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Motherhood inching later in life

Postponing pregnancy may increase risk, reward

By Lauren Gracco

Mayo Clinic
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
Mary Jane Minkin

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Married with two children, Melissa Devereaux is like many mothers, but a difference that may have set her apart decades ago is now increasingly common. Devereaux, 40, is of "advanced maternal age."

"On your medical chart, they put AMA," she says. "After 35, you get a big stamp on your forehead," she chuckles.

Devereaux had her first child at 36 and her second two years later. While women in their 20s are still the majority of women having children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more and more women are experiencing motherhood later in life.

Between 2002 and 2003, birth rates for women ages 30-34 increased by 4 percent and for women 35-39 increased by 6 percent. For women 40-44, the rate rose 5 percent. In the 22 years from 1981 to 2003, that demographic group's birth rate doubled, the CDC reported.

Experts say there can be some health consequences to waiting, even with the temptation of greater financial stability and flexibility as years go by.

Many women claim the advantages of having children later in life offset any negatives.

Still, while mothers who give birth to children in their 30s and 40s can relate to one another's experiences, their situations remain unique.

More opportunities

Instead of marrying and having children out of high school in their early 20s, an increasing number of women end up postponing motherhood -- sometimes focusing on their career, traveling the world or doing other things that are more difficult when you have children.

When she was single, Devereaux had a steady, full-time career and her own home. She and her husband dated several years before they married when she was 35.

Some women have families first and look for a career later, Devereaux notes. She has had the same ups and downs as many career women and many family women, she says -- just in a different order than others.

"I didn't think it was that unusual," says Devereaux. "I just didn't have children. I sort of front loaded that."

As for having children as an "AMA," Devereaux says she never felt out of place, given that many of her friends had similar experiences.

Devereaux's path might have been big news centuries ago, but not today, according to Mary Ellis Gibson, director of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"The more that women are in the industrialized workforce, as opposed to the agricultural workforce, the more that they work in occupations outside of farming;" says Gibson, noting the trend began in the 19th century. "There's a tendency to have children later."

Gibson echoes the thought that women are putting off motherhood because they are marrying later. More work and education, she says, often delays the entire process of starting a family.

Social pressures

While more women pursue their careers now than decades ago, it doesn't diminish the continuing pressure to hurry up and get hitched in hopes of starting a family.

Christine Dugan felt that pressure. The self-described late bloomer is now the director of media relations for Dickenson College, having previously worked for Hershey Foods and Boeing.

She was comfortable as a single, working, woman, but she says that didn't stop the constant inquiries.

"I would run into people I knew all over the country and even the world. And the first question: 'I can't believe you're not married.'"

Dugan always thought she'd marry and have children of her own. Even after she married her husband and became a stepmother to his son Brennan, whom she loves as her own, that pressure remained.

start quoteSomebody said ... you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once.end quote
-- Melissa Devereaux

"There [were] still people in my family that insisted that I'd have children of my own, even though I kept saying I'm 40, that's not the plan at this point, having [Brennan] is sufficient," she says.

This 'time clock is real'

Aside from peer and family pressure, comes the underlying nudge from doctors who, like most women, know that fertility declines and health risks increase with age.

"The problem is we always thought we could do it all: We could become president of Chase Manhattan bank and then have our five children," says Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. "It doesn't work that way ... because, unfortunately, this time clock is real."

Dr. Minkin notes that as women age, their health risks increase whether they're pregnant or not. For women in their late 30s, their eggs are harder to fertilize.

Besides her medical expertise, she speaks from personal experience. A mother of two, she admits she had trouble conceiving her second child at 37 years old, and used an infertility drug to aid the process.

The American Fertility Association says the chances of having a baby decrease 3 percent to 5 percent each year after a woman reaches 30, and at a faster rate after age 40.

The age factor presents other risks as well, for prospective mothers as well as their would-be babies.

"After a certain age, there is an increase in congenital abnormalities ... Down syndrome, all kinds of things," says Dr. Emil Karlovsky, an infertility specialist who has been practicing since 1952. "Also, there's an increase [of] incidents of miscarriages in the older group."

'I'm a very happy older mom'

While it might be less risky for a woman to have children in her 20s, there are plenty of successes for older mothers.

Valeria Simms was a mother of young children in her early 20s and, is again today, as a 40-something woman. The Lithonia, Georgia, resident has two grown children, ages 22 and 20, from a previous marriage. She decided to have more children with her second husband when she was in her late 30s.

Simms says things have been easier the second time around.

"I'm a lot more settled. I have a lot more patience now," she says. "When I was in my 20s with my first two, my tolerance was not there at all, [nor was] my understanding of how children need certain things or don't understand things. Like now, I play with my children more. So I'm a really happy older mom."

As to the chronological question of career before kids, Simms says striking a balance is key.

"If you really want your career, then go for that, finish it," she said. "And once you start slowing down, take time to have children because that is a career, that is a full-time job. To me, it's been easier, as I've gotten older, [to] balance the two."

Devereaux did just that. She says she feels fortunate to have had a career in her 20s but children today, with a part-time job with a local non-profit that allows her family flexibility.

"Somebody said ... you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once," she says, "and I really think that's right."

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