Tina Vlachos is 34 weeks along and says her pregnancy has been easy, almost too easy. At 37 years old, the first-time mother is technically considered “high risk.”
She’s among a growing cohort of women in Clark County and across the country choosing to have children later in life or forgo motherhood altogether. The average age of women who gave birth last year in Clark County was 29.1, according to data from Clark County Public Health and the state Department of Health. More women age 30 to 34 gave birth than women age 20 to 24.
Vlachos’ path diverges from the path taken by her own mother, who emigrated from Greece when she was 18 and gave birth to Vlachos’ older brother.
After high school, Vlachos went to Washington State University in Pullman and earned a double degree in psychology and business administration. She then entered the competitive insurance industry. Having children just wasn’t on her radar.
“Career came first, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to balance both,” said Vlachos, who owns an American Family Insurance agency in the Sunnyside-Walnut Grove area.
Average age of Clark County mothers:1998 — 27.2 2017 — 29.1
Number of births in Clark County in 2017:5,514
Did you know?The percent of births to married women has dipped slightly. It was 75 percent in 1998 and was 71 percent last year.
As the boss, Vlachos has the flexibility to work from home if needed, another benefit of being established in her career before bearing children. Besides increases in women’s education and labor market participation, studies have cited value changes, gender equity, partnership changes, housing conditions, economic uncertainty and the absence of supportive family policies as reasons people postpone parenthood. Medical advances in fertility treatments and family-planning services have been a boon.
At 37, Vlachos said she knew she needed to have children now or not at all. Fertility decreases gradually beginning around age 32 and more rapidly after age 37, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. What she lacks in energy as an older mom, Vlachos said, she makes up for in wisdom.
Elizabeth Soliday, a professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver, said baby booms often parallel economic booms, but that’s not happening. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, last year’s general fertility rate was 60.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, a record low for the U.S.
There are shifting attitudes about childbearing, Soliday said.
“In the U.S., there’s not a lot of incentive to have children,” she said, pointing out that there is no national parental leave policy. Most families rely on dual incomes, and mothers are more likely to see a drop in income after returning to the workforce or be passed over for promotions, Soliday said.
“I have to wonder what that says about the way that we value families,” she said.
These subtle and not-so-subtle cues make women consider the unspoken costs of giving birth.
Laurie Drapela, a professor of criminal justice at WSUV, said the tenure clock crossed paths with her biological clock.
“That tenure clock is a very present force in your life,” she said, talking about the probationary period before professors can file for tenure. “For many of us, this is hitting us at the peak time to have children.”
She earned her doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 and opted to have children at the end of her tenure track when she was 38. Another option was to add a year to her tenure clock, but she worried about the challenge of publishing enough research while balancing being a new mom.
Drapela, now 51, said she’s often the oldest woman at birthday parties, school meetings and play dates. Her daughter is turning 13 soon.
Another challenge among college-educated women is leaving college with debt.
That was the case for Becky Alley, who is 31 years old and 34 weeks pregnant with a baby girl.
Soliday, who’s also a part-time psychologist, sees women who’ve experienced some sort of trauma through the birthing process; whether it was an unexpected medical issue or they felt they were treated poorly through childbearing or child rearing. That can factor into their decision to have more children.
“If today’s moms are limiting the number of children they have out of careful consideration for family size they believe they can love and manage, then the answer is to support them in those decisions,” Soliday said in an email. “If today’s moms are limiting family size because they believe their jobs will somehow be at risk or they don’t want to repeat a negative childbirth experience, then the culture bears some responsibility in correcting its views and treatment of childbearing families.”
Programs like the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Infant at Work program are rare. The state agency allows some employees who work in an office-type setting to bring their babies to work when they’re 6 weeks old until the infant turns 6 months. Employees can return to work sooner and continue bonding with their child.
Since launching a one-year pilot in March 2017, the program has been used by eight employees in Clark County, where the agency bases its Southwest regional headquarters. Roughly three-quarters of regional employees are eligible to participate.
Fewer teen moms
It’s not just that women are having kids later, it’s that teen births have decreased dramatically. Last year, births among teens represented 3 percent of all births compared to more than 10 percent in 1998.
Clark County Public Health epidemiologist Kathleen Lovgren said sex education and easier access to contraceptives have decreased teen births, which helps drive up the average age of mothers. She said long-acting and effective forms of birth control such as intrauterine devices, or IUDs, have decreased the chance of unwanted pregnancies. Most adolescent pregnancies are unplanned.
“Today’s teenagers are having less sex than teenagers 10, 20 years ago,” Lovgren said. “That’s probably also a big contributor.”
Programs such as Nurse-Family Partnership, which has served Clark and Cowlitz counties since 2007, help low-income first-time mothers. Pat Shaw, program manager, said the median age of clients has gone up to 19 and is trending toward 20.
While teen births are at their lowest recorded rates, she said the U.S. rates are still higher than other developed countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
Birth rate flat
Despite a 48 percent increase in Clark County’s population over the last two decades, the number of births has remained relatively flat. Demographers have attributed the population rise primarily to people moving to the area rather than natural increase (the number of births minus the number of deaths). There were 5,142 births in 1998 and 5,514 in 2017.
Women are choosing to have fewer kids or no kids at all.
Portland-based author Kate Kaufmann explores what life is like for non-moms in her upcoming book, “Do You Have Kids? Life When the Answer is No.”
The book’s introduction includes a conversation she had while walking along the beach with a non-mom friend from Clark County. Kaufmann, 66, tried to have children but faced fertility issues. She said there was no guide for what life would be like without children and aims to provide that with her book. Work, friendships, family, life planning and health — “all those things are impacted by not having children,” she said.
Through her research and conversations with other women she found there was a lot of interest in having conversations about not having children, whether if it’s by choice or by circumstance.
“We worry about hurting feelings. We worry about having to be defensive. We worry about being encouraged to change our minds,” she said. “The experience is just different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.”
She hopes her book will be a resource for younger women trying to picture what the rest of their life could look like without children.
Women share stories of why they became moms – or not
The Columbian asked women in Clark County why they had children later in life or chose not to have children at all. These are their stories, culled from some of their emailed responses.
Jennifer Jacobson wasn’t really interested in starting a family in her 20s. She graduated college, worked, traveled, dated and went to grad school. When her niece was born, she started thinking she might want to have children some day. She and her husband dated for two years, got married and had their first child about a year later. “I’m 48 now and my kids are 10 and 12. I absolutely love my life and feel like I made the right choices for me. I have a great husband and career and my kids are the world to me,” Jacobson wrote.
When Tammy Ross got married at age 32, she and her husband had custody of her 3-year-old nephew. The couple had a son in 2002, a daughter in 2006 and formally adopted Ross’ nephew. “I always wanted a large family. It never really occurred to me that post-30 was risky. I was healthy, I felt good, and I was totally ready for biological children,” Ross wrote. Although her first marriage ended with divorce, Ross, who’s now 52, said she would still love to have another child with her second husband. “I realize that that time has passed, but my heart would certainly welcome a baby even if the rest of my body said, ‘girl, chill,’” she wrote.
Samantha Will worked at a child care center, YMCA and Volunteers of America and went to nanny school, so she was often around children. Before going to school, she was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disease where cysts develop in the kidneys. Several other people in her family also have this disease. As Will got older, her health issues ramped up, and she switched to office work. Though she still occasionally baby-sits and works as a part-time nanny, she chose not to have children so they wouldn’t inherit the disease and other genetic health issues in her family. “I am very comfortable with my decision and know that I have made a difference in the lives of many children over the years,” wrote Will, who’s now 52.
After getting divorced at age 28, Christy Olson increased her education and income. Around age 30, she decided to not have children. “I really like getting to use my money on my own needs, rather than the massive expenses incurred in raising a child. I also have chronic health conditions and have limited energy. I do not think I would be a good parent because I don’t have the energy for it,” Olson wrote. She said if she ever changed her mind, she would adopt.
When Jamie Keiser’s mother was pregnant with her, she took diethylstilbestrol, or DES, a drug prescribed between 1940 and 1971 that was supposed to prevent miscarriages and other pregnancy problems; however, those exposed to the drug were at an increased risk for developing some health problems. Keiser said she would’ve had trouble conceiving a child. As she entered her late 30s, she realized that for her “the desire to have children was more a side effect of the societal pressures put on women that they are expected to marry and have children. I came to a place where I realize that wasn’t my path.” She wondered what kind of world her child would inherit, given current environmental and political issues. “Now, nearing my 50s, I am aware that not having children was the right thing to do,” she wrote. Not having children means she doesn’t have to deal with the emotional, financial or relationship stress that comes with parenting.
— Patty Hastings