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Ask several women what they think is the ideal age for pregnancy, and you’ll get wildly different answers. Those who give birth in their early 20s benefit from seemingly boundless energy and über-resilient bodies; the 30-something new mom is grateful to have established herself in her career before taking maternity leave; the woman in her early 40s delivers with a strong sense of self and few qualms about being able to afford diapers.
But for every decade-related advantage, drawbacks exist. While age is a continuum—your eggs don’t instantaneously shrivel the instant you extinguish the candles on your 35th birthday cake, for example—experts have a strong sense of which broad age groups are likely to confront specific physical, emotional, financial and relationship concerns when they become mothers.
Of course, these are generalizations. “Age and maturity do not always rise proportionally, and some women in their early 40s may be healthier than their 20-something counterparts, thanks to excellent lifestyle habits,” says San Francisco-based pregnancy and postpartum psychologist Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D. “Everything depends on the woman’s health, energy, personality and perspective on life.” While you can’t change your age, there are steps you can take to boost your odds of having a happy and healthy experience, no matter how old you are. Here’s what you need to know.
IF YOU’RE 20-25
YOUR BODY: Physically, your body is primed for pregnancy and its demands. Fertility is high (though 7 percent of women do encounter trouble conceiving) and the risk for complications, such as hypertension or gestational diabetes, is low. Researchers know that the younger a woman is when her first baby is born, the lower her lifetime breast cancer risk is, though the exact mechanism is unknown.
While younger skin is generally more resilient than older skin, whether you’ll develop stretch marks is largely determined by genetics. However, according to prenatal and postpartum fitness expert Lindsay Brin, author of How to Exercise While You’re Expecting (Plume), “Younger women have an easier time regaining their prepregnancy body because their fascia—the layer of tissue that covers the muscles and acts as a sheath to keep our waistlines compact—have not been stretched out by previous pregnancies and/or weight gain.”
More immediately, you’ll benefit from boatloads of youthful energy. “Pulling an all-nighter with a barfing baby in my 20s was hard, but it didn’t take quite the toll on me that it does now,” confirms Charlotte Hilton Andersen, 32, who had her first child at 23 and her fifth at 31. Andersen and her husband, who live in Minneapolis, started young because “kids have more energy than a drill sergeant. We wanted to be able to enjoy them.”
THE BABY: “The younger a woman is, the younger her eggs are, which means they are less prone to chromosomal mistakes,” says Richard J. Paulson, M.D., director of the University of Southern California Fertility Program in Los Angeles. As a result, your baby’s risk of any chromosomal abnormality (1 in 500) or of Down syndrome specifically (1 in 1,250) is relatively low. Because your eggs are so “fresh,” the miscarriage rate—12 percent in the first trimester—is the lowest it will be from this point forward (the average for all ages is up to 25 percent).
YOUR MATURITY LEVEL: “Life experience helps us clarify what’s important and what’s not,” Bennett says. “A younger couple may find themselves ill-prepared for the stress of a new baby,” leading to arguments and marital dissatisfaction. On the upside, youth may lend a sense of fearlessness that older women, scarred by friends’ parenting horror stories, might lack.
The loss of spontaneity that comes with motherhood may hit young moms harder than their elder counterparts, who’ve already had a chance to sow their wild oats; after all, breastfeeding and last-minute Vegas getaways don’t exactly mix. “I often hear mothers in their 20s say they feel old prematurely,” Bennett says. “Suddenly, they can’t run out the door whenever they wish.”
YOUR CAREER AND FINANCES: Most young moms haven’t yet had the chance to climb the corporate ladder, so they lack the career stability, nest egg or maternity benefits of women who work for a decade or longer before conceiving. Indeed, Andersen’s family took a huge financial hit. “We definitely feel we’re behind our friends who have fancy houses, nice cars and no kids,” she says. Bennett suggests that a young mom who wants to get a toehold in a career while her kids are still young take online courses or work part time.
YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: Chances are your child will grow up with young grandparents, or even with great-grandparents: free babysitting for you (assuming the folks aren’t off seeing the world) and oodles of opportunities for your child to feel loved.
But with more women waiting to have their first child, you might feel disconnected from your friends, even bitter toward your baby. “As one of the first to get pregnant, I felt like I lost an entire group of friends,” Andersen remembers. “We moved out of the city and they stayed, going clubbing while we hit the children’s museums and were asleep by 9 p.m.”
Don’t let jealousy or resentment mark your new-mom experience. “Make a list of what you think you lost and build more of that into your life,” Bennett suggests. Miss going dancing with the girls on Saturday nights? Ask your partner to stay home; you can repay the favor next week.
You can also view this as an opportunity to grow your stable of friendships. “New friends offer fresh perspectives,” says Diane Ross Glazer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Tarzana, Calif., who had a child in her 20s, 30s and 40s. “Because they are at the same stage in life, their advice and insights can be relevant and helpful.”