Older Moms Are an Elite Club

Having kids after 40 can ease some pressures of parenting—but only for women who can afford to wait.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Pregnant moms over 40 are the subject of trend pieces in Vogue and The New York Times. They are Nicole Kidman, Celine Dion, Mira Sorvino, Mariah Carey. They are, in the words of the website Popsugar, “40, Fabulous, and Fertile”—and they seem to be everywhere.

But, for all the glamor, it’s still relatively rare for women to have children in mid-life. According to a report published Friday by the Center for Family and Demographic Research, which is nonpartisan and federally funded, moms over 40 give birth to 3 percent of babies, and just 2 percent of first-borns.* They are predominantly affluent and well-educated; more than half of mothers who gave birth to their first child when they were over 40 have a bachelor’s degree (56 percent), compared to about a third of those who had children earlier (36 percent).

There are a lot of advantages to waiting to have kids. For both affluent and low-income women, it seems to help to circumvent the gender-wage gap. According to one study, women who have their first child when they are older than 35 eventually close the salary divide with men. Having an older mom can also be better for kids, Karen Guzzo, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, told me, as these kids are more likely to be born into stable, long-term relationships to parents who are more financially secure than they were in their 20s and 30s.

“I am so grateful to have been able to do this,” Robin Gorman Newman, a Tony-award nominated producer who adopted her first child at 42, told me. “If I had become a mom at a younger age, I wouldn’t be where I am professionally. The extra time allowed me to give myself permission to pursue my passions.” She says it’s also made her a better mom. “You know yourself better. You know what’s really important, at the end of the day.”

But those advantages come at a high cost. As women get older, pregnancy can acquire a hefty price tag.  Of women who had their first pregnancy after age 40, nearly three-quarters said they had trouble getting pregnant, and almost half said they pursued some kind of treatment to have a baby, according to Karina Shreffler, a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, who analyzed data from the National Survey for Fertility Barriers for me. “There is a huge socio-economic disparity in who is able to afford this,” said Eve Feinberg, an infertility specialist at Northwestern University. Only 15 states require insurance companies to cover in-vitro fertilization. Even with insurance coverage, Feinberg told me, a mother can expect to pay between $15,000 and $25,000 to conceive through IVF. Without coverage, that jumps to $40,000 or more.

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Even without fertility treatments, late pregnancies can be hard to afford. In her late 30s or early 40s, a woman is at a much higher risk for various conditions that can arise during pregnancy—high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and premature delivery, all of which, when detected, can require time-consuming medical interventions, according to Feinberg. Older mothers are also typically encouraged to attend more prenatal medical appointments—difficult when many low-income women live in “maternity-care deserts” that have sprung up in both cities and rural areas—and experience a longer recovery time, post-birth. If a mother doesn’t have steady work, is employed by the hour, or doesn’t have very good benefits, pregnancy and recovery could easily cost her her job.

Affluent, highly-educated women are also more likely to want to wait until they’re older, and more established, before having kids. Working in industries that offer clear, high-powered career trajectories with upward mobility, they tend to be planners, thinking ahead to where they’ll be in 10 or 20 years. “People who are pursuing college are more likely to create this broader life plan: when to time their education, when to form their families, when to go for the promotion,” said Shreffler. “We just don’t see that to that extent with women who don’t have college degrees.” These women are aware that, the longer they work before having kids, the more established they’ll be when they need to take time off—and the more valuable they’ll be to their companies, Guzzo said.

“It is a privilege to be able to wait—to have more economic advantages when you have kids,” Feinberg said. But for the vast majority of mothers, that’s not an option. If only the most affluent mothers are able to reap the rewards that come with older motherhood, Shreffler told me, “that might perpetuate the inequality that we already see in children born to women with and without a college degree:” lifting up the fruits of the fortysomethings, leaving behind the kids of the moms who couldn’t afford to wait.

*This article originally misstated the percentage of babies born to women over 40. We regret the error.