The number of women giving birth after age 35 is on the rise in many countries, including Canada. The spotlight has been on young women who delay childbirth to pursue a career, but new research reveals many other reasons for late motherhood.
Rachel Jarvie and colleagues at Plymouth University (Plymouth, Devon, U.K.) interviewed women who gave birth early in their reproductive lives and again after 35 years of age. The researchers’ goal was to find out why women choose to have babies in later life.
The findings appeared online in the Journal of Women & Aging on Jan.12, 2015.
To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Jarvie at Plymouth University.
Ruth Dempsey: Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the women in the study.
Rachel Jarvie: They were in their late 30s or early 40s. These women had one or more children when they were relatively young. There was at least a 10-year gap before they had another child (or children) after the age of 35. Some of the women were married and others were co-habiting. They worked in a range of working and lower-middle-class occupations.
RD: Why did the women to choose to give birth after a gap of 10 years or more?
RJ: One of the most common reasons was that their male partner wanted a child.
Women – who had been married or had lived with a partner for a long period and had older children – talked about how their partners expressed the desire to have another child before it was "too late."
Several women in the study had new partners. Some partners wanted a child because they had no children of their own.
New male partners were sometimes younger and they had come to a time in their life when they were ready to have a family. In some cases, women felt it was important to provide a child for the man’s sake, especially if he was not already a father. Others felt that having a child with their new partner was necessary to "cement" their relationship.
Strikingly, our study indicates men were instrumental in women’s decision to have a child "late" in their reproductive careers. However, men’s role in decision-making with respect to fertility has been understudied.
RD: What were some other reasons?
RJ: Women said having a child deferred the aging process: it kept them young. They talked about having a baby in one’s 40s as a distraction from thinking about menopause or becoming a grandmother.
These issues have been highlighted in the media by older mothers such as 44-year-old Emma Cook, who told The Times newspaper, " At my age looking visibly pregnant is decidedly more youth-enhancing than the alternative: perimenopausal."
Women also talked nostalgically of mothering their older children when they were toddlers and of wanting to have those experiences again.
RD: What about caring for a toddler and teenagers at the same time? Did they find that a challenge?
RJ: Yes, older children often needed support with school work or decisions concerning new programs or future careers. The women found it hard to divide their time equally between children and this sometimes caused friction, especially if older children were unhappy about the new edition to the family.
But others said their children were very supportive and helped with childcare. This was especially helpful if there were no grandparents around to help out.
RD: What were the best bits about being an older mother?
RJ: Women talked about the pleasure they took in mothering a young child again. Many felt they were "better" mothers because they had become more patient. They described playing and singing with children in ways they hadn’t when their older children were young.
Some said that teenage children were horrified that their parents were engaging in sexual activity at their age!
RD: The women had to deal with criticism from friends and even strangers. Why is that?
RJ: Yes, the women were dismayed by questions from strangers and acquaintances in respect to their pregnancy. They were asked why, having moved out of the stage of having very young children, they would want to go back to it. People commented that it would be hard for older children to cope. And some even asked women whether the baby had the same father as the older children.
The issue of "older" motherhood has raged in the British media for several years now. That may be one explanation for people’s interest. In 2005, for example, the BBC news website received hundreds of comments when it posed the question: "Have Your Say: Do Older Mothers ‘Defy Nature’?"
But the criticism is not new. Studies show that women deemed to have "chosen" motherhood at the "wrong" time, whether "late" or "early," are likely to be criticized and have their mothering skills questioned.
RD: So what would you hope people would take away from your study?
RJ: As I mentioned earlier, "older" mothers themselves have been the centre of extensive debate here in the U.K., yet their voices are seldom heard. Women in this study had predominantly positive experiences of older mothering.
Also, media coverage has focused on women who are said to have delayed their first pregnancy to pursue a career. They are stereotyped as high-flyers. However, little attention has been given to the significant numbers of women who already have children and are choosing to have babies later in life. We wanted to draw attention to these women and their experiences.