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What's The Perfect Age To Be A Mother?

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I saw them again in the grocery store checkout line: MTV's Teen Moms. The show's about how tough it is to be a teen mother, but two of them smiled at me from the cover of yet another tabloid. They're bona fide celebrities. Over 4 million people watch the show. Is it possible we're missing the old days when younger couples did the parenting and older couples were grandparents?

Women in developed nations are postponing childbearing longer and longer despite the fact that the childbearing imperative is beginning earlier and earlier. So what's the perfect age for women to have children?

In days of old, women had children in their late teens and twenties.

  • TRUE, younger people possess critical skills for parenting: adaptability, sheer guts and not being tied to a set way of life. You can still remember what it's like to be a kid, and with the rate of change in today's society, parents need real-time knowledge. Like being in the military, being a young parent builds character. And it's kind of cool being in your forties when your kid flies the nest. You've got your life ahead of you and the resources to enjoy it.
  • BUT unless your parents help, money is always an issue because you don't have savings and you don't have job security. There are medical risks for mothers who are too young. Younger people today haven't had much life experience, and that can mean younger parents are improvising more than is advisable. Some moms look back feeling they missed their own childhood.

How about starting a few years later, say late twenties or early thirties?

  • TRUE, a woman can complete college or start a career before she has kids. This helps her new family be more financially secure. Also, according to a 2002 study published in the journal Human Reproduction, fertility declines gradually but not dramatically at this age. According to Baby Center's medical advisory board, you still have a 63-78 percent chance of getting pregnant within a year if you're between the ages of 25 and 34.
  • BUT, moms who also have a career are exhausted from trying to do it all. And women this age who have children instead of a career may look to their kids as a source of that sense of accomplishment their friends get from working outside the home. They may make a career of being a parent with mommy cards, blogs, rigid schedules and readying the "product" (child) for "market" (school).

What if you're thinking of waiting? About twenty percent of babies are now born to women over 35, and that number is rising.

  • TRUE, like a second marriage, late parenthood is an informed choice. And it's wisdom that makes an older mother ride bikes with her son instead of taking him to a gymnastics class, not the economic constraints on a twenty-something couple.
  • BUT ... Wisdom? What does that have to do with anything? It's a great quality for grandma, but moms might prefer a young body that doesn't ache with the rigors of 2 a.m. feedings, two-year-old temper tantrums and buckling kids into car seats until they're 8. Coaching baseball isn't easy in your 50s. Moving your kid into a college dorm in your late 60s isn't a Hallmark moment; it's more like an Advil commercial.

There are serious pros and cons at any age. So what should be the deciding factor?

Readiness? No, that can't be it. Any mother knows there's literally nothing you can do to prepare for the real work of it. You just have to be willing to do it.

Being settled? Preposterous. Kids have a way of taking over. Bringing home a newborn means saying goodbye to a well-organized life.

Happiness? Life isn't about being happy all the time. It's about learning, experiencing, giving and receiving and putting our happiness at stake so we can know its real value. Putting adult happiness first is a dangerous precedent for parenthood.

A stable relationship? We're getting closer to an answer here, but parents know that having children has every potential of removing intimacy from a partner relationship so that parenthood itself becomes a couple's primary sense of purpose. It's always been that way and always will be.

Fertility? With everything else equal, this becomes the real issue. I, like many women, was touched to the core by the infertility crisis of Holly Finn, forty-something author of "The Baby Chase." Still unable to conceive, she gives women aged 26 to 34 the arguably countercultural advice to, "Start having babies."

Here are the facts behind that recommendation: In their early twenties, more than 85 percent of women will conceive within a year of trying, and this falls to 51 percent by age 35. Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), like artificial insemination and IVF, are significantly more effective for younger infertile couples than older ones. The CDC reports that a woman under 35 has at least a 40 percent chance of conceiving with ART and her own eggs. At 40 she has only a 15 percent chance, and that declines to only 1 percent when she's over 44.

Looking at all the pros and cons, it's hard not to agree with Finn -- if you want children, have them when you're younger. You can't postpone fertility, and you can spend a lot of money and emotional reserve playing the odds when you've waited too long.

But in the end, a woman should choose motherhood for the right reasons: the kids themselves. Children (teen moms) shouldn't have children to find a sense of identity, nor should every woman feel her identity ultimately lies in being a mother. If you haven't discovered who you are independent of your significant other or your potential offspring, that's probably important to work out before you have kids. If you want your children to truly know you, you first need to know yourself.

Janice M. Van Dyck is an award-winning author of two novels about mothers and their relationships with their children. The O'Malley Trilogy is about growing up to be like your mom, and Finding Frances is about losing your mother.