Delaying Kids for a Career
Like many women in their 30s and 40s, I grew up with the benefits of women's work from the previous generation. Title IX: check. "We can do it all" spirit: check. Higher education followed by high-powered careers: check, check. But as technology advances hastened, life did as well and before I knew it, I was a statistic, on the far side of the bell curve: mid-30s, no kids, and a desire to have them.
In 2009, the CDC reported that from 1970 to 2006, the average age for first-time mothers increased 3.6 years to 25 years of age. In Japan and Switzerland, first-time moms are 29.2 years old and 29.4 years old, respectively. I say, bring on the sushi and the chocolate. A 2008 survey from the Pew Research Center found that for the first time, more women over 35 (14 percent) had babies than did teenagers (10 percent). For women over 35, this was an increase of 5 percent since 1990.
In my 30s, I was a journalist with erratic hours, exciting travel, and an idealistic sense of responsibility to viewers 24/7. I greatly enjoyed the New York City single life when I was home. I wasn't even ready to be married until age 30, let alone be a mother. But when I was ready, the universe didn't exactly cave to my schedule. Now, eight years later, I'm finally about to give birth for the first time.
I'm not an anomaly.
Bernadette King, a Philadelphia-based corporate professional, waited until she was 40 to think about having children. "[My husband] and I really, genuinely kept believing that we were still 22 years old," she says. "Kept thinking to ourselves, 'why have a kid when we are so young?' Then when our 40th birthdays were approaching, we finally woke up that we really were not 22 years old anymore."
The risks -- statistics
The older the woman, the riskier the childbirth. The state of Pennsylvania requires that women older than 35 get genetic counseling to understand the possible health risks to both the mother and the baby. In 2003, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Medical Genetics mandated that every woman be informed that parents can now be tested for the cystic fibrosis gene.
Other genetic mutations which are tested for include Down syndrome, and inherited conditions such as Tay-Sachs -- but the list is much longer. Giving birth at age 39 versus 29 increases the chance of having a baby with Down syndrome from 1/1100 to 1/140. Hereditary conditions don't increase with age, but are often revealed when genetic blood tests screen for a long list of possibilities.
Yet, the CDC reports that the birth rate in the United States is down for every age group except women over 40. Medical and fertility advances further increase the chances of a healthy baby. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was first successful in 1978. The possibility of achieving a pregnancy with IVF has now increased from zero to one in four-to-six attempts for women younger than 43, when using their own eggs.
The rewards -- in cash
Researchers out of the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of California at Los Angeles found that women who delay having kids until their late 20s were more set financially. They also found that women who delay childbirth make as much as childless women, avoiding the "motherhood penalty." It should be noted that the women studied were born between 1944 and 1954, the last generation.
King, who now has a toddler, says her family's cash flow definitely played a role in deciding when to have children. "[My husband] really wanted to wait for a kid until he felt we were more settled financially, so that delayed us three years," she says, "which didn't really feel like a delay since we kept thinking we were spring chickens."
At any age, the priority is a happy, healthy baby. Actors Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, and Marcia Cross all had first children when they were over 40. Not every woman at any age who wants to give birth gets the chance, so those who can do it successfully often have few regrets. In that case, it doesn't matter what age it finally happens, because of a career or anything else. Ask me in a few weeks, and I'm sure I'll agree.