They’re waiting longer, but more women are having children—and a Pew Research Center analysis finds family size is growing, too.
A little before 3:30 each school day afternoon, Julie Hayes Misarti stands ready outside of St. John of the Cross Parish School in suburban Chicago. At the sound of the bell, her son, Aidan, 7, and daughter, Francesca, 10, fly out the doors among the scores of children and into their mom’s arms.
She hurries them into the car. The first stop is The Village Club in their small town of Western Springs, Illinois (pop. 13,391), where she volunteers as president and treasurer. She’s attempting to reinvigorate the club as a go-to center for families and is getting the place ready for a party she’s organizing the next evening. From there, she checks on the family’s home, under restoration after a boiler malfunction (Misarti, her husband Gabe, Francesca, and Aidan are living in a nearby apartment in the meantime.) Then, Misarti drops Francesca at a playdate in the next town over, and zips to Costco to buy drinks and treats for the club’s party. All this is broken up by a pit stop for Olive, the family’s 5-year-old Shih Tzu Yorkie, in a nearby park.
Misarti sips her ever-present large Starbucks coffee, which could stand a refill. “I wouldn’t trade it,” the 49-year-old says of her life. “But I do miss working.”
Julie Misarti is used to being busy: In her 20s and 30s she was on a fast career path. She worked in the wealth management group of a large Chicago bank and was regularly on the road meeting with clients in San Francisco and Silicon Valley while also organizing charity events and treating herself to trips to Ireland, France, and Spain.
“I got so much traveling and freedom out of my system,” says Misarti, who had her daughter at age 38. And she also had been in the business world long enough to develop the experience and connections to help ensure that if she decided to work again, she could.
Women like Misarti, who are having children later in life, are helping drive an increase in motherhood in the United States, the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year. After analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data of women at the end of their childbearing years, researchers found the share of women who have given birth was higher in 2016 (86 percent) than it was a decade earlier (80 percent), a notable development since childlessness began to rise in the mid-1970s. “It’s amazing,” says Gretchen Livingston, an expert on demography and family at the Pew Research Center who wrote the report, “how fast societal trends are changing.”
Not only did the researchers determine that women are more likely to be mothers than they were a decade ago, but they’re having more children, too. Overall, women in the U.S. have 2.07 children during their lives on average—up from 1.86 in 2006, the lowest number on record. That’s despite the fact that annual birthrates in the years since the Great Recession have been in decline; the center’s analysis looked cumulatively at childbearing during a woman’s lifetime over a period of about 30 years.
Delays in childbearing are particularly noteworthy, Livingston says, when compared to the past. In the mid-1990s, just over half of women had become moms by age 24. Today, the median age for having the first child is 26.
“It used to be the norm to have one baby in the early 20s,” says Livingston. Partly influenced by the drop in teenagers having children, now only 39 percent of women at the end of their childbearing years had their first child by 24.
Women working longer, having college degrees, and seeking more advanced degrees all combine to influence the uptick in age of motherhood. “This trend is driven in part by more highly educated women having babies,” says Livingston. “Now, women are more involved with their careers, and these careers are more demanding.”
Renee Robertson of Crestview Hills, Kentucky, says she wanted “maturity, stability, and professional launch” before becoming a mother. She was 29 and 33 when she had her two daughters, now 16 and 20. After each maternity leave, Robertson returned to work and received promotions. Now a 26-year veteran of Toyota, she’s a general manager at the company’s largest manufacturing plant. “I always wanted to know that I could support myself and my girls on my own,” Robertson says. “I strive to be a role model for my daughters.”
Julie McCord in Seattle also values what her work and life experiences have given her. Over two decades, she earned a master’s degree, freelanced for media outlets, and worked for global nonprofit organizations, which included a three-month stint in Africa working with gorillas. Married at 38, she had her children at 40 and 41, and now is taking time off from her career to care for them.
“I’m glad I had the opportunities I had,” McCord says. “I had advanced enough in my career so leaving it wasn’t as hard. Waiting longer [to have children] also meant much more financial independence. We were able to save money so I had the option of not working.” She plans to go back to work full-time when the children, now ages 1 and 2, are older.
Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, has written seven books about family life and marriage, including The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She notes that helpful fathers may be a contributing factor in the uptick in motherhood. European researchers have found that “when men pitch in after the birth of a first child, mom is more likely to have a second one,” she says. “Educated men have really upped their participation in child care.”
Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, also says that women having children at older ages is associated with better outcomes for kids, and “may well be related to an increase in the possibilities for women, especially educated professionals, to combine work and parenthood.” She says that greater access to family leave for professional women and a greater feeling of entitlement to have children, “even if you’re in a high-powered career,” has influenced the uptick in motherhood. She says that in the 1970s and ’80s, professional women who were mothers were really hesitant to have a second or third child for fear their career would be derailed.
In fact, one of the standout findings in the Pew report was the significant increase in motherhood among highly educated women in their early 40s. Eighty percent of U.S. women with a doctorate or professional degree have given birth, compared to 65 percent in the mid-1990s. That’s a marked change, says Coontz.
But motherhood, particularly for women who have advanced education, can also impose professional limits. Blythe Houck, an attorney in Powell, Ohio, spent much of her 20s working around the clock on environmental projects, and after law school, dove into the time-consuming role of an associate for a law firm. Now with three boys, ages 12, 10, and 7, the 47-year-old mother acknowledges she can’t devote the same kind of steely-eyed focus to her current job—leading a nonpartisan group that works on health care policy—amid her primary caretaking responsibilities, PTA meetings, making dinner, and driving to sports practices and Cub Scout meetings, especially while her husband is traveling.
“For my job, I could spend 24/7 puzzling on strategies and writing out concepts, but it’s not possible,” she says. “I need a lot of uninterrupted thinking time. Professionally, it’s frustrating. At the same time, I love having my three guys. They’re my world.”
The world for many of today’s mothers doesn’t involve husbands at all. The dramatic growth in the number of never married women was one of the report’s most striking findings, according to Livingston. Fifteen percent of all women in their early 40s have never married and more than half of them have given birth to at least one child. That’s a dramatic jump from the mid-’90s when about a third of never-married women in their early 40s had given birth.
The increase in births among never-married women probably stems from several factors, says Coontz. “New social tolerance and economic options certainly make it easier for women to raise a child on their own,” she says. She also suspects that at least some of the women are cohabitating with the father of the child. Marriage is not dead, she says, but it “no longer organizes most people’s major life transitions and decisions—and it certainly can’t serve as shorthand for figuring out who has caregiving obligations.”
Cara Lemieux had her first child at age 30; she was single and the pregnancy unplanned. But after working “to rebrand the single mom in my head and in the world around me,” she realized she loved motherhood. Seven years later, she decided to do it again, and once more she’s doing it on her own.
Today, she lives with daughter Ellie, 7, and son L.J., 7 months, near the Connecticut town where she grew up and in the same school district as her nieces and nephews. She gave up a demanding career in television and now works from home as a communication strategist for a digital agency that is “pretty progressive and accepting of family stuff,” she says. “We’re getting a little bit better as a culture, with flexible work environments that make it possible for any parent to be a great parent and a great employee.”
And Lemieux says that while she’d like to find companionship, marriage isn’t a priority for her. “I don’t want a child with someone who I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Michelle Wolcott, 47, prefers motherhood that way, too. An orthopedic surgeon at the University of Colorado in Denver, she is also a single parent of two children, now 5 and 7. “It was solely my decision,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone else involved.”
She finds being the sole parent has advantages. “I have the control—from naming them, to what schools they attend, to any major decisions about their lives.” In addition to family and friends she can consult, Wolcott has a unique support system. Her kids share the same donor father—as do about 15 other children across the country, now united along with their mothers in a donor siblings group called “diblings.”
The kids, who Wolcott says resemble each other, know they’re related and see each other at reunions. The moms, like Wolcott, are working professionals. Kids who are conceived through donors, by definition, have a small family, but Wolcott says her kids have “a much bigger family, full of half siblings and all sorts of aunts and uncles.”
Delaying motherhood also just “makes plain sense,” says Wolcott, who waited until her medical school loans were paid off before applying for a donor. “We delay personal stuff. The career needs time and focus,” she says.
Of course, as women have children when they’re older, they’re also more likely to experience another demand on their time while raising kids—caring for aging parents. Although the Pew report didn’t deal with this aspect of older motherhood, it’s certainly on the minds of many moms.
Joy Wagner of Alexandria, Virginia, who had her first son at 31 and her fourth at age 42—and has always worked full time—has her hands full. “Now that I’m almost 53, my energy level is zapped for eternity,” she says.
And to add to her busy life, she and her sister are also caring for her parents, ages 91 and 92, who live in Massachusetts. In between taking her sons to basketball games, music lessons, and Wednesday night religion classes, Wagner helps determine what kind of care her parents need and travels north when they become ill or need serious assistance. She feels “guilty about not doing as much as my sister, but because I have young kids and a full-time job, I’m limited in what I can do,” she says.
But while they may be short on time and energy, Wagner and other women like her aren’t limited in opportunity. The rise in women’s labor force participation, educational attainment, and postponement of marriage—trends the Pew Research Center has covered extensively over the years—all have likely contributed to a forgoing of motherhood, for some, and a delay for others.
“It’s so striking that we’ve seen an uptick in women becoming moms,” says Livingston. “There has been much talk about a ‘baby bust’ in the media. That’s based on snapshots of birth data from points in time—which are influenced by economic shocks like the Great Recession and women delaying motherhood because of them.” But what this research has shown, she says, is that over their lifetimes, women are now more likely to become mothers than they were a decade ago.
Top: Julie Hayes Misarti became a mother at age 38. Though she misses her professional career, she says she wouldn’t trade it for being a mom to Aidan, 7 (pictured), and daughter Francesca, 10.