Worth the wait for motherhood

Older moms say establishing careers, financial stability makes being a parent that much sweeter

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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photoYoshie Sano, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver, watches her 5-year-old son, Reon Sano-Ochiai, draw a tiger at the WSUV Childhood Development Center.

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Vancouver resident Yoshie Sano earned her doctorate and worked two careers before having her only child at age 40, shortly after being hired as an assistant professor at Washington State University Vancouver.

“I didn’t choose to be an older mom; it just turned out to be that way,” said Sano, now 45. Sano married her husband, Naoyuki Ochiai, in 2006 and became pregnant with her son, Reon Sano-Ochiai, in 2007.

Sano is part of a growing contingent of U.S. women who postpone motherhood until well after 30 to pursue higher education, careers and other personal goals. Having children after age 35 does present medical risks for mother and child. Yet researchers say older mothers often can offer more advantages to children than younger mothers, including more focused attention, patience, financial security and flexibility.

photoYoshie Sano, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver, picks up her 5-year-old son, Reon Sano-Ochiai, at the WSUV Childhood Development Center. Sano had Reon, her only child, when she was 40.

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“There are all sorts of benefits to waiting to have children,” said Stephanie Coontz, professor of family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “The only real downside is it may be more difficult to get pregnant.”

Unprecedented growth

The number of older mothers has skyrocketed since the 1970s. About 14.2 percent of births were to women 35 and older in 2009, compared with just 1 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

photoAimee Fujioka, 38, poses for a portrait with her children Kiele Scribner, 2, left, and Kai Scribner, 4, at their Salmon Creek home. Fujioka launched two careers before having children.

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photoSuzanne Rosta, 41, a Vancouver early intervention specialist, had her daughter, Greta, at the age of 38, after encountering fertility problems.

That pushed up the average age when a U.S. woman has her first child from 21.4 in 1970 to 25.2 in 2009. Just since 1990, the birth rate for women 35 to 39 has increased by 47 percent. For women 40 to 44, the birth rate climbed by 80 percent.

Delayed motherhood is primarily the result of women’s increasing numbers in institutions of higher education, where they now make up more than half of enrollment, and in careers, sometimes even second careers.

Other lifestyle changes have contributed to the trend of older moms, too. Mothers today face steep child care costs and may delay parenthood in order to attain more financial security or a more flexible schedule. Plus, advancements in the fertility treatments have given some women a longer time to conceive.

Medical complications

Fertility experts, however, are concerned that medical advancements (and babies born to celebrities well into their 40s) may give some women a false sense of security that they can prolong fertility.

Sano was fortunate that she didn’t need fertility treatments to become pregnant.

That’s often not the case, said Dr. Diana Wu of Oregon Health & Science University’s fertility program.

Women lose about 90 percent of their eggs by age 30 and 97 percent by age 40, and the quality of their eggs deteriorates with time, according to a recent study by St. Andrews and Edinburgh University in Scotland.

By age 39, 33 percent of women will have encountered some kind of infertility problems, Wu said. That goes up to 50 percent by age 40 to 41.

Once pregnant, older women have an increased risk of miscarriage or having a baby with a chromosomal disease, such as Down syndrome.

“When I was in my early 30s, I started thinking when am I going to have a child,” Sano recalled. “People tell you if you’re over 35, your risks for chromosomal disorders and miscarriages increase. I was scared, but you don’t make a decision based on statistics. I wanted to have a child, but I wanted a good stable partner before having children, and before that I wanted an education, so I was a late bloomer.”

Suzanne Rosta, 41, an early intervention specialist at Vancouver’s Innovative Services NW, waited until age 35 to start trying to have a child in order to earn a master’s degree and change careers from a Montessori school teacher to a therapist.

“It was kind of just waking up one day and saying, ‘Whoa, if you’re ever going to be serious about this, now is the time,’ ” Rosta said.

Fertility problems extended the wait for another three years. Rosta spent 26 weeks on bed rest before having her daughter, Greta, now 3, at the age of 38.

“It wasn’t easy,” Rosta said. “When it finally happened, it has been just wonderful. I really appreciate her.”

Benefits

Public perception is that the age of a mother doesn’t make a difference for children, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. But older motherhood offers mostly benefits for mothers and their children, with the exception of medical complications, according to experts in family studies.

“It does seem like a win-win for older mothers who can pull it off,” said Michele Pridmore-Brown, scholar at the Office of History and Science at University of California Berkeley. “These women have realized their careers, so a child is no longer the kind of liability they would be at a younger age. It’s a pure asset.”

Rosta said there were benefits to waiting. She and her husband are more financially secure and have more flexible schedules than in their younger years, she said.

“You have a better sense of what you want in life; you’re less self-absorbed,” Rosta said. “I was kind of ready to give up part of myself.”

Education

Older mothers are more likely to have a higher level of education than younger mothers. That can be boon for a child’s education, said Coontz, the ESC professor and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.

A mother’s educational level and educational aspirations for her children are a better predictor for school success than whether the woman is a single mother or part of a couple, according to research by W. Norton Grubb, education professor at University of California Berkeley.

Mothers with higher education are more likely to encourage and help their children in school and to have the resources to give them a step up, Pridmore-Brown said.

“Because they’re older and having fewer children, they’re putting all their resources into them and want them to do well,” she said.

Sometimes their education also can help guide mothers in parenting.

Sano said her doctorate in human development has given her special insight into her own son’s behaviors and helped her to understand and reflect on his needs.

Despite being more likely to work outside the home than their less-educated peers, mothers with higher education levels generally devote more time to parenting, Coontz said, citing research by Paula England, sociology professor at New York University and research fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. That’s defined by the amount time spent on direct interaction with the child, Coontz said.

That finding seems at odds with the highly scheduled lives of working mothers. Generally, mothers with higher education levels carve out more time for parenting at the expense of other activities, such as sleep, housework and watching television, Coontz explained.

Sano’s job, for instance, doesn’t end with the close of classes. After the workday, she takes a suitcase of papers to grade home with her. But she doesn’t tackle the task until after Reon has gone to bed, so that she can spend quality time with him.

Financial stability

Older mothers tend to have more financial stability than their younger counterparts and increasingly indicate a family’s socioeconomic status, said Pridmore-Brown.

That financial stability reduces stress in family life and provides more flexibility for spending time and attention with children, Coontz said.

Economic security contributes to the health of the spousal relationship, which can be a help when two people are parenting together.

“The stress of the bottom line, economic insecurity tends to cause distraction among parents and lead to conflicts in the parental alliance between mother and father,” Coontz said.

Financial security can also mean flexibility.

Rosta, for instance, was able to take off 18 months after her daughter was born.

Life experience

Vancouver resident Aimee Fujioka, 38, said before having her first child at the age of 34, she was able to travel the world for a year, finish advanced degrees and have two careers, first as a landscape architect and then as a dentist. Having those accomplishments and life experiences made her feel she wasn’t giving anything up in order to be a mother.

“I look back and have no regrets,” Fujioka said.

That’s not surprising to researchers. Research indicates that after the age of 40, parents are happier than nonparents, Pridmore-Brown said.

“Children give them a new lease on life as opposed to taking things away from you,” she said.

“Being a mother is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I enjoy every minute of it,” Fujioka said. “I also appreciate all the experience I had leading up to becoming a mother. That has worked out really perfectly for me.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.