For Prospective Moms, Biology and Culture Clash The average age of mothers is steadily rising as more women wait to have children until after attending college and starting a career. But how long is too long to wait?

For Prospective Moms, Biology and Culture Clash

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And don't say we didn't alert you. Mother's Day is this coming Sunday. It was a woman by the name of Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia who petitioned Congress for a day honoring mothers 100 years ago. These days motherhood usually comes later in life than it did then, after education and the start of a career. But health experts say many American women are waiting a little too long to have their children.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: The average age of mothers in the U.S. has been steadily increasing. Right now it is a little over 25. Twenty-five is exactly the age when Emily Scruby met Michael Boggs. She's now Emily Scruby Boggs.

Ms. EMILY SCRUBY BOGGS: When Michael and I met, I had an IUD. I had some medical issues and so I had to get it removed. So I was trying out to figure out what I liked and what I thought would work for me. And I tried the ring for a while and then we were trying to be responsible and use condoms and stuff like that. But I have a baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILSON: When Emily discovered she was pregnant, they had only been living together seven months. When pressed, Michael says his first response was, well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHAEL BOGGS: Sorry. Wow, I mean, kind of disbelief. Like...

Ms. BOGGS: We didn't talk to each for a couple hours.

WILSON: The news changed him.

Mr. BOGGS: Yeah, I'd been floating along in life. Going to work, doing my job, and I was fairly good at it, but I just - I wasn't concentrating so much on moving up. And when I found out, you know, we were pregnant, I went right to my boss, I said, I told him, you know, I'm ready to move up. You know, life is coming. I'm ready to step up to it.

WILSON: There's a best time for having a baby, biologically, and Michael and Emily hit it. But more than a third of first-time moms in the U.S. are more than 30 years old when they have their first child.

Amy Harrison, of Norwell, Massachusetts, says there's a good reason for that. At age 22 she was still a baby. Now at 38 she's ready.

Ms. AMY HARRISON: I have a good job. I have a nice home. You know, I have a man who I'm married to who I think will be a wonderful father. I finally feel like I'm ready to give a child or, you know, children a good home.

WILSON: Instead, she has endured fertility treatments for the last two years.

Ms. HARRISON: When I look around and see these people getting pregnant at the drop of a hat, by accident, it makes me very angry.

WILSON: Amy, like lots of other American women, had only a vague sense of the biological clock as she made her way through her 20s and 30s.

Ms. HARRISON: I had this idea in my mind that, you know, as long as I try to start to get pregnant by the time I'm 38, 39, 40, I'll be fine.

WILSON: Biologically, however...

Dr. MARCEL CEDARS (Reproductive Endocrinology University of California): Fertility appears to peak for women at approximately age 22.

WILSON: Dr. Marcel Cedars, a reproductive specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, says after 22 a slow decline starts, and by 35 pregnancy is much harder to achieve.

Six years ago, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine tried to warn women that they were waiting until too late to have children. But Cedars says women just didn't get it. Today, more of the women seeing fertility treatments who have never had children are older, and like Amy they are having problems.

Dr. CEDARS: Each egg is more likely to be genetically abnormal. And a genetically abnormal egg is less likely to fertilize. It's less likely to develop. It's less likely to implant. If it implants, it's more likely to miscarry.

WILSON: Socially we want one thing. Biologically we are programmed to do what we did when our human ancestors climbed down from the trees millions of years ago.

Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher says they've been able to determine some things from groups of hunter-gatherers who are still around.

Dr. HELEN FISHER (Rutgers University): It's not that a girl didn't reach puberty until around age 16 or 17. They couldn't get pregnant. They were very thin. They got a great deal of exercise. It's thought that we were probably built to have about 10 years of practice at sex and love without the cost and risks of pregnancy. So she really was most likely to have her first child at around age 20.

WILSON: Nowadays, young women are experimenting with sex and love in their 20s, at the risk of losing out on motherhood.

Dr. FISHER: Women are no longer marrying the boy that they met in high school. They're no longer marrying the boy that they went out with in college. They're concerned now about getting a career before they marry. And this takes time.

WILSON: Time on the biological clock that cannot be recaptured. But there is a trend in mothering to stay at home and be a full-time mom. Fifty-nine percent of moms with infants stay at home. That's what Michelle Boggs Simpson, Emily's sister-in-law, is doing. But she timed everything out carefully.

Ms. MICHELLE BOGGS SIMPSON: And I wanted time with my husband and time still, you know, to play and, you know, get certain things out of my system, and so I just wanted to be ready.

WILSON: She got married, then got a degree, worked for 10 years, and stopped using birth control. A month later she was pregnant. She was 32. When the first baby came, she quit work to raise her children.

Ms. SIMPSON: I want to be with my children. It would break my heart to have to put them in daycare. I can't imagine. I'm very attached to my children. I mean, they're rarely with anybody but me. That's just my job. They're my responsibility.

WILSON: So what about income? Is that an issue for you?

Ms. SIMPSON: I never wanted a taste of having the double income. I didn't want to get - because once you have it, I think you're used to it.

WILSON: Michelle's sister-in-law Emily is doing what most mothers do - working. But home is a partnership. Emily and Michael try to share responsibility for everything but cooking, which Emily does while Michael feeds and then washes baby daughter Ayda.

Mr. BOGGS: She's a squirmer. In the morning (unintelligible) change her diaper, she'll lay there. In the evenings she's often impatient.

WILSON: And Emily hasn't given up on plans for a career or travel.

Ms. BOGGS: We could get by on just Michael T's income, but we're much more comfortable with both incomes. I mean, I certainly wouldn't want to work full-time and be away from her all the time. But I do like contributing to our income and I like the intellectual challenge of my job. I might feel differently about that if we weren't in such an ideal childcare situation, because I leave Ayda with either of her grandmothers when I'm at work.

WILSON: And she works at home part of the time, connected by computer to the office.

Helen Fisher of Rutgers says society will eventually catch up to the needs and biological realities of women.

Dr. FISHER: You're talking to an optimist. I mean, we're seeing more and more women working from home with the computer. We're seeing the rise of women in small businesses, where they can control their time. And I think that even the established business community is beginning to really realize that men and women were built to work together, so that women can have their children when they're young and also sustain their career.

WILSON: And that, she says, is how men and women started millions of years ago - sharing the responsibilities for feeding, protecting and caring for the children, ensuring the reproduction of our species.


MONTAGNE: And you can find lots of other stories on Your Health - life after LASIK surgery, recipes for healthy meals - just go to

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.