Let’s be real: no matter how many parenting books you’ve read or how much money you’ve saved up, feeling 100% ready to have a baby is rarely in the cards. Still, it makes sense to get your ducks in a row before bringing a new life into this increasingly chaotic world, especially one where the U.S. has stripped away the constitutional right of access to a safe and legal abortion. Now more than ever, proactive family planning is critical, and it appears that more and more women are putting off having children until they are older and more situated in life.
According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the past three decades have seen a decrease in birthrates for women in their 20s and an increase for women in their late 30s and early 40s. The trend has pushed the median age for giving birth from 27 to 30 — the highest on record.
The data shows fertility rates of women ages 20-24 declined by 43%, while those of women ages 35-39 increased by 67% from 1990-2019. For women between 40 and 44, fertility rates rose 132%.
This makes a lot of sense. More and more women are entering the workforce and building careers. Like their male counterparts, they are striving towards higher positions. Some women want to be in a designated place in their career before starting a family.
“I think women are capable of making those decisions for themselves, when they feel more stable, they feel more ready, mentally and emotionally,” Jilisa Milton, Board President of Yellowhammer Fund, an Alabama-based abortion fund and reproductive justice organization, tells ScaryMommy.
Milton also notes that this shift to an older median age of when to start having children could be indicative of evolving social dynamics. “Even the decision to do things like get married, we’re thinking about how to even exist in relationships differently. And negotiate those relationships better.”
Assisted reproductive technologies (A.R.T.), such as IVF and egg-freezing, have also made it increasingly safer for older women to conceive and carry a child to term. According to the New York Times, more than 55,000 women give birth to a baby conceived through A.R.T. annually.
Still, the trend of women delaying having children isn’t all Girl Power! There are practical, frankly horrifying reasons why many women are choosing to delay or completely forgo having children at all.
We are still very much in the midst of a pandemic, which is considerably more dangerous for pregnant people. These pandemic dangers and health risks have been compounded for people of color. And, with the removal of Roe v. Wade, more and more people in states without medicaid or other forms of accessible health and child care take the lack of social safety nets into consideration when putting off having a child until later.
“How you connect that to decisions?” Milton says of the lack of social safety nets. “When somebody has a baby, how do they feel two months pregnant? How do they feel when they don't have access to like, health care — affordable health care?”
“We just had to fight for a postpartum extension on how long the mother could stay on Medicaid after delivering a baby, because it wasn’t very long,” Milton says of her home state of Alabama. “Now it’s six months, when [before] it was like a couple of months. It was like, “You have, a baby, now you’re off! Your healthcare is gone.”
Milton notes that it is these interconnected policies that play a pivotal role in people’s decisions to postpone having children until later in their lives. The Supreme Court’s official decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, however, could lead to a drop in the median age; unintended pregnancies tend to be highest among teens and women in their early 20s, so statistically, they are more likely to end in abortion. If that option isn’t available, younger people may be forced to carry and deliver a child.
“It's a scary time to walk that back when it was so empowering maybe a few months ago,” Milton says. And, like most policies, the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could disproportionately impact young mothers, especially Black women, women of color, and people living in the U.S. without documentation.
On top of the pandemic comorbidity and the rapid removal of safe and legal access to reproductive services, there’s also medical bias. This has very real consequences, especially for Black women and other women of color. Black women are three times as likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts.
The cost of living also continues to rapidly increase as wages stagnant. Childcare is often a household’s first or second-largest expense, competing with mortgage and rent. “[Lack of childcare] is a huge reason that people decide whether or not to have a baby,” Milton tells ScaryMommy.
There’s a lot to be said about reproductive rights and decisions in the U.S., and sometimes it can feel overwhelming figuring out how to step in to fight for reproductive justice. If you’re looking to help, Milton suggests focusing on childcare policy and safety net service policies.
“I think that if you can, once you can contribute to that work, because we need policy shifts. The Supreme Court is likely not going to see [Roe v. Wade] for a long time again.”
“It's important to engage in those political conversations — and in ways that are fruitful — to show the hypocrisy,” Milton notes of anti-abortionists’ general unwillingness to support social services for the children they are fighting so hard to protect once they’re actually alive in this world.
Ultimately, the jump from the age of 27 to 30 as the median age for giving birth is a sign that people are slowly but surely gaining more autonomy in terms of family planning. With the removal of Roe v. Wade and an onslaught of state trigger laws that outlaw abortion, however, the country might see that age quickly drop. It should go without saying, but anyone with a uterus should be able to safely put off having children if they want to wait — especially in a country that currently severely lacks support for mothers of newborns.