Basketball star Candace Parker is pregnant at 22, making her one of the young moms driving down the average age of first-time motherhood in America. Why the drop? Sit back and watch the media speculate.
The drop is pretty small — from 25.2 years in 2005 to 25.0 years in 2006. But it's statistically significant, and it's the first drop in forty years. Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal offers several possible explanations. The number of Hispanics in America rose, and they tend to have families earlier. Births to older teens (between 15 and 19) rose 4%. And and the children of baby boomers — a large generation — are entering reproductive age. But the most hotly debated explanation is advanced by Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, who says today's young women may not feel the need to "prove themselves" in their careers before having kids. Mom Sarah Distel concurs: "We weren't fighting for careers like the older generation. It was something we take for granted."
Salon's Lynn Harris calls bullshit on this theory, arguing that the numbers point more to demographic shifts and less to changes in women's attitudes. Feminist Finance points out that the not-pausing-to-prove-yourself hypothesis "ignores that sizable chunk of womandom for whom their job is not a "career" as she seems to be thinking of it—service employees, retail worker, skilled and unskilled laborers of various sorts. Decisions about whether and when to have kids has an economic aspect for anyone, but not every woman does the kind of work where proving yourself on the job over the course of a decade is really a concern." She also says some women may be having babies earlier not because they take their careers for granted, but because early work years or graduate school may actually be a good time for some to take the "resume gap" that having a baby can entail.
We don't buy that the working world has gotten so friendly to moms that women are no longer worried about the consequences of childbirth (it is kind of telling that Distel is a stay-at-home mom). We do, like Feminist Finance, "think it's worth noting that this whole conversation assumes women actively choose to time their reproductive lives." Of course, women aren't the only ones involved in the timing. Stephanie Coontz herself reports in yesterday's Times that the vaunted drop in marital happiness after the arrival of a baby doesn't really occur if "couples plan the conception and discuss how they want to conduct their relationship after the baby is born." Harris notes that the Journal's coverage of younger motherhood leaves out "the other people often involved in this calculus: men." As we learned earlier in the week, not every family has one, but if a dude is in the picture, he should be an equal partner in the decision — whether it happens at 25.0, 25.2, or 40.