Postponing motherhood is reported to have positive effects on the health of mother and child and lead to higher future earnings and higher educational attainment. But what about those women whose health will likely decline with age and can’t count on higher wages or a college degree in the future?
These are the questions posed by behavioral scientist Arline Geronimus in an effort to explain why black women tend to have children younger than white ones. (The most common age range today for black mothers to give birth is 20-24; for white women it is 25-29.) In 1992, Geronimus put out a paper suggesting that because black women’s health tends to decline at an earlier age than white women’s—largely as a byproduct of the stresses of poverty and racial inequality—they do not reap the health benefits from delaying motherhood that white women do. She called this the “weathering hypothesis.” In 2003, Geronimus wrote a follow-up paper on the subject, in which she pointed out that young black women “do not enjoy the same access to advanced education or career security” than other Americans, and therefore can’t anticipate the financial benefits of delaying parenthood, either.
Using data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on all infant deaths in the U.S. in 2013, sociologist Philip N. Cohen recently found that the declining health part of Geronimus’s “weathering hypothesis” holds water. In a new paper, Cohen breaks down infant mortality rates by race and shows that while a white woman’s chance of losing a baby declines with age, before rising again in her late 30s, a black woman’s doesn’t. Infant mortality rates are twice as high among black women than among white women, and are often the result of the mother’s poor health. (And no, black women aren’t genetically predisposed to higher rates of infant mortality.) As Cohen explains on his blog:
Once you control for some basic health, birth, and socioeconomic conditions (plurality, parity, prenatal care, education, health insurance type, and smoking during pregnancy), the risk of infant mortality for Black mothers increases linearly with age: the longer they wait, the greater the risk. For White women the risk follows the familiar (and culturally lionized) U-shape, with the lowest risk in the early 30s.
Prospective parents are often told to wait until they are financially ready before having kids. The importance of being economically stable has made its way into arguments for increased access to contraception as well—help young women postpone parenthood and they’ll have a better shot at succeeding in school and the workforce. But all this presumes that every woman can count on a better, healthier, more financially stable future. Cohen’s findings suggests that, as things stand right now, they can’t.