In my previous post, “Reading Research on the Family,” I indicated that I am a fan of dismantling conventional wisdom held around motherhood and the family. Stephanie Coontz had me drinking that Kool-Aid after I read her books, The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are. So when I stumbled upon an article discussing trends around delaying motherhood that questioned the notion that modern advances like technology and the pill have helped women put off childbirth until later in life, I was hooked.
The article, “Long Before the Pill, American Women Put Off Motherhood Until Their Thirties”, which appeared in Quartz, looks back through history at the changing tides around planned motherhood. The author, Jenna Healey, proposes that cultural/economic factors are often overlooked in favor of biology/technology within childrearing discourse. The media is saturated with headlines about “career women” tricking Mother Nature by using new-fangled procedures to put off having children so as not to jeopardize advancement in their field. It’s no wonder we gravitate towards the belief that women are having children at later ages thanks to technology and the old biological ticker. But in comparing birth statistics, Healey found parallel times in history when women had children later in life: 1920, 1940, and 1980. Each of these time periods was marked by economic downturn. Families waited to have kids for financial reasons: both due to concern around affording them, and because women were expected to work outside the home to support their middle class lifestyles. It was during the post-war baby boom that women began having babies at younger ages. In fact, another so-called threat to the institution of the American family that Healey dismantles is the current teen pregnancy crisis. The birth rate for girls age 15-19 during the baby boom years was 96.3 per every 1000 births; the current statistic is 26.6 per 1000. Sure, the legacy of the new social movements in the 70s and the increasing availability of contraception contributed to the creeping rise in age of first-time mothers. But once again, Healey points to the lagging economy as a contributor to the increase.
Healey concludes her essay with a nod to the technology currently available to would-be mothers looking to delay pregnancy. However, given the less acknowledged economic/cultural factors that have contributed to the rise in age of mothers, Healey concludes her piece with a plea to support working mothers, in the hopes that culture will follow and once again change history.
Written by: Jenny Nigro, M.o.M online intern
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons