Kelly White never planned to wait to have a child until she was 37. It just happened that way.
When she was in her 20s, White, now a 38-year-old attorney and artist with a 5-month-old son, said she was busy working to establish her career and build a relationship that didn’t include kids.
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It was only in the past few years that she married her husband, Marc Cousineau, 49, and felt “ready” to have a child.
“It just seemed like this was the first time that it was a good time to do it,” she said.
White’s delayed entry into parenthood is part of a growing trend. Births among mothers 35 and older have climbed nationwide in recent decades, particularly among those with at least a college education.
San Francisco offers an extreme example of the trend, with a higher percentage of older mothers than both the state and the nation — and those numbers are growing rapidly. The number of mothers ages 36 and up giving birth each year has increased 75 percent over the past 15 years in The City, even as total births increased only 3.2 percent, according to state data.
California, meanwhile, saw a 25 percent increase in births to older mothers during that period, while total births actually declined 6.2 percent.
Growth in the number of older women giving birth appears to be linked to trends toward later marriages, since most children are still born within marriage. Increased education among women also tends to delay childbirth, said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center. San Francisco’s numbers would make sense for a city with a highly educated population, Livingston said.
“Women with advanced degrees are the one group where childlessness is going down,” Livingston said. “There was a time when a highly educated woman was less likely to be married, but now it’s kind of that have-it-all thing happening.”
Even in the recent recession, when birth rates among other age groups have declined, women in their 40s have continued to give birth in increasing numbers — possibly because waiting until the economy improves is no longer an option, Livingston said.
Ellen Spertus, a 43-year-old associate professor at Mills College and research scientist at Google, said she didn’t finish graduate school and get married until she was 30, and she and her husband waited until she obtained tenure before trying to have a baby. Her daughter is 19 months old.
Spertus said one major advantage of waiting to have a child is that she is well established in her career and can afford to “plateau” for a few years while her daughter is young.
“I’ve proven myself,” she said. “It’s not my intention to coast, but motherhood is very stressful for people who are trying to establish themselves professionally.”
Along with career success comes increased financial stability. And Spertus noted that increased maturity can make for a more relaxed and patient approach to parenting.
Waiting does have its downside. Women past 35 are more likely to have trouble getting pregnant, and those who become pregnant are more likely to experience complications. Premature births, low birth weights and genetic conditions including Down syndrome are also more common in the children of older mothers, said Dr. Jeannette Lager, an obstetrician and assistant professor at UC San Francisco.
However, Lager said that while the list of potential problems is daunting, the older mothers she sees tend to be healthy and usually have healthy pregnancies.
“They tend to be better educated, have more financial stability and maturity, and they know how to access resources very well,” Lager said. “All of those things really make a big difference.”
Another downside? Grandparents may be too old to enjoy their grandchildren, and parents who have children later may require care while their children are still relatively young. It’s a reality of which many older parents are keenly aware.
“My son knows that we’re older,” said Tom Kirvin, a 62-year-old attorney with an 8-year-old son. “He started asking questions about that when he was quite young, and you just have to be very frank. People don’t live forever, but we’re here now and we should enjoy every day.”
And while it might seem like older parents would have less energy for their children, some say the experience of parenthood has given them renewed energy.
“Everyone tells me I’ve looked younger and happier since getting pregnant and becoming a mother,” Spertus said.
If mothers are getting older, it might seem reasonable to think that fathers must be getting older, too, since women tend to partner with older men.
But you would have a hard time proving it.
While mothers have been studied exhaustively for years, few public agencies have collected long-term data on fathers. The main data available come from birth certificates, which often have incomplete or missing information on fathers.
“It’s really hard to find data on fathers,” said Gretchen Livingston, a Pew Research Center senior researcher who has written extensively about the demographics of mothers. “It’s just a hard topic, because people don’t ask dads, and some dads are not around.”
Anecdotally, however, older fathers in San Francisco say they have plenty of peers.
“Maybe it’s that San Francisco is more skewed toward parents who are above their 30s, but I’ve never felt like I was the old guy in the room,” said Marc Cousineau, a 49-year-old software engineer with a 5-month-old son.
Men have always been able to postpone parenthood to later in life than women. And while pregnancy and childbirth have greater risks for older women and their offspring, research has found few issues linked to advanced paternal age, said Dr. Jeanette Lager, assistant professor at UC San Francisco.
“As a guy, you just don’t think the clock is ticking,” Cousineau said. “But if you’re with a woman in her 30s, you have that conversation.”
Like the women having children in their late 30s and 40s, men who become fathers later in life are more likely to have spent years focused on their careers before settling down. Tom Kirvin, a 62-year-old attorney with an 8-year-old son, said he would not have been a good father in his 20s when he was working to establish himself.
“I had absolutely no time,” he said. “At 55, when Tommy came along, I was ready, and it turned out to be the best experience of my life, but I’m really glad I didn’t do it earlier because of the commitment that it takes. I’m glad it happened when it did.”
— Sara Gaiser