Later moms are taking to the big screen this month and drawing a big crowd: even my mama has seen Baby Mama already. Nice to see Philadelphia (my home town) in the background there. I expect she’ll be off to see Then She Found Me shortly.

The Hollywood news continues to feature birth timing — see this recent Huffington Post piece on Cate and Halle and company for my take.

Halle, Baby! Cate, Baby!: Scripting the New Later Motherhood

Congratulations to Cate, to Halle, and to all the new Hollywood moms and their families! At 38 Cate is the latest in a long line of later Hollywood moms. Last month it was Halle at 41, before that J.Lo with twins at 38, Salma at 41, Marcia – 44, Tina – 35, Helen – 40, Holly, Geena, Julia, Julianne, and on through quite a roster. Amy Poehler at 36 announced yesterday that she’s in a family way, just days after hitting the big screen as a pregnant surrogate.

Birth timing is THE big tabloid story, in tense dialogue with the constant news flashes that fertility drops precipitously after 35. Weirdly, we’re asked to think simultaneously that nobody can get pregnant after 35 and that everybody (at least all celebs) can.

Of course the truth lies in between, and a glance around tells us that later motherhood is not just a celebrity thing. In 2006, 611,000 babies were born to women 35 and over (one in seven US babies). About 4.4% of those births involved IVF (1.4% with donor eggs, 3% with the woman’s own); the rest were standard issue. Cate’s new son is her third, having started her family at 32. Among first-time moms like Halle, one in twelve gave birth at 35+ (up from one in 100 in 1970).

Lots of women are fertile in their late 30s and early 40s. A recent study indicates that the great majority can become pregnant without aid through 40, though it may take longer than it would have earlier. Some outwait their fertility and then adopt or employ donor eggs. That all adds up to quite a few later families. And though the media don’t report it, later families are thriving.

Why the disconnect between the news stories and life on the street? Partly because problems sell papers, but also maybe because the scene is changing so quickly and hugely that it seems easier to refer to old scripts than to track the new ones.

Later families are generating new pages for everybody’s life scripts daily — their stories differ radically from those of all our ancestral generations. The back story includes two fundamental transformations in human experience: widely available reliable birth control and the new longevity that allows us to reasonably expect to live to 80 or more in good health.

Among the ripple effects: the expansion of women’s education. Average age at first birth among female college grads is 30. Educated women have doubled our national workforce talent pool. And they are more likely to marry than women without degrees.

Some other effects: Later moms have transformed the marital scene by marrying peers, who share in their children’s lives much more than their dads did. They’ve altered the workplace: the trickle up of skilled women with work histories (and Oscars!) as well as young children has pushed the implementation of family friendliness for all workers. There’s plenty more to do, but big changes have begun.

Delay of kids is a classed phenomenon, but not in the pejorative way that term is often understood. The progress made by educated women in getting women’s voices a hearing means changing options for all women and their kids (example: the word illegitimate has left the building). Education often serves as a class elevator, so though most new later moms end up raising middle-class children, the women did not all start out middle-class.

The new later motherhood serves as a kind of shadow benefits system in an often family-hostile business environment: waiting leads to higher long-term wages for moms and to more clout for negotiating flexible schedules. Later families are not everybody’s preference, however. If businesses become truly family friendly and women can have full careers without delaying family, the later motherhood trend may turn. Though likely not entirely: lots of moms delay because they want to see the world or find a partner for the long term before having kids, while others feel ready for family earlier.

The good news is that many women and their partners can now write their own story lines, instead of having other people’s scripts thrust upon them. And then, as Helen has just done, the directors among them can turn around and put variations on the new stories on the big screen. Next steps: to expand the group of those with these options, and to increase support for all parents, whenever we decide to start our families, and whether we be stars like Cate and Halle or regular Janes.

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