A Census post about the median age of women giving birth rising to 30, by Anne Morse, led to an Associated Press story, quoting Laura Lindberg, Kate Choi, and me; and a TV story from NBClx / New England Cable News correspondent Sue O’Connell, which you can watch here.
Here’s a key figure from Morse’s report, showing the rising median age of mothers at birth from 1990 to 2019:
Here’s a transcript of the interview
Sue O’Connell: This is Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Professor Cohen, the rise in the age of motherhood is driven by college educated and working class women who say they want to invest in their education, their careers so they can be more secure when they have children. What are some of the other factors that are driving this number higher?
Philip N. Cohen: Well, I think those sort of social-economic factors are pretty important. People put a lot of pressure on themselves and on others to do their parenting according to our contemporary standards. The person you interviewed who said she wanted to be able to do her best, and she thought she could do that better in her late twenties or early thirties. That partly has to do with the very high standards that we put on especially motherhood in our culture. But it’s not just deliberately delaying — to advance a career in education and so on. It’s also that we have a high standard for our partnerships, our marriages, and it is taking people longer to find and settle into a relationship that they’re satisfied with.
SO: So I was born in 1961, and I was my mother’s first child, and she was 41 when I was born. And I don’t remember seeing very many other parents of my mother’s age. She often got mistaken for my grandmother. But today that’s not so weird. How has society changed in the way we view the so called older mothers?
PNC: It’s interesting. It wasn’t that uncommon for a 40-year-old woman to have a baby in the 1960s, but it was quite uncommon for it to be her first. It was more likely for it to be her fourth or fifth. One of the things that has changed is our life course has extended as age, as survival has increased. Our grandparents are living longer. If you plan to have a child and have them spend time with grandparents, that window is longer than it used to be, thankfully. But we also have just a different set of expectations about what good parenting is. And it’s less about the assumption that we can and should just sort of automatically do it at a certain age and more about deliberately crafting and choosing and shaping our life course according to a more purposeful model.
SO: Are there any studies that show what the impact of this trend of older parents has on children?
PNC: Well, up until a certain age, it’s basically good in most cases, especially because of the resource issues. For health issues, it’s actually a little bit complicated. All else equal, women would be healthiest to have children in their late teens or early twenties. That’s not necessary. We can have extremely low maternal and infant mortality if we take care of our population with adequate medical care, which we don’t do. But we could.
But when you look at what has happened since the recession in 2008, the decline in birth was pretty dramatic, but it was all among women under age 35. When you’re only planning to have one or two children, you can move when that happens, you can delay it by ten years and still hit your target of one or two children. So the ground has shifted on these decisions. It’s mostly for the better.
SO: I imagine the possible reversal of abortion rights is going to dramatically change this.
PNC: Yes. In the end it may not change birth rate that much. We know that people who need abortions are still mostly going to get abortions. It will just increase their hardship and cost and risk — a lot — and increase the disparities between mothers in different social circumstances. I think the main effect will be to put more people’s health at risk and increase the stress and coercion that can be involved in the decision to have children.
SO: All right, Professor Cohen, I appreciate you joining us. Thanks so much.