A study released by the Centers for Disease Control this week revealed that the average age for first-time moms has reached an all-time high in the United States. It’s a number that has been climbing pretty steadily since the government started tracking it in 1970, with a sharp increase in 1973 resulting from the legalization of abortion. Other measurable factors contributing to an older average maternal age include increased access to birth control and reduction in teen pregnancies, but the study begs some questions about the cultural causations of the trend as well.
The CDC’s study determined the national average age of first-time moms in 2014 to be 26 years, 4 months—which is roughly five years older than it was in 1970. Of note, though, is that the difference between 21 and 26, for many women, is also the difference between earning a college degree or not.
"Women are staying in school longer, they're going into the workforce, they're waiting to get married, and they're waiting to have kids," John Santelli, a Columbia University professor of population and family health told U.S. News & World Report.
This recent data is thought-provoking for me. As more and more women have attended college and sought careers in previously (and in many cases, still) male-dominated fields, it would seem motherhood has become a little harder to fit in than it used to be. As one of the only first-world countries without a national paid maternity leave policy, women who desire to pursue both a career and a family have a lot of challenging factors to consider.
It’s no surprise that the most lucrative and sought-after careers require a college education, which automatically pushes the age for many women up to 22-years-old, and that’s in the increasingly unlikely event that she graduates in just four years. After she has a college degree (and probably a handful of student loans), she may think the time is ripe to climb the corporate ladder. If she does want to have kids, she’d be smart to work her way into a position at a company that offers decent health insurance and a paid maternity leave plan—which can take time.
And then there’s the Marisa Meyer of it all. Meyer made headlines when she announced her first pregnancy the same day that Yahoo announced they’d hired her to be their new president and CEO, stating that she intended to work throughout her (very short) maternity leave. Women everywhere wondered: Is that what it takes to have it all?
The truth that all mothers know is that there’s no such thing as “having it all.” Not all at the same time, at least. Motherhood at it’s core entails sacrifice—of one’s body, one’s time, and in a way, of one’s freedom. Whether you’re 21 or 26 or 36, it will be tricky to fit in. There will be challenges and joys. Hard choices and new ideas. Plans that need changing and identities that need refining.
The good news is that we live in a time and in a country where we have the ability to decide for ourselves. The statistics tell us a story about cultural shifts over time to inform us, but they don’t tell your story. We write those ourselves.
Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography