41 and Pregnant: So What?

On Friday, British columnist Ashley Pearson, who had her first child at 41, described her discomfort about being part of a recent BBC radio program debating whether older mothers are selfish. "Despite my near-visceral reaction that the question is just plain silly, apparently many people still think so. A recent study showed that a staggering 70% of women over the age of 55 are opposed to and uncomfortable with women having babies in their 40s," she wrote. While the panel consisted of three women and one man, she says the last word was given to the male MP who had his proverbial knickers in a twist about fertility rates; "[he said] and that while some women can have babies later in life, most can't. And that you better get on with it then, hadn't you? On that depressing note, we closed the show."

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It's true that in United States, as well as the UK, more and more women are delaying having babies. According to statistics released by the CDC, birthrates for women in the 40s are at their highest point since 1967. With larger numbers of women holding down demanding jobs and improved fertility treatment, that isn't surprising. In the 1960s, women in their 40s were on a third or fourth child, now its often the first. But why should having a baby later be considered "selfish" at all?

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Presumably, today's older mothers are called selfish because women over 35 have a higher risk of some birth defects including Down Syndrome. However, many issues including cancer, mental illness, and autism are associated with older fathers. If anything, dads of a certain age are considered generous, because they "give" their wives, often younger, children. And the same argument applies to critics who weep for children whose older mothers will die earlier-that hand wringing does not seem to apply to every paunchy Hollywood actor or grizzled rock star with their wrinkles, grey hair, and litter of toddlers. Another reason older mothers might be considered selfish is that they are providing their country with fewer babies. This is certainly the case in Britain where the government has launched a full-throttle fertility campaign including scary posters of a 40-something pregnant woman made up to look ancient and the caption "I wish I'd had my babies younger."

Wouldn't it be nice if we could plan our perfect lives, but the reality is, many women don't have a lot of choices. During a family dinner on Sunday, my stepdaughter, who is 23 and recently became a member of the fulltime labor force, quizzed me on how women are supposed to manage having both children and a career. She's suddenly seeing firsthand that the modern working world allows scant time for taking care of one's self, let alone a pack of kids. My spontaneous response was, "I have no idea." Despite the fact I'm a fulltime working mother, I didn't have any insightful tips. I sacrificed a number of years of my career in order to care for my youngest daughter who is now 15. While I'm grateful for that time, it was one of intense anxiety over our family budget, and now, those years gone forever, I'm out ranked and out-earned by many of my colleagues who are a decade younger then me.

Another way women muddle through (forget "balance," see-saw is more like it) is to delay childbearing until their late 30s or early 40s when their seniority is more entrenched. And it pays off: according to University of Virginia economist Amalia Miller, for each year of delayed childbearing result in an increase of career earnings by 10%. But even the term "delaying childbearing" presumes agency: what if you don't fall in love until you're 35 or beyond, or life hijacks you in another 100 unexpected ways?

What I should have said to my stepdaughter, is that she the answer may lie in some conversation she needs to have with her future partner. It's mother and fathers shouldering the responsibility for kids as a team and working out solutions together who might determine innovative ways to achieve that magical balance that has eluded women thus far.

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