THE BLOG
08/16/2013 09:36 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

Is There a 'Best Time' to Have Kids?

I interviewed Margaret, an English professor at a mid-sized New York university, who told me she was 40 when she had her first child. She said like many of her female colleagues, she'd made a deliberate decision to wait until she'd secured a tenured position before trying to start a family. It took her four years, and many painful fertility treatments, to get pregnant.

At the same time, she told me, she couldn't have imagined enduring the physical aspect of being, or trying to be, pregnant while also maintaining the arduous publishing requirements often heaped onto younger professors striving for tenure track jobs. "I and my female colleagues felt we had two choices: either get pregnant and hope there's a job for you later on or get the job and then get pregnant," she said. "The second option just seemed so much safer to me. The problem is that the job wasn't secure until I was nearly out of my baby-making window."

It seems from my interviews the question of whether there is a "right" time for working women to have children has left some in a bind, especially considering women's most fertile years are often the same ones they spend striving to prove themselves at work or achieve a certain level of professional success. Women I've spoken to cite discrimination at work -- both perceived and real -- as reasons to wait, or to not have children at all, having heard many horror stories from their friends and others. Hillary, a book editor, told me a job offer "evaporated" once her potential employers learned she was pregnant. Nicole, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles who took maternity leave in her mid-30s, returned to work to find that, while she still had a job, all the "good" cases had been given to other colleagues. "Namely," she said, "men or unmarried women."

In their new book, Do Babies Matter: Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower, authors Mary Ann Mason, Nicolas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden look at how marriage and children affect jobs for women in academia, in particular. Their conclusion confirms the fears felt by Margaret. Within academia, the married mothers of young children are 35 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs compared with married fathers of young children. The same women are 33 percent less likely to get jobs compared with unmarried women who aren't the parents of young children. As a result, less than one half of tenured female professors of all disciplines are married with children.

These sorts of disadvantages affect women in other career fields, too, and as one UK study found that one in four working mothers surveyed reported facing discrimination in the workplace. Another interviewee of mine Bryn, a Chief Marketing Officer for a major digital communications firm, waited until she was 36 to have her first child, and then had three in quick succession. "I liked working too much to consider having kids any sooner, since the two seemed mutually exclusive, mostly because all the evidence pointed to that fact," she said. Those who were being promoted at her company were those employees who could work late, travel spontaneously and for a week at a time, and socialize with clients on a regular basis. "I felt I had too many people nipping at my heels to take any time off, or even to have a less flexible schedule than others," Bryn told me. Now, however, with three children under the age of 5 -- and she took no more than a few days' off for each child's birth -- she is, despite the full-time help she employs, "very tired!"

Which may be why a shift seems to be afoot: A new study from the London School of Economics found that an increasing number of younger women are choosing to have children earlier, with the idea that they'll return to, or even start, their careers later on. In a reader poll conducted by the Telegraph, 15 percent of voters said that the best time to have a baby is early on in your career. The argument: It's easier to leave when you've got fewer responsibilities.

Of course, those women may feel they are making certain sacrifices. Spending your early 20s as a mother necessarily can mean missing out on, well, your 20s. There are also other factors at play, including romantic and financial and physical ones. As with career, there's really no one size fits all approach to parenthood. Sometimes a career is in place, but the particular woman just isn't ready. Or vice versa.

And for some, parenthood may be a decision necessarily left up to nature. Anne, a novelist in Brooklyn I met while visiting an adult education class, had planned to wait until she'd published her first novel to have a baby. And then she accidentally got pregnant at 30. "I wasn't at the place I had imagined I'd be by then," she told me. "I worried I'd lose some momentum I'd been building, and felt endlessly guilty for taking time off." But a year after the baby arrived, and she returned to writing full-time, she found that she was as good, and as productive, at her job as she'd ever been. While, sure, others her age had advanced in the time she was away, Anne felt she hadn't necessarily gone backwards. "I had some catching up to do, but it's not like I had nothing to show for it," she said. "I had a daughter."