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Debate: Are children better off with older mothers?

March 31, 2011 |  1:10 pm

Birth Rates A new report released by the National Center for Health Statistics finds that birth rates fell 4% from 2007 to 2009. Our health blog Booster Shots lists some of the most interesting facts including: "Birth rates fell for all women except those 40 and older." Which raises an important question: As society changes, are children better off with older mothers?

In January, Elizabeth Gregory, author of "Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood" contributed an Op-Ed article on the subject, in which she cheered for "tighter belts, later bumps."

Holding off on kids, women have discovered, provides a shadow benefits system in a nation whose policies aren't very family friendly. Waiting to have children until we've finished our educations and established ourselves at work translates into higher wages long-term (one study found a 3% wage boost per year of delay, and others have found even greater returns). Gaining job experience and your employer's trust pays off in more of the flexibility that helps families thrive. In addition, kids benefit from increased maternal education and clout. And, handily, the later your age at first birth, the longer you're likely to live (higher wages buy better healthcare), so chances are good you'll see your kids grow up. [...]

Delaying children has allowed a "trickle up" of women into policy-making roles in business and government. As a result, for the first time in history, women are getting a say in the shaping of the nation's rules and priorities. Women's presence in the business world has led to more family-friendly work options. Once a critical mass of female policymakers who support families is achieved, they should make it easier for all parents, at whatever age they start their families, to combine raising a family with fair wages and a career. The women delaying now could make it less necessary for women to delay in years to come. But we're not there yet.

Monica B. Morris, author of "Last-Chance Children: Growing Up with Older Parents," took another view. In a rebuttal to Gregory's article, she argued:  

Among the perceived disadvantages were that their parents were less energetic than younger parents and less able to be physically active with the children. These parents were likely to be afflicted with age-related problems when their children were not yet middle-aged. Older fathers were especially more likely to die when their offspring were in their teens or even younger.

Late parenting brings a double generation gap. Older parents are farther removed from feeling young and newly aware of one's sexuality. Less important, perhaps, but real to children, is their embarrassment that their parents are often mistaken for their grandparents. Children born to older parents are more likely to be in two-generation families rather than those that have grandparents or great-grandparents. This means that many children will not have grandparents for long, if at all. [...]

My research indicates that the late-born children who felt most happy as children -- who never thought about their parents' ages -- were those whose parents spent a lot of time with them, even if they couldn't roll around on the floor with them. Mothers who have attained "policy-making roles in business and government" will certainly need support, other than financial, to fulfill this precious need.

Now here's another stat to mull over: Fewer families are having more than two children.

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-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

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