When Anne Halsall, 34, brought her first son home from the hospital in 2012, she eagerly followed the best advice about breast-feeding. Her son, however, kept losing weight — first a little, then a lot. “It was a dark time for me,” she said.
After getting conflicting advice from experts, Ms. Halsall, a Chicago native who was living in San Francisco with her fiancée, then did what many frustrated new mothers do these days. She turned to Google.
“That’s when I realized I was a second-class citizen in the eyes of the internet,” she said. “I tried to download an app for breast-feeding, and they were all clearly made by men, and they were all horrible.”
So Ms. Halsall, an engineer, wrote her own, called Baby’s Day. “I was a frustrated mom who built an app for moms,” she said. “You can’t get more millennial than that!”
The much-maligned generation of millennials, those born between roughly 1980 and 2000, has been chided for being selfish, spoiled, uncommunicative, over-communicative and addicted to trophies, hookups and likes.
But while the rest of society has been busy hating on millennials, the older ones have been busy growing up, settling down and having children. More than 16 million millennial women are now mothers, according to Pew, a number that grows by more than a million every year.
Eighty-two percent of children born each year are born to millennial mothers. That’s five out of every six babies. And their parents — let’s call them “parennials” — are challenging all sorts of commonly held beliefs about the American family.
Let’s examine their innovations one at a time.
Parennials spent their formative years steeped in personal technology. As a result they’re “high-information parents,” said Rebecca Parlakian, the program director for Zero to Three, an organization that has been studying new parents since 1977.
“The good news is that parents know more about child development than ever before,” she said. “Google is the new grandparent, the new neighbor, the new nanny.”
The bad news is that parents feel overwhelmed by the volume of information, confused about the “right way” to do things and harshly judged by friends and relatives.
Kate Flynn, 32, lives in Brooklyn with her 11-month-old daughter, Isla, and her college sweetheart, Michael. Like many new parents, she felt unprepared for the responsibility. “We feel like kids who aren’t old enough to have kids,” she said.
“I’ll be on the phone with my mom and say, ‘The app is telling me that she is starting her 9-month sleep progression,’” Ms. Flynn said. “I just found out that Wonder Weeks only goes to when the child is one. I don’t know if that’s liberating or scary.”
Many parennials, accustomed to chronicling every fab appetizer and every failed job interview, give their children YouTube channels from the first sonogram and hashtags when they’re born.
Sara Mauskopf, 32, a onetime employee of Google from Philadelphia who is now a partner with Ms. Halsall in Winnie, a parenting start-up, even named her daughter with her social media profile in mind.
“I knew I wanted to name her Bryn, but when considering middle names, there were a couple of ‘A’ names we were thinking about. We chose Bryn Avery because I could get the Twitter handle @BrynAvery,” Ms. Mauskopf said.
Others, like Kassandra Ortiz, 26, a stay-at-home mother of two in Brooklyn, are warier. After being stalked online by a classmate who posted her photo along with comments about what he wanted to do to her, Ms. Ortiz considers herself “overly protective” of her children.
“I like taking pictures of my kids walking away, so I avoid showing their faces,” Ms. Ortiz said. “I have this fear that if I post a picture on Instagram, then my child will become a meme.”
Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, has found that a third of millennial families follow traditional gender roles and are comfortable with their decision. Another third of them say spouses should share chores equally and feel they achieve this goal, while the final third strive for this equality but the female partner, in reality, does more.
“For 30 years we’ve been asking, ‘Can women have it all?’” Mr. Harrington said. “Now we’re asking if men can have it all.”
Gabe Wells, 33, a loan officer, was born in Iowa and moved to Portland, Ore., with his wife, Caitlin, who was his girlfriend at the time. When she became pregnant, the two went through a “rough patch,” he said, and went into counseling.
“The No. 1 thing I learned is that my language changed,” he said. “I don’t say ‘mother’ and ‘father’ anymore. I say ‘co-parent.’ It sounds odd to people in the Midwest, but it’s more reflective of what we’re trying to do.”
They realize 50-50 is “a pipe dream,” he said. “But If we can trade off going 60-40, that’s great.”
Co-parenting does come with downsides. Ms. Parlakian of Zero to Three said she’s begun to detect a new theme in her annual surveys of parents. She calls it “gate-keeping,” when the less-involved parent tries to step up but the primary parent slaps the partner down, saying “You did it the wrong way” or “Why did you put the baby in that?”
“Given the statement ‘I would like to be more involved with raising my child but my parenting partner interferes with my involvement,’ nearly half the dads agree,” Ms. Parlakian said, “while only 16 percent of moms do.”
From her experience running Winnie, Ms. Halsall has concluded that “millennial dads are different than their elders, in that they see it as a positive masculine trait to be involved with their children,” she said.
“The idea that women are more proactively issuing feedback to their co-parents that are male to me sounds very encouraging. It’s an indication that they see each other as partners.”
New parents of all ages often face money woes, but with parennials these challenges can feel particularly acute because they reached childbearing age during the Great Recession, are saddled with college debt and are perhaps job-hopping or part of the gig economy.
As a result, many parennials rely on their own baby boomer parents for financial support. Ms. Ortiz has started a photography business on the side while her husband, who hopes to get into real estate, drives for Uber. To make ends meet, they get financial help with rent from her mother-in-law.
“Money has always been an issue, but we do our best and hope God will provide,” Ms. Ortiz said. “I don’t know if it’s a millennial thing, but we spend so much money eating out. We’d be better off if we didn’t.”
Jess Laird, 31, grew up in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan with parents who were “broke actors,” she said, so she’s used to money struggles. She was working full-time when she had her first child at 29, but wanted to spend more time with her daughter. Since then, she has worked at a start-up that went out of business and now freelances remotely. She is still paying off her undergraduate loans, and her husband, Morgan, is doing the same with his law school debt.
With so much financial pressure, they rely on her mother for child care.
“Other moms I talk to who are 35 or 40 seem to be more settled financially,” she said. “It feels weird when I say, ‘My mom is taking care of my kid.’ I even use the word ‘mother’ because it sounds more adult.”
Gender roles are not the only thing being challenged by parennials; other social norms are experiencing upheaval as well. Pew has found that almost four in 10 Americans married since 2010 have a spouse who is a different religious group, double the number from 1960. Nine in 10 millennials approve of interracial marriage or cross-cultural marriage.
The disdain of Andrew Moore, 33, and his wife, Rachel, 31, for religion has caused friction with his family, who were missionaries. “My mom just doesn’t talk about it,” said Mr. Moore, a physical scientist who is the father of Harrison, 2. “My father asked me, not long after I told him I was nonreligious, whether I would raise my children Christian. I was, like, ‘No, man, I don’t believe it.’”
The one thing they’re teaching him, he said, is “Some people get value from religion, and he might, too, as long as he realizes that what’s good for him might not be great for another.”
This sense of fluidity, of improvisation, of “making it work” in the words of one couple, or “getting by” in the words of another, appears to be an early, unifying theme of millennial parents. Maybe it’s their uncertain economic status, their sense of experimentation, or simply the times they grew up in, but many parennials seem less rigid than their elders.
“I thought we were supposed to do things a certain way,” said Ms. Flynn of Brooklyn, who had multiple jobs and multiple apartments when she was in her 20s. “Have the career, the house, the green grass, and then the kid. But that didn’t happen. My life has a different plan.
“Having a kid when things are unstable like this,” she said, “feels like a start-up. We kind of know where we are going with this, but we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”