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Motherhood later in life is seen as a huge change

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Friday, September 28, 2018 | 0 comments

Image: Baby, by Saša Marani on FreeImages
Baby, by Saša Marani
To measure how much life has changed, Elizabeth Gregory needed to look no further than her own life and the lives of many women around her.

People don't have to choose one life, she says. In the past, everybody had to have their kids when they were 21, and they had to have them with whoever was there. Now people have more options.

Gregory, director of the women's studies program at the University of Houston, turned a study of those options into a book, Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood. She interviewed more than 100 women who waited until age 35 or later to have their first child. (She also included a few who had their first child at 34.)

Most of Gregory's subjects were affluent, and most were married, although the study also includes single mothers and lesbian couples. Some had children the old-fashioned way, while others relied upon high-tech fertility medicine or adoption.

The book is a positive portrayal of waiting, which Gregory says reflects a historic shift: One of every 12 babies born to first-time mothers in 2006 was born to a woman 35 or older. In 1970, the figure was one in 100.

Gregory, 50, says she didn't intend her book specifically to counteract economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett's controversial 2002 book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, which focused on the decline in women's fertility beginning in their late 20's and caused an uproar with its implication women who wait until they are 35, 40 or older risk ending up without a baby.

But Hewlett's book didn't reflect the experience of Gregory or many women she knew. Gregory gave birth to her oldest daughter, Anna Peters, when she was 39. She and her husband later adopted a second daughter, Sophie.

Gregory talked with the Chronicle's Jeannie Kever about her research and what it all means.

Q: When did this trend of older first-time motherhood start? Tell me a little about what's behind it.

A: There are two basic components. One of those is the birth-control pill, which was introduced in 1960. There had been birth control before, but this was the first widely available, reliable birth control, which meant changes in women's fertility choices almost immediately. In the mid-'70s, you started seeing an upswing in this trend, people starting their families later. It's grown steadily ever since then.

The other thing is people are living longer. You couldn't plan to start your family at 40 if, as in 1900, the average life expectancy was 47.

The world of business hasn't traditionally been family-friendly because it didn't have to be, but (this is changing) as women ... decided they would delay children until they got to a position where they could negotiate more of a family-friendly experience for themselves.

The average age of (a woman's) first birth in 1970 was 21. In 2006, it was 25.2. For college-educated women, it's 30. There's clearly been a decision by many people who, given the option, they want to sequence their lives differently than was possible in the past.

Q: Do you expect the trend to continue with women who are in their 20s or younger now?
A: Now there are increasing numbers of women in positions to make policy, we will see whether they make changes or influence those around them to change the discussion of how we look at family-friendly (workplace) policies ... to a bigger vision which says we see family-building as a contribution to the commonwealth and we want to make it possible to do both.

Now younger people say, We don't want to live the lives our parents had, where they were working all the time.

Q: How are 40-something first-time moms different from younger first-time moms?
A: People told me being ready (to have a child) was vital. Other people may feel ready earlier.

They had certain benefits: They were more financially stable. They had the self-confidence which comes with having accomplished things in the world. There was a higher frequency of marriage (for women who waited to have children), and this has an effect ... if there's someone there to share the work. There's a much higher frequency of peer marriage, a higher level of women married to people with similar education and wages and a sense they were both sharing the family tasks.

A lot of the women said they had seen their mothers stuck in marriages they couldn't leave because they didn't have the earning capacity to raise their kids if they left, and it was important to (the women she interviewed) to be in a position where they could leave if they wanted to.

They felt more ready to focus on family. ...

Q: What are some of the ramifications of older motherhood?
A: One is women are getting to contribute in ways they never have before. They are getting to develop their skills and passions outside the field of motherhood in real ways for the first time.

Maybe we'll find ways to allow women to contribute without delaying (motherhood), but I think there's a huge positive in the personal development of the women, but also the nation benefits in having this huge infusion into the talent pool.

Q: You acknowledge fertility does decline for older women. Are there other drawbacks to waiting?
A: There's the lack of grandparent access. The older you are when you have your kids, the older your parents are when they become grandparents. ... They may be in need of care. The parents may be more involved in caring for the grandparents at the same time they're caring for kids.

In terms of their own planning, the (later) parents didn't want their children to have to be caring for them when the children were in their 20's. They were trying to be very alert about staying healthy and also putting away money for long-term care.

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Source: Big benefits seen in motherhood later in life

Image: Ready: Why Women Are Embracing The New Later Motherhood, by Elizabeth Gregory. Publisher: Basic Books (December 25, 2007)Ready: Why Women Are Embracing The New Later Motherhood
by Elizabeth Gregory

-- Over the past three decades, skyrocketing numbers of women have chosen to start their families in their late thirties and early forties.

In 2005, ten times as many women had their first child between the ages of 35 and 39 as in 1975, and thirteen times as many had their first between 40 and 44.

Women now have the option to define for themselves when they're ready for a family, rather than sticking to a schedule set by social convention.

As a society, however, we have yet to come to terms with the phenomenon of later motherhood, and women who decide it makes sense for them to delay pregnancy often find themselves confronted with alarmist warnings about the dangers of waiting too long.

In Ready, Elizabeth Gregory tracks the burgeoning trend of new later motherhood and demonstrates for many women today, waiting for family works best.

She provides compelling evidence of the benefits of having children later -- by birth or by adoption.

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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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