There is no perfect age to have a baby. Here's a look at what you gain (and what you give up) at three different stages of life.
Carol Vaghar had a typical new-mom experience when she gave birth to her first child 15 years ago at age 28. “During my pregnancy, I’d met a crowd of other first-time mothers,” says the Newton, Mass., real-estate agent. “We got together weekly after our children were born. We formed a baby-sitting circle and also got together socially with our husbands.” But when Vaghar’s second child arrived 10 years later, she no longer felt so at home in the world of new mothers. “At 38, most of the other women I met were a lot younger,” she says. “I remember going to a new-moms’ group and feeling very old. It was isolating being at home with a new baby at that age.” At the same time, Vaghar believes she was a wiser, more tolerant and more relaxed parent at 38 than she was at 28. In fact, there is no one best age for motherhood. A young woman may have lots of physical energy but lack financial resources. Older mothers are worldlier, but their pregnancies can be riskier. Whether you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s, pregnancy, delivery and motherhood will have age-related pluses and minuses. Here’s a look at some key lifestyle changes as well as important facts about your and your baby’s health.
Maturity In your 20s} Are you ready to give up your freedom? “Some people need to sow their wild oats, to go to Europe, to stay out late dancing—and that’s not terribly compatible with morning sickness and fatigue,” says Ann Douglas, a mother of four and author of several books on parenting, including The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (Hungry Minds, 2002). In your 30s} “You may decide that this cocooning thing is not such a bad idea after all, and it might be nice to sit on the couch with a baby,” Douglas says. In your 40s} You’re older and wiser and know what’s important. “Your own life has been set in motion already, so the likelihood of resenting a child is considerably less,” says Lois Nachamie, director of two parenting programs in New York and author of So Glad We Waited!: A Hand-Holding Guide for Over-35 Parents (Three Rivers Press, 2000). On the other hand, older parents are more aware of the dangers of the world. “The 20-year-olds seem less fearful,” says Adrienne B. Lieberman, a former Lamaze educator and author of Nine Months and a Day (Harvard Common Press, 2000). “They don’t have as many friends who’ve had babies and told them scary stories.”
Career In your 20s} You’re just starting out, and if you’re hoping to climb the corporate ladder, this may not be the best time to take a leave of absence. Still, you may decide to try for children first and focus on building your career when they’re older. “My so-called master plan was to have my kids first and my career second,” Douglas says. “It was nice in my early 20s to just enjoy having the kids and not feel like I was going to lose out on some promotion.”
In your 30s} Your career is probably established, and that may mean you can take some time off and pick up where you left off when you return. For some women, though, being established means you can’t—or don’t want to—step away for very long. “I remember checking voice mail when I was in labor,” Vaghar says. In your 40s} You’re secure in your career, so steering your energy toward motherhood may be a welcome change. You might even want to quit your job or launch that business you’ve always dreamed of. But pulling back on work may threaten long-sought seniority or pension benefits, and if you decide to quit your job, finding a comparable one in a few years may not be easy.
Money In your 20s} Salaries at this age tend to be low, and you may be paying off student loans and saving for a house. Taking time off from work may be tough on your budget. “But where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Douglas says. “You become a master at shopping garage sales and thrift stores.” In your 30s} You’ve increased your income, paid off some debt, maybe bought a house. Adding a baby to the mix will be expensive, but you’ll probably be able to manage it, and a leave of absence from work won’t break you. In your 40s} Most people are financially secure enough that they can focus on motherhood rather than money. But older parents face a challenge, Nachamie says: “It’s very easy to become overindulgent—you have the money, you have the time, you’re focused on the kid more because you’ve already built your life and you want every moment to feel good.”
Relationships In your 20s} You’ll probably find it easy to make friends with lots of other new mothers, since the average age of new moms in the United States is 24 1/2. Your parents are less likely to be elderly and frail and may help with baby-sitting. Your marriage is fairly young, though, and you and your husband should anticipate that the demands of a baby will take away from time with each other. In your 30s} Your parents may start to have health problems that you’ll have to juggle along with child care. On the flip side, your marriage is probably more ready for a baby, and many of your friends may be starting families, too. In your 40s} You may not have much in common with old friends who had children earlier—and have little in common with younger new moms. “A lot of your friends may be taking their kids to the eighth-grade dance around the time you’re coming home from the hospital with a newborn,” Douglas says. “You may feel a little out of sync.” On the other hand, you’ve probably seen friends negotiate the challenges of motherhood and have learned what works and what doesn’t. And since more women are having children later now (see box at left), you may have more company than you expect.
Energy In your 20s} The vigor of youth will mean less fatigue during pregnancy and an easier time chasing a toddler—provided you take care of yourself. “If you’re an overweight, smoking, cheeseburger-eating 20-year-old, you won’t have a lot of energy to run around after a kid,” Nachamie says. In your 30s} Energy starts to wane a bit, so be sure to treat yourself to naps during your pregnancy and, if possible, stop working a while before your due date, especially if you have a physically demanding job. In your 40s} Fatigue is a routine part of life, both while you’re pregnant and after. What you lack in energy, however, you may make up for in other ways. “In my experience, most older parents are more patient,” Nachamie says. “They also have more perspective—the little stuff doesn’t bother them like it used to.” No matter how old you are, you can boost your chances of having a healthy baby and being a happy, energetic mother. “A lot of [older] women think they have no control over the risk factors [see box at right],” Lieberman says. “But there are many things you can do.” If you eat right, exercise, have good medical care and follow your doctor’s advice on avoiding high-risk situations, your chances soar. Says Lieberman: “A healthy woman of 35 is going to have better odds than an unhealthy woman in her early 20s.”