Moms celebrating Mother’s Day this year will include a growing cohort: women who at age 40-plus found themselves changing their kids' diapers for the first time.
“I’ve had my social life and I’ve gone to the festivals and I’ve traveled the world,” said Marcy Fein, who gave birth to her first child at 41. "...And now I love learning the songs to 'Thomas the Train' and getting on the floor and being with him because that’s what I’ve always wanted."
Even as the overall birth rate in the United States remains at an all-time low, births among women in their late 30s and 40s are on the rise. The first birth rate among women ages 40 to 44 has increased steadily since the 1980s, more than doubling between 1990 and 2012, according to data analyzed by the National Center for Health Statistics. The rate of first-time motherhood among women 35 to 39 has also grown dramatically.
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Dr. Nancy Gaba, who heads the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said at least half of her patients are having their first child after 35, a greater number than when she started practicing in 1997. In fact, D.C. has the highest birth rate among women 35 to 49 of all U.S. states, according to government data.
While advancements in fertility treatments have enabled more women to conceive and give birth to healthy babies later in life, Gaba believes broader shifts in society are also a major factor in the trend.
“It used to be that women were expected to have their first baby like my mother did, at 21,” said Gaba, who had her own son just before she turned 35. “Often women are delaying childbearing because it is perfectly acceptable for them to pursue other interests first, like their career and their education.”
As a 30-something in the early 2000s, Fein was focused on her teaching job and love of travel. While she always felt she was “born to be a mom,” she hadn’t yet found a partner with whom she wanted to start a family.
“I wanted to find the right guy. I wanted to have kids and all that, but I wasn’t going to do it just because,” she said. “If it wasn't meant to be, that's fine.”
In 2004, that changed. An older couple she had met on a cruise years prior suggested she get together with their son during a trip to Washington, D.C. After several years of friendship and dating long-distance, they tied the knot at age 40.
A fertility specialist she saw at age 38 told her she would likely be unable to conceive, a prognosis Fein said “squashed my dreams.” But soon after their wedding, the couple was elated to learn that they were expecting. At 41, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Riley.
Fein, now pregnant with twins at 43, said having a child later has allowed her to approach parenthood with a sense of calm and purpose. Added life experience, including watching her friends stumble through parenting in earlier years, didn’t hurt.
“You may be tired, but you’re wiser,” she said.
First-time mothers who are older are likely to be more highly educated and better off financially than their younger parenting peers, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The allure of hitting those benchmarks may have driven more women to hold off on starting a family, especially during the recession of the 2000s, experts say.
“People couldn’t afford to have children and they started realizing that the later they waited, the better off their children would be, in terms of their income,” said Elizabeth Gregory, a professor and author of “Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood.”
Those benefits can be offset by other challenges and realities about becoming a first-time parent later in life. Playgroups and child classrooms, a typical source of support for new parents, may feature fewer people of a similar age and the window for having a second or third child is truncated. The needs of aging grandparents — and possibility that the child’s interactions with them will be limited — can create added stress.
“Not only can some grandparents not be helpful, but they themselves need help,” said Jocelyn Jane Cox, whose own mother was ill when she was pregnant with her first son at 39 and died on her son's first birthday.
Cox met her husband at 36 and married him at 37. They decided to try to start a family about a year later.
“I wasn't going to really freak out until it was 40,” said Cox, a figure skating coach and writer who chronicles her motherhood experience on her blog, The Home Tome. “I got in right under the wire in my mind.”
Even after becoming pregnant, the risks and potential complications that come with carrying a child at her age were top of mind. Fertility generally declines sharply after 35, as the potential for miscarriage, chromosomal abnormalities and issues with the mother’s health increase.
“We opted for all the tests and it was a real roller coaster,” Cox said. “I understand why they do it and I think it’s good, but it is very stressful because you’re concerned about what information you’re going to get back.”
Doctors say it’s important that women and their partners understand the realities of childbearing in later years so that they can make informed decisions and, ideally, a fertility plan for the future. Examples of successful later births among friends and in Hollywood, they say, have left some women with a false sense of the ease and feasibility of delaying childbirth.
“All they see is the beautiful Halle Berry with the beautiful baby at the end,” Gaba said, referring to the actress giving birth to a child at 47. “They don’t see all those other things that, just statistically speaking, may have come into play.”
For many, the wait and challenges faced by older mothers and fathers can elevate the parenting experience. Gregory said the mothers she has interviewed for her research approached parenthood with pleasure.
“They were consistent in that this was something they had chosen, something they had worked toward and they were very engaged in and very satisfied,” Gregory, director of the Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston, said. “Basically they were a group of happy people.”
Cox, who plans to spend Mother’s Day buying flowers for the yard of her Nyack, New York, home, echoed that sentiment. She said life experience, confidence and opportunity to raise a child with a cool, supportive and full partner have made her parenting journey all the sweeter.
“It gets to feel like it might not happen or you might have to go to great lengths to make it happen,” she said. “So I think there can be more of a sense of gratitude.”