What do Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama have in common? They all began their families at relatively advanced ages. Hillary was 32 when she had Chelsea in 1980, Laura was 35 when the twins arrived in 1981, and Michelle was 34 and 37 at the births of her daughters in 1998 and 2001. All three are part of a decades-old worldwide trend among women, who, when offered the chance, often choose to start their families later (sometimes quite a bit later) than their mothers did. The CDC's recent birth data release reveals that births among first-time later moms increased again in 2006 (up 1% over 2005).
Births to older moms have been rising for years (10 times as many first births to women 35-39 in 2006 as in 1975 and 13 times as many births to 40-44 year olds), while the rates for younger moms have generally been descending. This year however the numbers of births to younger moms also rose (up 3% for teens -- the first rise since 1991, and linked to reliance on abstinence-only programs -- and up 4% for women 20-24). The average U.S. woman starts her family at 25.2, up from 21.4 in 1970. College-educated women generally put a hold on kids while they go to school and then establish at work, so their average age at first birth has been over 30 for several years. For many reasons, birth timing shapes a woman's life.
The thirty- and forty-something new moms, like Laura, Hillary and Michelle, are educated women with work histories, whether they're currently in a job or staying home. And that history, it turns out, offers many benefits -- to the individuals, their families and to society.
Most media stories on later motherhood focus on infertility, but my study of New Later Mothers (women who started their families at 35 or over, by birth or adoption), found that many women succeed in having kids later in the usual way (over 600,000 in 2006 - 1 in every 7 babies). Those who don't succeed with their own genetic material often find alternate routes to happy families via egg donation (another 6,000 or so) or adoption.
The women I interviewed were overwhelmingly glad they waited until they personally felt ready for family, because for them waiting brought many advantages. Established in their jobs and secure in their senses of self, they can focus on their kids' development rather than their own. They have fewer money worries and more clout at work (handy for negotiating family-friendly schedules). The self-confidence they've built at work transfers to their mothering. Their marriages feel sound. And, remarkably, they even live longer!
Today's later dads are also a new breed. Though in years past some dads started their families later, those guys tended to have younger wives, whereas in 2007 the older dads tend to be married to peers, which creates a different family dynamic. (Bill was 33, George was 35, and Barack was 36 and 39 when their kids were born.) Home life is more egalitarian, tasks more evenly shared, when women have cultural clout equal to their husbands'.
The new later motherhood involves an enormous cultural shift -- maybe even a form of species evolution. It's made possible by two prior changes: the broad availability of reliable birth control, and the health advances that have greatly extended the life expectancy of middle-class Americans.
These additional years mean that we can sequence our life-stages differently than ever before. For women, that means more opportunities to explore realms of life that they didn't have time for when they had to focus on raising the next generation before hitting the graveyard (at an average 47 in 1900). For men, the expanding workplace family-friendliness that women's trickle up has wrought means the chance to participate in their children's lives and to share the burden of family support. Women's education and work experience mean big additions to our pool of innovation and skill -- in the women themselves and the kids they nurture.
While many people feel ready to start their families in their twenties, readiness at any age involves choice and presumes access to reliable birth control. Beyond that, all families need expanded social support, which can be enacted through business and legislative policy. Real family friendliness builds a strong workforce for tomorrow while allowing the current workforce to focus on their jobs and perform at their best.
We are beginning to recognize the cascading ramifications of the changes the new later motherhood brings. But the diverse accomplishments of Michelle, Laura and Hillary (respectively, hospital administrator, librarian, and politician, and, similarly, wife, mother and envoy) just hint at the kinds of benefits that can flow when all women can decide for themselves when they feel ready to start their families.
Elizabeth Gregory directs the Women's Studies Program at the University of Houston and is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books).