From Halle to JLo to Julia, the public is going “ga ga” over celebrity offspring. And with the spotlight shining bright on baby bumps galore, it seems that Hollywood starlets are starting families later and later (Jamie Lynn Spears aside). But deciding to become a first time mom after thirty-five or forty isn’t pioneering anymore. It’s the new norm.
The number of women who’ve delayed first-time motherhood until their mid-thirties or beyond has grown tenfold over the past thirty years according to researcher Elizabeth Gregory, associate professor and director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston and the author of the new book titled, Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books 2008).
Gregory, a first-time mother herself at age thirty-nine, spent two and a half years interviewing 113 women who had children in their mid-thirties or older about their choices and the consequences.
“Women are choosing when they want to have children for the first time in history,” she told me in an interview this week. She says their decisions, due in part to birth control, longer life expectancy, and new fertility technologies are spurring societal changes including more participatory dads and more employers accommodating family-friendly schedules.
“Most consistently, I heard (from the women) that waiting offered them the chance to establish themselves, as individuals and in their work, to find the right partners, and to achieve a measure of financial stability. When they did have their kids, they felt ready to focus on their children’s development rather than their own,” Gregory says.
So maybe us Gen-X slackers had it right all along. We’ve been delaying marriage and parenthood to find ourselves and at the same time maturing so we could actually handle the responsibility of raising a child.
Motherhood unfolded so differently for our own moms. When my mom gave birth to me in 1970, the average age of a new mother in the US was twenty-one. And while, my aspirations as a little girl included being a mom someday, it was never in the context of choosing to pursue a profession or not. Thanks to Title IX and the feminist voices who really changed the landscape for me and my contemporaries, I grew up thinking I could be anything I wanted to be and have it all.
But somewhere along the way, I became aware of biological realities. Despite advances in fertility treatments, it’s tough to ignore the ticking clock. Gregory found that her research subjects were keenly aware of the timeline. I was, when I finally hit thirty. But the chance to live the life of a single, working person, to pay my own bills, to bask in my own professional accomplishments, and most importantly, to know I could support myself and live independently were tremendously important lessons for me. And now at age thirty-seven, with two-year-old twins, I think I am a better mother for it.
When I turned twenty-three, a year older than the age my mom had me, motherhood was the last thing on my mind. Fresh from graduate school, I was in hot pursuit of my first TV reporting job and had somehow patched together a bunch of freelance gigs to make my rent. I was living in New York City in a crowded apartment with four, sometimes five female roommates who all had lots of drama in their lives (or so it seemed at the time). I remember sipping wine on Sunday nights while we gabbed for hours about our work, our love lives, politics, not to mention our worried parents, anxious about us single gals living in the big city. It was heaven. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade that self-indulgent time in my life for anything. And I hope my daughter won’t either.
“If you are perfectly set up to have a family at thirty-two, then fine. But if you are not, why add the burden of all this anxiety?” asks Gregory. She hopes her research will empower other women to feel confident in their decisions to choose motherhood when it feels right.