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Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

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What the Reports Don't Say About Post-35 Motherhood

Posted: 07/15/10 09:00 AM ET

Last month, The Pew Research Center published a report of new census and government health statistics that revealed that today more children are born to women over 35 than to teenagers. The report said that between 1990 and 2008, the number of births to mothers older than 35 grew from 368,000 to 603,000. In 2008, one in seven babies were born to older mothers, and almost one in four of those women were having their first baby. The majority -- 71 percent -- had some college education. This is good news, since these women generally have more financial security and stronger marriages.

We must remember, however, that older motherhood is also a double-edged sword that women should approach with caution and deep consideration. In my book, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love Commitment and Motherhood, I explain the changes in society that have caused this trend, and also shed light on both the good side and the bad side of older motherhood in order to give women as much honest information as possible as they plan their future families.

The trend is not only a result of economics and education, but also technology and changing social norms. It's also because people are living much longer-nearly twice as long. The various stages of our lives -- childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond -- are all extending, and sometimes shifting the sequence as well. Technology and feminism have made it possible for women to make choices that couldn't have made even a generation ago. Many women are intentionally getting pregnant before they get engaged or walk down the aisle. Some women are having children as "single mothers by choice" before finding husbands, or freezing their eggs to donate to themselves further down the road.

Even though the times have changed, and women over the age of 35 have more financial power, we still must remember that our reproductive power (and egg quality) also begins to decline at that age, which can make pregnancy both riskier and harder to achieve. Older eggs have a higher chance of contributing to genetic abnormalities and early miscarriage. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that while a 30-year-old old woman has a one in 385 chance of having a baby with a chromosomal disorder abnormality, that chance rises to 1 in 192 by the time she is 35. By the time she is 40, she has a 1 in 66 chance. Medically speaking, however, the dangers of having a child after age thirty-five have also become significantly reduced by developments such as non-invasive genetic screening and diagnostic pregnancy tests.

Even though advanced reproductive technology gives us new freedom, we must carefully consider how much we should depend on this technology just because we have it. How much risk can we take and how much emotional and physical stress should our bodies go through in order to get pregnant older? How old is too old?

In my book, I talked to women from Des Moine, Iowa to India to South Africa about changing norms for motherhood. This broad perspective allowed me to see myriad values women bring to bear as they confront the same challenge: planning their families when their fertility is in decline. I discovered that today women think about family in fundamentally different ways. Some see it through the lens of biology and genetics, and other see through the lens of socially constructed patterns and taboos.

The one thing that I can say that I learned definitely is that women who want children -- or are even on the fence about it -- should take the time to think about these issues early on even it doesn't mean getting pregnant early on.

Women have unprecedented control over their lives today, professionally and financially, but we must remember that we do not have control over the duration of our fertility. No matter how scary some of the realities of fertility are, its ultimately more liberating to understand your own body's reproductive possibilities -- as well as its impossibilities. We have more options than ever; understanding them can empower us, and perhaps most importantly, turn fertility panic into peace.