Guest blogger Tracy McArdle: I was supposed to go to Paris for my 40th birthday. One of my oldest friends, with whom I'd studied at the Sorbonne for a semester abroad, was thrilled to join me. Then "Henry" showed up on a sonogram in October, with a due date seven days after my 40th birthday. He was my second child, and would arrive a mere 16 months after my first had -- when I was still a youthful 39. Needless to say, Paris is still waiting.
More and more women are having children later. According to the National Center for Health Statistics
, in 1985 there were 214,336 births to women between the ages of 35 and 39; by 2007, that number had more than doubled to 499,916. And they got older, too: In 1985, 28,334 babies were born to mothers aged 40 to 45; by 2007, that number had climbed to 105,071. My town, a suburb of Boston
, supports this trend; the median age of our kindergarten mothers in 2009-2010 was 43.2, up from 40 in 2003-2004 (it was 41 in the years from 2001-2003).
Why are moms getting older? I talked with several moms in my area to find out if there was one reason ... or many. What I discovered probably won't come as a surprise to anyone. What you might not expect, though, is how consistent most older moms feel about having kids "later." Though they often talk wistfully about how their own moms were attending their high school graduations at their age (while they're busy changing diapers and choosing preschools), they wouldn't have done it any other way.
One of the most obvious reasons for the difference is simply economics. Alyson, 40, a mother of three, says, "I think my area skews higher than other towns because younger families can't afford to live here. If I were a decade younger with three kids, I would not be able to live in this suburb." For most people who want to start a family
on the younger side (say, in their 20s), it may simply not be affordable. I know I couldn't have imagined being ready to be a parent any earlier in my life. When I was in my 20s, I was living with two other girls in Brooklyn, riding the subway and bringing peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. And as far as having kids then ...?
"There is no way I would have been a good mother during my 20s," says Alyson. "I was enjoying an urban lifestyle, saving approximately zero dollars, traveling and going out every night. I wouldn't change that at all; I got to see the world, be truly selfish but also self-sufficient for an entire decade. I also got to try a couple of careers, go to graduate school and figure things out."
Abby, 36, mother of a 2-year-old, agrees. "I had a great time in my 20s working, going out with friends, seeing live music, traveling, etc. I knew that once I had a child, my life would change in a major way and that my priorities would change."
That being said, I can attest that when you're 40 and caring for a newborn, there are two words for how you feel a lot of the time: 1) tired and 2) old. Many first-time moms in their late thirties don't think of themselves as "old" at all. And they're not -- until you compare their ages with first-time moms 30 years ago. Following a career path early on wasn't really a conscious choice for many of us. We were raised with the expectation that we would attend college, get a job and build a career. There was never any question for me about working; it was simply a decision about what field I would spend years climbing (or clawing) my way up in. I couldn't have imagined raising a family
at the same time.
Many women want to get to a place where both partners are comfortable enough in their careers so that taking time off to care for children would be less punishing financially. "One pro of waiting is that I can choose to be home with my daughter because we're both older and have the means to do so," says Abby.
Another mom, Bethany
, 41, the mother of a 2- and 3-year-old, said her decision to wait to have children was not necessarily a conscious one, but probably did have to do with her career. "I was on Wall Street
in investment banking after graduating from college," she says. "Being an investment banker makes dating very challenging; I worked close to 80 hours a week on an average week while a young associate. Also, not a lot of young men are interested in dating a woman whose schedule is more demanding than theirs. I didn't start meeting confident guys comfortable with dating that kind of woman until I was in my 30s. To be fair, I was also so focused on my career I would often put work ahead of personal needs. Even after I got married, I wanted to have a couple of years alone with my husband before having kids."
For others, marriage happened later than they expected. And some have second marriages: Jill had her first baby at 35, but then had another child with her second husband six years later at 41. "I had been married for eight years previously, divorced when my first child was 2, and was a single mom with a 4-year-old when I met my second husband," she says. "When we met, he was single and had never had kids. Even though he was thrust into the difficult and selfless role of stepdad, after less than a year of dating, we decided we wanted a child together." Jill is now 43, and her youngest is 2. Jill says life is wonderful ... but a challenge. "I am FAR more tired than I was as a first-time mom at 35 -- and I thought that was old at the time!" she says.
But she adds that most of her closest friends have young children. "We all went to school, traveled the world, lived in California
, went to grad school and only then started considering kids," she says. "At the time, Madonna was having kids at 42 and telling women everywhere it was possible -- and supposedly easy -- to be fabulous and wait until then. My friends and I were lucky and very fertile. Many women I know, however, have suffered the painful/relationship-challenging process of IVF -- something I never thought I could do."
In fact, for many who wait, fertility is an issue; what they thought would take a couple of years actually took several. As Carrie, one 41-year-old mom of a 2- and a 4-year-old responded, "Older bride? Check. Career came first? Check. Infertility? Check. Old mom? Check! Regrets? None."
Some chose to adopt later in life. Amy, a lawyer, and her husband, Dave, are over 50 and have a 2- and a 5-year-old, both adopted from China
. "With my global practice and not meeting Mr. Right, family
had not happened for me in my 20s, 30s and then 40s," she says. Then she reconnected with Dave at a reunion. They married at age 46 and decided it's never too late to start a family
. "When we married, we joined our families of eight cats and a Labrador, so I knew we were ready for the challenge of children even as older parents," says Amy.
These moms have thought a lot about the pros and cons of being an older parent, and it seems the pros -- at least for now -- are on their side. I personally feel that 20 more years of life experience sometimes helps in making better parenting
decisions. Sometimes I see the humor in impossible, exasperating situations, and I think if I were 21 I would be crying instead. However, having enjoyed 20 more years of doing what I wanted, when and how I wanted, is of no great use when negotiating with toddlers. In fact, I would say it is a severe handicap.
"We didn't know anything else," both my mother and mother-in-law tell me of chasing three and four children under the age of 5 with no help, no nanny and no official playdates or activities. "When I had your sister," my mother tells me, "your father drove me home from the hospital and left me with her, you and your brother (ages 3 and 4) and went back to work." My mother-in-law laughs, "We were too young to realize how insane it was." (And by the way, they had dinner on the table for their husbands every night at 6. And it wasn't takeout. Egad.)
"The cons are so obvious," says Alyson. "I am going to be older than I would like when my kids leave the nest. I will be older throughout their entire childhood. I wonder if I will have the energy that my mom had throughout the dreaded teen years. As I wake at 4 AM to feed my newborn, sometimes I think about what my mom was doing when she was 40 ... but my mom spent her 20s chasing three kids. She missed a lot of life experience because of that."
Amy says, "Pros -- we have money and patience. Also, since many of our friends' kids are older, we never seem to have to buy clothes or toys. And as older parents, we take our kids everywhere. Our daughter often has attended town finance meetings with David." Cons? "Never enough energy," she says. "Dave and I both work, so by the time we tuck the children in, we are exhausted."
Exhausted? That may be one con that isn't discriminatory!