Another Gap that Divides America: When Mothers Give Birth

Another Gap that Divides America: When Mothers Give Birth

Rather than identifying ways to unite us, the current administration seems to be finding ways to divide us. It’s not just the haves and the have-nots anymore, but the 1% and the rest of us. The middle class, that hardworking backbone of our country, continues to diminish. The proud values that have defined and united us as a nation are in jeopardy. It appears that a new gap further divides our country; this one based on the age that mothers give birth. But it’s not just about age; rather, it’s what women learn, what they experience and what they accomplish in those critical years between high school and the time when they start bearing children.

Sociological divide starts at birth, shaped by the age that mothers have babies

A recent New York Times article, The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America, by Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller, discusses education as a fundamental driver of a rift that has long-term implications for kids, for families and for our country.

Becoming a mother used to be seen as a unifying milestone for American women. But a new analysis of four decades of births shows that the age that women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education. The lifestyles into which children are born dramatically affect their future prospects.

First-time moms are older in big cities and coasts

First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts—yes, that’s the liberal elite, but not entirely. It probably won’t surprise anyone that mothers are younger in rural areas, in the great plains and the south. Not surprisingly, San Francisco tops the chart at 31.9; Manhattan is next with 31.1. In Todd County, SD and Zapata County, TX., first-time mothers are just 20 and 21.

The biggest differentiator? Education

It all comes down to education–the single biggest factor that influences when women start their families. Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without. Those with degrees use these years to build their careers and incomes. They go to grad school, travel, gain new experiences that they will share with their children to enrich their lives.

Education: Investing in a cycle of upward mobility

Those who stay behind and have babies can claim emotional fulfillment, status in the community and a path to adulthood. Yet a college degree is becoming a passport to earning a middle-class wage. Those parents with college degrees and good jobs have money to invest in the violin lessons, math tutoring, summer camps and college savings accounts that will set their children on their ownupward paths that will help them get into good schools, preparing them for good jobs of their own. These parents are investing in a cycle of upward mobility.

Education patterns help drive inequality

“These education patterns help drive inequality because well-educated women are really pulling ahead of the pack by waiting to have kids,” said Caroline Hartnett, a sociologist and demographer studying fertility and families at the University of South Carolina. “But if going to college and achieving an upper-middle-class lifestyle seems unattainable, then having a family might seem like the most accessible source of meaning to you.”

The age of mothers follows red and blue political alignment

The education gap aligns with other disparities in the way Americans live, including differing attitudes about the role of women. Law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn described how red and blue families were living different lives in a book in 2010. The biggest differentiating factor, they said, was the age that mothers had children. Young mothers are more likely to be conservative and religious, to value traditional gender roles and to reject abortion. Older mothers tend to be liberal, and to split breadwinning and caregiving responsibilities more equally with men, they found.

At UCSF: Less fear and stigma about having babies after 35

“It feels like no one here has babies under 35 anymore,” said Mary Norton, interim chair of maternal-fetal medicine at the UCSF. Because of fertility treatments and genetic testing, there is less fear about health complications and less stigma about having babies after 35, she said.

The wage penalty for women who have children is high, so many try to advance in their careers before giving birth. They are more likely than young mothers to be married, and less likely to divorce. They’re also less likely to live near their children’s grandparents, or because their parents are older, they juggle child care with elder care. And they might have fewer children than they had hoped, because fertility declines during a woman’s 30s.

3/4 of first-time mothers under 25 are unmarried; many can’t afford birth control

This demographic tends to live in areas where they are surrounded by extended families. They are less likely to have significant savings, a college degree or a career. Their pregnancies are more likely to be unintended, and a shocking three-quarters of first-time mothers under 25 are unmarried. This statistic helps profile the growing population that lives in poverty. They may be working several jobs, trying to make ends meet. There is little time or money for the extras that the children of older, educated parents receive.

Natalia Maani, an obstetrician at Starr County Hospital in Rio Grande City, TX, where the average age of first birth is 22, said that very few of her pregnant patients are married, and she can count on two hands the number of pregnancies that were planned. Many can’t afford birth control, she said. Most wouldn’t consider abortion, and there is no provider nearby. Ironically, the cultural norm remains starting families young—even when there is no way to provide for those children.

Where children start in life influences where they end up

Research has shown that where children start in life strongly influenceswhere they end up. Providing resources for young mothers and children, and policies like affordable child care and college, can help smooth the differences.

So what does this have to do with us?

We think it has everything to do with all of us. We’re living in a time where we all need to be critical thinkers, able to make informed decisions that are based on facts. We need to be sharing the best of ourselves with our children to help them learn, to make the most of the opportunities that may be presented to them. As this study shows, the lifestyles into which children are born influence their future prospects.

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