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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," Pearson wrote. "A recent study showed that a staggering 70 percent of women over the age of 55 are opposed to and uncomfortable with women having babies in their 40s." While the panel consisted of three women and one man, she says the last word was given to the male, a member of British Parliament who had his proverbial knickers in a twist about fertility rates. "[He said] that while some women can have babies later in life, most can't," recounted Pearson in the article. "And that you better get on with it then, hadn't you? On that depressing note, we closed the show."
It's true that in the United States, as well as in the U.K., more and more women are delaying having babies. According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, birthrates for women in their 40s are at their highest since 1967. With larger numbers of women holding down demanding jobs and with the availability of improved fertility treatments, the increase isn't surprising. In the 1960s, women who were giving birth in their 40s were on a third or fourth child; now it's often their first. But why should having a baby later in life be considered "selfish" at all?
Today's older mothers are often called selfish presumably because women over 35 have a greater risk of delivering a baby with birth defects, including Down syndrome. However, many health issues, including cancer, mental illness, and autism, are associated with older fathers. Dads of a certain age, though, are considered generous, because they "give" their wives (who are often younger) children. And the same argument holds for critics who weep for children whose older mothers will die earlier, though that hand-wringing does not seem to apply to every paunchy Hollywood actor or grizzled rock star with wrinkles, gray hair, and a litter of toddlers. Another reason why 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, with the caption "I wish I'd had my babies younger."
Sure, it would be nice if we could plan out perfect lives ahead of time, 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 full-time 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 answer was, "I have no idea." Despite the fact that I'm a full-time 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, and I'm out-ranked and out-earned by many of my colleagues who are a decade younger than me.
Another way women muddle through (forget "balance" — seesaw 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, each year a woman delays childbearing results in an increase of career earnings by 10 percent. But even the term "delaying childbearing" presumes a grand plan: What if you don't fall in love until you're 35 or older, or life hijacks you in another 100 unexpected ways?
What I should have said to my stepdaughter was that the answer may lie in some conversation she needs to have with her future partner. It's mothers 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.
— Sarah B. Weir