Becoming a mother used to be seen as a unifying milestone for women in the United States. But a new analysis of four decades of births shows that the age that women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education. The result is that children are born into very different family lives, heading for diverging economic futures.
First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas, the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Texas, it's half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21, according to the analysis, which was of all birth certificates in the United States since 1985 and nearly all for the five years prior. It was conducted for the New York Times by Caitlin Myers, an economist who studies reproductive policy at Middlebury College, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
The difference in when women start families cuts along many of the same lines that divide the country in other ways, and the biggest one is education. Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without — and often use the years in between to finish school and build their careers and incomes.
People with a higher socioeconomic status "just have more potential things they could do instead of being a parent, like going to college or grad school and having a fulfilling career," said Heather Rackin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies fertility. "Lower-socioeconomic-status people might not have as many opportunity costs — and motherhood has these benefits of emotional fulfillment, status in their community and a path to becoming an adult."
There has long been an age gap for first-time mothers, which has narrowed a bit, driven largely by fewer teenage births, Myers said. Yet the gap may be more meaningful today. Researchers say the differences in when women start families are a symptom of the nation's inequality — and mothers' circumstances could have a bigger effect on children's futures.
A college degree is increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage, and older parents have more years to earn money to invest in extracurriculars and college savings — all of which can set children on very different paths. The wage penalty for women who have children is high, so many try to advance in their careers first.
Yet an education and a high-paying career also seem out of reach for many people.
"These education patterns do help drive inequality, because well-educated women are really pulling ahead of the pack by waiting to have kids," said Caroline Hartnett, a sociologist and demographer at the University of South Carolina. "But if going to college and achieving an upper-middle-class lifestyle seems unattainable, then having a family might seem like the most accessible source of meaning to you."
College is a stronger factor than geography or home prices. The average age of first birth among college-educated women doesn't vary much between large, expensive cities and smaller and more affordable ones.
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New parents tend to be older in general. The average age of first-time mothers is 26, up from 21 in 1972, and for fathers it's 31, up from 27. Babies come later in other developed countries, too.
In the U.S., it sharply increased in the 1970s, after abortion was legalized. Now, more people are going to college and marrying later, and there has been a sharp decline in teenage pregnancy and a rise in the use of long-acting birth control like IUDs.
But the experiences of American mothers look very different across the country. People are more likely than before to live in places surrounded by people like them. And local factors all influence their family planning.
Older mothers are more likely than young mothers to be married, and less likely to divorce. Younger parents' pregnancies are more likely to be unintended, and three-quarters of first-time mothers under 25 are unmarried.
Research has shown where children start in life strongly influences where they end up. Providing resources for young mothers and children can help smooth the differences.