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Should We Put Off Having Babies?

Should We Put Off Having Babies?

In March 2011, 63-year-old  Tineke Geesink gave birth to a daughter, becoming the oldest-ever new mother in the Netherlands. Tineke’s case might be extreme but although it is common knowledge that there are huge risks associated with childbearing over the age of 40, more and more women choose to start their families later in life. Judging from the fields of biology, economics and sociology, should thirty-something women delay having a baby?

BIOLOGY

Women in the western world are putting off having children until their 30s. In the mid- 1980s about eight percent of women who got pregnant were over 40 whereas now that figure has more than doubled to 19 per¬cent. A dangerous development according to leading obstetricians and fertility specialists. The British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says it is increasingly difficult for women to become pregnant after the age of 35. Those who do, face a higher risk of miscarriage. The college specifies the ‘optimum age’ for childbearing between 20 and 35. It is a biological fact- the older you are the harder it is to get pregnant.

Older celebrity mothers could be unduly affecting women’s perception of motherhood in later life

Celebrity Mummies
Being an older mother in Hollywood seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and Salma Hayek are all part of the rapidly increasing 40+ mum club. They are a bad example for women, according to Mandish Dhanjal, a consultant obstetrician who has collected evidence on medical risks for the British Royal College. He notes: “I am worried that older celebrity mothers could be unduly affecting women’s perception of motherhood in later life.”

Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the British Royal College of Midwives also signals the same problem and adds: ‘Pregnancy complications can be more common in older women: They have higher rates of induction of labour and caesarean births, which present greater risks to both mother and baby.’ Recent research also links babies with a low birth weight and even, in those women who go on to have girls, future fertility problems for them as well. Furthermore the increase in older mothers also poses a financial drain on hospitals and health insurance companies because they have to deal with a growing number of women at higher risk of medical complications. Considering this, actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s much discussed decision to hire a surrogate tot do the bearing for her, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

ECONOMICS

As we’ve seen, doctors, midwives and others disapprove of older mothers. They see them as a problem to be solved or a trend to be halted. Maybe physically it is better to have children at a younger age, but new research provides evidence that children born to moth¬ers in their late 30s perform better than those whose mothers were in their teens and 20s.

The study, undertaken by Andrew Leigh and Xiaodong Gong from the Research School of Economics, estimated the relationship between maternal age and child outcomes and used indices aimed at measuring overall outcomes, learning outcomes and social outcomes. In all cases, they found evidence that children of older mothers perform better on all levels.

Older = Wiser
It seems to make sense, older mothers tend to be more educated mothers. Many older parents emphasise that when they were in their 20s, much time was spent being focused on one’s career. As people grow older they are able to invest more time in their children’s development. In January, Elizabeth Gregory, author of “Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood” contributed an Op-Ed article on the subject, in which she cheered for tighter belts, later bumps.

“kids benefit from increased maternal education and clout”

She notes “Women have discovered that holding off on kids provides a shadow benefits system in a nation whose policies aren’t very family friendly. Waiting to have children until we’ve finished our educations and established ourselves at work translates into higher wages in the long-term (one study found a 3% wage boost per year of delay, and others have found even greater returns). Gaining job experience and your employer’s trust pays off in more of the flexibility that helps families thrive.” In addition, according to Gregory, “kids benefit from increased maternal education and clout”.

Susan Heitler, a family and marriage therapist, also sees pluses for couples who wait: “Parents in their 40s are often more focused on their children than younger parents,” she points out. “They’ve had time to travel and to have a broad range of experiences before having children. They have less financial pressure, and more of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude towards hard partying and 60-hour working weeks.”

Leigh, A., & Gong, X. (2010). Does Maternal Age Affect Children’s Test Scores? Australian Economic Review, 43 (1), 12-27 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8462.2009.00573.x

SOCIOLOGY

MTV’s hitshow Teen Mom follows teenage mothers and focuses on themes of changing relationships, specifically, those of the family, friends, couples and school. The show makes it painfully clear that young parents have to go through so many struggles to raise their children. The latest sociology research shows that not only teenagers but young parents in general are often unhappy.

The more children young parents have, the unhappier they are

Mikko Myrskylä and Rachel Margolis, both researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, also agree that we should have babies later. They have published a new study on parenting and happiness in the latest issue of the journal “Population and Development Review.” In their research, based on a survey of over 200,000 women and men in 86 countries conducted from 1981 to 2005, they show that the satisfaction of young parents decreases with their number of children, while older parents are happier than their childless peers are. The more children young parents have, the unhappier they are. From age 40 on, however, it is the other way round. Then, more children generally means more happiness.

Ending the ‘Children-Make-You-Happy’ Myth
What is particularly interesting about Myrskylä and Margolis’ research is that the above is true independent of sex, income, or partnership status. Their study shows a global trend and clarifies for the first time the discrepancy between the widespread belief that children bring happiness and the fact that most research finds either a negative or no significant relationship between parenthood and wellbeing. “Seeing the age trend of happiness independent of sex, income, partnership status and even fertility rates shows that one has to explain it from the perspective of the stage of a parent’s life,” says Myrskylä.

Don’t listen to your biological clock until you reach 35

Another study into young mothers and happiness, published in 2004 and undertaken by Rex E. Culp, Mark I. Appelbaum, Joy D. Osofsky and Janet A. Levy, has a similar outcome. Their research shows that younger mothers are less happy about being pregnant and had less social support. These mothers also reported less support from the father of the child.

All in all it becomes clear that, although doctors specify the ‘optimum age’ for childbearing between 20 and 35, if you want to be a happy parent with intelligent children you shouldn’t listen to your biological clock until you reach 35. A clear message for the 28 year old woman: stop worrying: take that job and enjoy your career.

Margolis, R., & Myrskylä, M. (2011). A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility Population and Development Review, 37 (1), 29-56 DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2011.00389.x

Elke Weesjes
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2 Comments

  • Guy Hagen
    April 4, 2012, 23:21

    Delaying childbirth in populations has been shown in research animals to increase average lifespan, and measurably improve general health and immune activity throughout the lifespan in as little as a few generations. Sorry I don’t have the reference handy.

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    • Anouk Vleugels@Guy Hagen
      April 5, 2012, 10:02

      @ Guy: Interesting topic. We are currently finishing our next month’s magazine, which is all about aging and longevity. I will make sure I’ll look into that. Thanks!

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