Letter: We Need to Support Working Families

A reader weighs in on why some women delay starting a family.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Older Moms Are an Elite Club

In May, Caroline Kitchener explored the advantages and disadvantages for mothers who wait until midlife to have kids.

Your recent article seeks to warn women off planning for kids at 40+, emphasizing the cost and unreliability of fertility treatments. Characterizing moms at 40+ as “elite” (because they tend to be in stable relationships, college educated, professionally established, more affluent, and better prepared to parent), the article doesn’t note that, for many, these effects are the result of delay, not just an effect of preexistent privilege. It concludes by worrying that inequality will increase if later kids are too much better off!

Tick-tock stories blaming women who delay kids have proliferated for years, without effect. Those who “can’t afford to wait” are straw women, since folks (male and female) from many income levels are delaying kids, because they anticipate benefits. Teen births have fallen 55% since the recession started in 2007, and the U.S. birth rate hit a new low in 2017, with birthrates down in all age groups except 40+.

People delay in large part because the U.S. doesn’t support working families (no paid family leave, no affordable good childcare, no pay equity, no school/work synchrony). Delay allows would-be parents to provide those things themselves.  Some will deal with infertility, successfully or not, depending on their funding and their luck. That’s a risk many feel pushed to take, even if all things being equal they might have wanted to start sooner.

While employers and the nation depend on families to produce skilled workers and solid citizens, we expect parents to raise them well unaided. Improved birth control allows women to invest in educations and build solid salaries before starting families. Delay, a class and gender elevator, also moves more women into policy-making roles, where they can shape national decisions and begin to build the family-friendly infrastructure that will serve all families and lessen the pressure to delay.

Currently the only discourse on national policy that could raise the birth rate concerns denying choice. While defunding Planned Parenthood might increase births, it wouldn’t increase the number of happy families, nor provide the skilled workers employers need—in the short term (when parents have to leave school to support kids they didn’t choose) or the long term (impoverished kids too will be shortchanged on education).

The real issues: Why is the U.S. offering no support for the working families the nation depends on, and what are we going to do about it?

Elizabeth Gregory
Author, Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Late Motherhood
Director, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies
Professor of English, University of Houston

Houston, Tex.

Caroline Kitchener replies:

I’m glad you wrote—you clearly have a lot of expertise on the subject. First thing’s first: I did not intend to “warn women off” planning for kids over 40. This is certainly not, as you say, a “tick-tock” article. (As a woman in her late twenties, with absolutely no intention of having kids anytime soon, I do my best to avoid those!) In the piece, I highlight the many advantages to having kids later in life—having more resources, more time, and a better sense of who you are. I quote a woman who is incredibly grateful to have had that experience—who says she is living her dream, precisely because of her choice to have her first child at 42. My point is just that, sadly, those advantages remain inaccessible to most women.