Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood
By Elizabeth Gregory
Basic. 298 pp. $26
More and more American women are having babies later (one in seven babies born in 2005 was to a mother 35 or older), a trend that seems to have spawned its own publishing microburst. The past half-decade has seen books warning women against waiting too long to have children or cautioning them about leaving the workforce to do so, along with endless guidebooks for those who go ahead anyway.
Elizabeth Gregory's Ready seeks to rebut some of the recent, admonitory blockbusters -- among them Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life and Leslie Bennetts's The Feminine Mistake-- by arguing that women coming to motherhood in their late 30s and 40s are thriving. Not only do these "later mothers," to use Gregory's label, report great personal satisfaction and success, but they are also at the forefront of new work and family arrangements that may ultimately benefit all parents -- male or female, young or old. "They're rocking the cradle and the world at once," Gregory writes, and thus another talking head nudges into the crowded Mommy Wars market.
That cheerleading tone can grate, but Gregory, head of women's studies at the University of Houston, has a serious point, and she marshals both anecdotal and statistical evidence to make it. Today's 40-year-old first-time mother not only has plenty of company; she also possesses confidence, professional experience and occupational clout that translate into either leverage on the job market or a happier time out of it, whichever choice that mother makes.
Indeed, choice is at the heart of this trend: It wasn't until birth control became safe, reliable and legal that opportunities began to open up for women in the 1960s and '70s. "Women began choosing to start families later when their options opened up," Gregory writes, "options to do satisfying things that can't be done as well or as easily once children have entered the picture."
One might ask whether a woman with a high school education (or less) has the same opportunity to do satisfying things as the kind of mother Gregory interviewed, and it's a point she doesn't really address. Mommy War manifestos skew toward the privileged, and Ready is no exception -- the 100 or so women Gregory interviewed seem to occupy a narrow range from middle- to upper middle-class -- although she does try to widen her scope by looking at census and other data.
She's on stronger ground when refuting warnings of rampant infertility for those who defer motherhood. These are mostly scare tactics peddled by a fear-mongering media, Gregory says, although she also describes widespread under-reporting of fertility information. The result is mass confusion, in which "people seem to think simultaneously that nobody can get pregnant after 35 and that everybody can." In this arena, too, Gregory opts for the positive spin: Many of today's older mothers can get pregnant without help, but the pressure from those who can't is driving medical research toward new, better reproductive technologies that will, in the end, benefit hopeful parents of all ages.
These and other positive changes in women's and children's lives, Gregory suggests, will continue to "trickle up" as more and more women demand them -- an idea that's surely worth cheering for. *
--Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor raising two children outside Boston.