More Women Are Waiting to Have Kids, But How Long's Too Long?

What you need to know about your options for getting pregant later in life

Journalist Carey Goldberg always intended to have children at some point, but first, she had another longstanding dream to fulfill: reporting from war zones and the former Soviet Union. When she finally decided she was ready to settle down, at 34, she was surprised to discover that becoming a mother would be even tougher than becoming a successful correspondent had been.

Goldberg returned to the United States from Moscow in 1995, after five years working abroad for the Los Angeles Times. But it would be several more years before she actually became a mom.

“That was a big surprise, that even once I was back and living a more normal life, getting married and having children wasn’t something I could make happen,” says Goldberg, now 49, who details her unusual path to late motherhood in the new book Three Wishes. “It was so frustrating and it felt like there was no clear, linear way to make it come about, unlike work where you do your best and learn your skill and you’ll do well. As a single woman in your 30s, it’s not just that men think you’re desperate, but that they have the upper hand.”

Goldberg did eventually find love–she chalks it up to deciding to have a baby on her own in a story that echoes the new Jennifer Lopez movie, The Back-Up Plan, in which the protagonist meets the love of her life as soon as she comes to terms with becoming a single mom. She had a daughter and a son at 41 and 43 respectively, with a man she met soon after buying donor sperm she turned out not to need--sperm she passed along to her two friends and co-authors who also met their future husbands and had babies after inheriting it but before using it.

Goldberg and her friends have a unique story, but they are hardly the only 40-something moms at the playground. Statistics show more women are waiting to have kids, whether by choice or necessity. One in 13 first-time births are now to women 35 and older, versus 1 in 100 in 1970, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). And while the overall number of U.S. births fell by 2 percent between 2007 and 2008, women between 40 and 44 actually had more babies in that period than their age group had in decades: Their birth rate rose by 4 percent–the most since 1967, according to the NCHS.

Women like Goldberg have tended to have children later over the last four decades as more of them have earned college degrees and found career to be an important part of their identities, says Brady Hamilton, Ph.D., an NCHS statistician. In 2006, some 27 percent of women who’d given birth within the last year had a bachelor's degree, compared to 19 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census family demographer Jane Lawler Dye.

“One of the reasons women have children later in life–and that is probably a very, very good thing–is because they have more education,” says Claudia Goldin, Ph.D., a Harvard economist. “They are pursuing careers that require upfront investments and can put off having kids, which they couldn’t in 1965 or 1970 because they didn’t have the technology. So it doesn’t matter that they’re having them later; they’re actually having them.”

Still, even with new technology, it’s not always easy to conceive. While a woman of any age can have trouble getting pregnant, infertility becomes more of a risk the older she gets. About 7.3 million women suffer from infertility, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, or ASRM. The group doesn't break out the data by age, but we know that women not only ovulate less with age, but the quality of their eggs degrades, making getting and staying pregnant more challenging, says James Goldfarb, M.D., president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART).

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