Most states have a minimum age limit of 21; however, some states allow independent, financially stable 18-year-olds to foster. Additionally, there is no maximum age limit for foster parents; as long as they can adequately care for themselves and their children, they can foster under the state. So, in terms of “picking” when to parent, fostering has a fairly lenient time frame.

Even though the time frame is less strict, foster care has the least consistent overall timeline. Many children in foster care are essentially waiting to reunite with their biological parents, which can take weeks, months, years, just never happen at all. Because of that, foster parents could have a child for varying amounts of time, as long as they keep their foster license up to date. While every foster parent can accept or deny a placement, the whole process is moderately inconsistent and full of surprises. Rather than raising the same child for eighteen or more years, foster parents often raise multiple children for different lengths of time. 

Other Forms of Parenting

There are other common means of parenting that are worth noting. Despite the bad reputation derived from Cinderella, many people around me who have stepparents love them like they do their other parents. Some of my acquaintances were adopted by stepparents after reaching 18 and could make that choice on their own. Step-parenting can really take place at any adult age. Many stepparents have expressed they do not need the official legal title to see their stepchild as their child. Step-parenting is not generally something one plans for, per se. So “picking” to be a stepparent does not typically have the same timeline that other forms of parenting, such as adoption, have. 

Like stepparenthood, guardianship is also a somewhat common form of parenthood. Guardianship is when a court appoints an individual to take care of another individual who cannot care for themselves because of infancy or disability. Often, guardianship involves a child’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, or parents’ friend. Like stepparents, many guardians did not “plan” to raise the child in their care. As mentioned before, there are just some life events that are not foreseeable, and many times, guardianship results from these life events. 

Something I have discovered, too, is that parenting takes on many forms. One of the most influential “grandparent” figures in my life has always been my next-door neighbor. Even though she is not legally in my family, she has been an important person in my life, and I consider her part of my family. She babysat me all the time as a child, and even though she probably never expected to have me in her life, she helped raise me alongside my parents. She has always supported me, advised me, and pushed me to be open-minded and try new things. I genuinely do not think I would be the same person if she were not in my life. 

Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends alike generally all parent children in some way or another. Mentoring a child and sharing some special connection with them is a form of parenting that is often overlooked. Although these relationships are often not given formal recognition, they can mean everything to a child. And, the best feature of this form of parenting is that these relationships can form at any time. 

Overall, “picking” a family is not one isolated decision. Although getting married and having children is what society depicts as having a family, there are many different types of families. Each one is beautiful in its own way. 

So, now, I am 22, and I am unsure where I stand on marriage or children. And, I am learning that is okay because I still have a lot of time to figure it out. Yes, it would be nice to adopt a child, but who knows? Maybe I will have a biological child or become a stepparent. My plans have changed since I was in middle school, but honestly, I would be worried if they did not. I have grown so much and become way more open-minded about my future. 

If you are reading this and you feel that you are at a crossroads, this is a sign that you still have time to pick a family in some way, and your family will be amazing. 

Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Not sure what to do next? First, know that you are not alone. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to speak to one of our Options Counselors to get compassionate, nonjudgmental support. We are here to assist you in any way we can.

Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).