The XX Factor

Women Are Having Kids Later, and That’s Good for Everyone

The CDC has released its latest report on pregnancy rates, demonstrating that despite conservative efforts to discourage contraception use among younger people, the overall trend is toward women delaying pregnancy. Rick Santorum’s outrageous claims during the Republican primary about an epidemic of teen pregnancy aside, it’s well-known that teen pregnancy rates have been declining lately, mostly due to improved contraception use. This report indicates that they’re down 40 percent since 1990, despite a brief upturn that oh-so-coincidentally happened in the heyday of abstinence-only education.

More interestingly, it’s not just teenagers that are putting off pregnancy until later in life. The pregnancy rate for women in their early 20s saw a noticeable decline, while the pregnancy rate for women over the age of 30 ticked up. It’s not an earth-shattering shift, but significant enough to say that the combination of increased contraception use and increased education levels for women is having an impact on their reproductive choices, and more and more are waiting until they’re more mature and stable to have children.

This should be greeted as unadorned good news. Yes, pregnancies in one’s 30s have somewhat higher risks, but those risks are far outweighed by the benefit to both mothers and children if women wait until they’re ready to have their babies. Unfortunately, the amount of personal power and autonomy women retain if they choose to wait until they’re older to have children continues to unnerve our society, as demonstrated by this photo essay Jessica Valenti put together in response to the latest Atlantic coverreiterating the cliche about women not “having it all,” with “all” being the time-worn euphemism for “same opportunities as men.” (These stories inevitably posit that there’s tension between work and being a parent, but in fact it seems there is only tension between work and being a mother.)

Setting aside the irritation felt by upper-middle-class white men at the loss of their fathers’ good fortune to have college-educated wives who give it all up without a fight to stay at home, most women don’t view their decisions to delay childbirth and get an education as a political move. More than anything, these trends reflect women’s responses to their direct economic and social environment. In our stressful economic times, completing your education is simply seen as a necessity for improved economic opportunities. That economic tumult and depressed wages also mean that most women working a job aren’t doing so in spite of a husband who makes enough to support both of them and is eager to try. For most women, that income is critical to running their household, because their husband doesn’t make enough to support the family or they don’t have a husband at all. Having your children earlier in life increases all these pressures, and so it’s no surprise that women are opting to delay motherhood a few years longer.