In 2018, headlines announcing Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s pregnancy shocked (and awed!) much the country. A woman having a baby at nearly 50? And she’s in the U.S. Senate, right now? How could she possibly do that?
Let’s ask a better question: How could she not?
Becoming a mother later in life is a trend we’re seeing not just around the country, but around the world, and Duckworth is in good company. Singers Alanis Morisette and Gwen Stefani and actresses Brigette Nielsen, Rachel Weisz, and Laura Linney all waited until their careers were on solid ground before starting a family. They each had one or more “geriatric” pregnancies, the unflattering term doctors use for the pregnancies of women over 35 years of age. And on the adoption front, “Today” show host Hoda Kotb, who is in her mid-50s, recently announced she’s adopted a second child after adopting her first only two years ago.
It turns out, it can be a really good thing for women and their kids. Delayed motherhood is associated with higher levels of education for women, professional-level careers and higher salaries, more equally yoked marriages, and more opportunities for children, opportunities that lead to upward mobility. What’s not to like?
Older Mommies Have Higher Degrees
When it comes to building a life of opportunity and security for yourself and your children, few things are as valuable as your education. It’s no secret that women face a substantial wage penalty as soon as they become mothers. Caring for children often forces women into lower paying jobs, to work fewer hours, or to adjust their schedules to accommodate their kids. Women with higher education degrees and tenured career tracks reap the benefits and security of higher salaries and are better able to cope with the “motherhood penalty.”
In fact, according to a Pew Research Center, women who hold a master’s degree or higher educational certification, on average, delay motherhood until age 30. Women with a high school–level education or less tend to have their children around age 24.
Older Moms Have More Funds
Each year a woman delays motherhood correlates to a 9 percent increase in her earnings. According to NerdWallet, this is equivalent to the average stock market annual return of 10 percent. Over the course of a career, that potential for financial wealth-building is profound. Here again, “college-educated women and those in professional or managerial career paths” benefit much more than women in low-wage, hourly positions, Miller wrote in the Journal of Population Economics.
Since one in four women is raising children on her own, the financial stability that higher salaries can provide is critical.
Older Parents Are Peers
Women who build professional careers tend to marry men who also have professional jobs. Turns out, this is good for their relationship, too, says Elizabeth Gregory, director of the Women and Sexuality Program at the University of Houston. Women who become mothers later in life often create “peer marriages.”
"In peer marriages, partners are more likely to have equal levels of education, earnings or earnings capacity, and have a lot more in common in terms of workforce experience. Instead of stay-at-home wife and working dad with separate lives—you have people with similar experiences," Gregory says. Such relationships tend to also have a more equal split of household chores and child-rearing.
More Options Equal Mobility
Education is the ticket out of poverty. Families with more wealth (not Rockefeller wealth, just middle class and above), and those who value higher education invest more in their children. Things like science camps, books, extracurricular activities, music lessons, travel, and more. This directly translates into more education and upward social mobility. Unfortunately, the cost of college keeps rising. For many young people—particularly in rural areas—higher education remains either out of reach or comes with the burden of extreme student loan debt.
So, Does that Mean You Should Wait to Have Kids?
That’s your choice! Even though research points to the advantages of late motherhood, it remains unclear whether delaying motherhood leads to the benefits of more education and higher paying jobs, or if a woman’s aspirations for these things is what drives delaying motherhood. It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario.
What is clear is that a lot of women are waiting a lot longer to have kids than they used to. Empirical economist Caitlin Meyers at Middlebury analyzed census data and found that later-in-life first pregnancy is more prominent in urban areas and associated more with highly educated women. And even in rural areas, women have begun waiting longer. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that “the proportion of first births to mothers under age 20 dropped 42 percent from 2000 to 2014, or from approximately one in four births to one in seven.”
It’s safe to say we can expect to see a few more Tammy Duckworths in the headlines.