Yesterday, I blogged about how women are less inclined to jump into marriage than in the past. According to economist Nancy Folbre in The New York Times, one reason for this change is that women are making more money and don't need the safety net of marriage to survive.
But I think there's another reason for this trend: Women's biological clocks aren't ticking quite as loudly. More than ever, women have options that will allow them to become parents later in life.
That wasn't always the case. Before medical advances like invitro-fertilization and egg donation, women felt compelled to pop out a baby by their mid-thirties or drop out of the baby game. Women also felt pressured by the media: Remember the baby panic set off by Sylvia Ann Hewlett in 2002, when she wrote that almost half of ambitious career gals over 40 ended up childless? Well, all that seems so yesterday.
From where I sit (yes, I have a bourgeois, New York–centric view of the world), it's commonplace to see women in their late thirties and older experiencing motherhood for the first time. What's more, many of them are doing so as single moms. And, believe it or not, some even got pregnant the old-fashioned way.
In fact, a recent article by psychology professor Jean Twenge in The Atlantic shines new light on the topic of fertility. After years of researching the topic, Twenge finds that women have been oversold on the decline of their fertility. Here are some of her key findings:
- The database about fertility is old—really old. The statistic that "one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying" published in The Human Reproduction journal in 2004 omits one key fact: It was based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830! So, "millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment."
- Recent studies show that women 35 to 39 are (almost) as fertile as bunnies. One study published by Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 finds that "with sex at least twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds." Similiar results in a study released this March in Fertility and Sterility: "78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds." Virtually the same result was found in a study by University of North Carolina School of Medicine, presented in June: "Among 38- and 39-year-olds who had been pregnant before, 80 percent of white women of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months."
- Your fertility does drop by age 40. Fertility rate declines with age, but not drastically until you hit 40.
That last point shouldn't be a shock. But as I said, I know many first-time older moms, including those who are well into their forties. Some became parents through costly in-vitro fertilization or adoption, which, luckily, they could afford. Happily, I can report that these older women, including the single moms, are doing just dandy. So, more power to them.
Twenge reminds us there are pros and cons to having kids early or late in life, though the arguments for postponing kids until you're better established seem pretty compelling:
Having children at a young age slightly lowers the risks of infertility and chromosomal abnormalities, and moderately lowers the risk of miscarriage. But it also carries costs for relationships and careers. Literally: an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings.
Of course, not every woman need wait until she nears her late thirties to have a baby (though having kids by your mid-twenties almost strikes me as a teenage pregnancy). At the same time, I see no need for women to get suckered into the "you-are-doomed-to be-forever-childless" mode if they're not parents at a certain age. As Twenge puts it:
We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb.
So here's the takeaway: Don't rush to the altar with Mr. Wrong, and don't brake prematurely for a baby you're not ready to have.
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