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Older Moms Buck the Trend of Falling Birthrates

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Kate Tuttle: An expert on having babies later in life gives us the skinny on why so many women are waiting to be mommies.

woman kissing newborn baby

Ever since the CDC report on the nation's birthrates came out last week, I've been wondering about the fact that, while rates fell for nearly all age-groups of women (including teenagers), birthrates among women over 40 rose a robust four percent. Given that the media likes to scare and confuse us about the status of our fertility as we pass through our 30s and into the big 4-0, I wanted to clear my head and get some straight answers. So I spoke with Elizabeth Gregory, professor of women's studies at Houston University and author of "Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood." Gregory, who blogs about her work and also contributes to the Huffington Post and RH Reality Check, answered my questions via e-mail.

The CDC is reporting that in 2008, the birthrates fell in every age group except for mothers over 40. As someone who has written about older motherhood, does this statistic surprise you?

Elizabeth Gregory: It's not surprising -- there's been a steady upward trend in the 35+ age group since the 1970s, whereas the other categories have fluctuated over the years. The birth control pill became widely available in 1960, and people (women and men) immediately started postponing births in order to invest in their educations, in climbing career ladders and in just seeing a little more of the world before settling down.

The upward trend also connects to our extended longevity: As people live longer, we have more of a sense that we can start later and still be around to see our kids grow up. That won't be true for all of us -- nothing is guaranteed, at any age -- but on average, it will be.

What is noteworthy in the 40 to 44 group is the size of the jump in the birthrate -- it's up 4 percent, whereas births overall were down 2 percent. Last year, the birthrate for women over 40 was only up 1 percent. It's still a small number-total compared to younger moms (we're talking about 113,756 babies), but it's a steadily expanding trend.

ml: Why do you think older mothers are the one group that has seen a rise in birthrates? Are older mothers less affected by the economic woes that many blame for falling birthrates among younger women?

First, I want to note that it's not surprising that the overall birthrate went down; what was more surprising was the way it was going up in the past few years. We heard a lot of hoopla last year about how there were more people born in 2007 than ever before in the U.S. -- beating the record set at the height of the baby boom in 1957. Birthrates were up in all categories except the very oldest and the very youngest last year. There was lots of note taken that the teen birthrate went up in '06 and '07, whereas it had been falling in the 14 years prior -- and of course, a decline in the teen birthrate (as there was in 2008) will mean rises in the rates for women in older age groups down the line, since most women do go on to have kids eventually.

So it's not surprising that the overall birthrate is now almost back down to where it was two years ago. Keep in mind that after the arrival of the pill in 1960, the birthrate dropped 44 percent in 15 years (economics were also a factor). Ever since then, it's stayed within the range of 65 to 70 births per 1,000 fertile women. So when we say it's way up, that means it's in the 68 to 69 range instead of the 65 to 67 range, where it's been for the last 10 years. We're not talking really huge changes. So now it's back down to 68.7, whereas it was 69.5 last year -- and indications are that births also fell a good bit in 2009. In recessions, couples remember the birth control.

ml: So why didn't births to women over 40 fall?

One factor would seem to be, as you note, that many of them are more economically well-off than younger moms -- though people in their 40s can also lose jobs in a recession. But more basically, they're less likely to feel that they can postpone and have kids later, given that infertility rates rise fast after 40. And there are a lot of women who've postponed into their early 40s -- and either want to have their first child (or a second or third child) before they can't do it without aid. And if they've passed the age of natural fertility (the 45- to 54-year-old group, plus some in the earlier group), they're open to trying assisted fertility, becoming mothers even into their 50s. Women over 40 have been thinking about it for a while, and they're ready.

ml: The CDC says that the over-40 birthrate has now reached highs not seen since 1967, but we tend to think of older motherhood as a new trend. What's different between the over-40 mothers of 1967 and today?

EG: Women have been having babies in their late 30s and 40s for millennia. What's new about later motherhood is women starting their families later. My maternal grandmother had a baby at 39 -- the same age that I had one, but it was her eighth (and last) child, and my first. My paternal grandma was a surprise sixth child to her parents, born when her mom was 46. Not everybody waits till they're 39 to start, but the average age at first birth is now 25, whereas it was 21 in 1970. If we have a first child later, that means more of us are also having second and third kids later.

The difference between now and 40 years ago is planning, made possible by birth control. Nowadays there are many fewer late "surprise" babies, since so many women now either continue using birth control until they're through with menopause or have hysterectomies or tubal ligations when they decide they've had their full complement of kids. Fifty-three percent of married women over 40 -- and 45 percent of married women over 35 -- are surgically sterile. So most births to later moms these days are planned, whereas in the past they were not so much.

In terms of life history, the difference between later moms today and those in 1967 is that today's later moms of all races tend to have fewer kids, to have been to college and to have spent a substantial amount of time employed. They are much more likely to be working while raising their kids, and the fact that they earn salaries means they have more say in household decision making. Like the 1967 moms -- but unlike moms aged 25 and younger today -- they are likely to be married or partnered for the long-term.

ml: What's your prediction for future birthrates among older moms?

EG: Preliminary indications are that the overall 2009 birthrate continued downward. We'll see next year whether the group of later moms continued their steady rise in 2009.

But whatever the short-term outcome in 2009, it is predictable that the rise in later moms will continue in years to come, because when births -- and especially first births -- to younger moms go down, as they have, it's pretty likely that in coming years, births to older moms will rise -- pent-up demand and all. If they're not having kids now, they'll have them later. It's hard to say how many kids they'll have -- there has been a big increase in the number of one-kid families among women starting in all age categories -- but most are still likely to want at least one.

Apart from that, the trend to later motherhood has been attractive to women in part because it has served them as a shadow-benefits system in a family-unfriendly business world. By delaying kids, they've had time to establish clout at work that allows them a flexibility they wouldn't get if they were starting their families while lower on the career ladder. In addition, it assures that their long-term salaries will be much higher than those of women who start earlier. Personally, they're more likely to have found a partner for the long-term. For all these reasons and more, it's likely that the trend will continue -- at least until enough women have trickled up into policymaking roles in business and government to change the infrastructure, so that women who want to can start their families earlier -- and still have a chance at a strong long-term career (whether or not they step out for a while when their kids are young).

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