Pregnancy often is planned around certain benchmarks. Establish a career. Find the inner you. Marry Mr. Right. Lose those extra 5 pounds. Floss more. Put ovaries on alert. (Read: Sperm incoming . . . go, girl!)
Of course, the ducks line up at different ages for different women, making the ideal time for motherhood as individual as DNA. Yet mostly, motherhood is motherhood, as any bleary-eyed mom worth her weight in spit-up and dirty diapers will attest. Still, pregnancy in the 20s, 30s and 40s comes with specific advantages and disadvantages.
The 20s: Reproductive Prime
For 26-year-old Sherilyn Walker, pregnancy and motherhood are part of a carefully constructed plan. “Life fell together for me,” says Walker, a pharmacist in Agawam, Mass., who met her future husband, completed a five-year program in pharmacology and passed her state board exam all by the age of 23. “We definitely wanted children before our 30s. Our parents were young when they had children.”
Walker and her husband view their youth as an advantage, allowing for more energy, a more childlike outlook and more years with their offspring. “Other reasons were that risks go up with age, and you never know how long it’s going to take to get pregnant,” she says.
A previous pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage at nine weeks, but at 39 weeks, Walker’s current pregnancy has been problem-free.
Physiologically, the 20s are an ideal time to become pregnant, because miscarriage, infertility and medical risks are at their lowest point. For example, a woman in her 40s is 13 times more likely to have a baby with Down’s syndrome than a woman in her 20s, the National Center for Health Statistics reports. It also is easier for younger women to conceive than older women.
Women in their 20s also may feel more rewarded by motherhood. A study of 294 women found that those in their 20s scored higher on maternal gratification at their baby’s first birthday than did older women. “This may be because women in their 20s didn’t have other roles developed yet. Only a third of them had finished their college degrees,” says the study’s author, Ramona T. Mercer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of maternity nursing at the University of California at San Francisco. Mercer based her book, Becoming a Mother (Springer, 1995), on her findings.
Anemia — an iron deficiency that can be remedied by supplements — is the greatest physical problem for pregnant women in their 20s. According to 1995 figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, 24 of every 1,000 pregnant women ages 20 to 24 have anemia. Speculation about the cause ranges from younger women possibly being less scrupulous about nutrition to the belief that a larger pool of this age group comes from a lower socioeconomic group. Women in their 20s also are the most likely to have unplanned pregnancies, and they are more apt to experience psychological difficulties before and after the baby is born.
In a 1986 study of 45 pregnant women, nine of the 10 women in their 20s had unplanned pregnancies. “They were unhappy that they were becoming mothers when they did not want to, and there was still so much they wanted to achieve,” says the study’s author, Mary M. Gottesman, Ph.D., R.N., professor of pediatric nursing at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Some were still in college, and some weren’t where they wanted to be in their careers.”
Social bias toward young mothers also affects the 20s set. Jennifer, a 24-year-old medical research analyst in Rochester, Minn., who asked that only her first name be used, unexpectedly discovered she was pregnant five years ago.
“Some people weren’t supportive,” she says. “They looked at me like I was crazy to have a child at that age. There was a stigma attached to being pregnant, because I was at a college where that just didn’t happen.”
With support from her husband, family, friends and professors, Jennifer prevailed, taking only a semester off. Now pregnant by choice, she says this pregnancy is wholly different. But comments about her being too young for motherhood persist. “Generations ago, I would have been the norm,” she says. “People don’t give [young mothers] enough credit.”