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30+ and pregnant: the new normal in the American fertility landscape

Look around at a playground or through your Facebook feed and you’ll see it: women with advanced degrees, graying hair, and C-suite jobs are having babies. Pregnancy is no longer the exclusive province of women in their 20's; in fact, record numbers of 30+ women now make up the majority of first time moms—so let’s talk about what this means.

Women between 30 and 34 are having more babies than any other age group

Even though American women are having babies at approximately the same rate as they were in the mid 1970s, the age group that is doing so has changed dramatically since then. In 1976, nearly 70 percent of women had their first babies by the time they reached the 25 to 29 age bracket. Today, that same percentage holds, but now, it is true of women between 30 and 34.

The pattern of this shift is echoed in demographic trends around marriage; people are not, in fact, marrying less, but they are marrying later (a statistic brought to life by even a brief scan of the Vows section of The New York Times). And, interestingly, the trend toward delayed pregnancy applies regardless of partnership status: whether married, partnered, or solo conceivers, it is the 30 to 34 year olds who are having the most babies. Why is this happening? Let's examine some factors.

Money, Money, Money

It’s no secret that life in general has become more financially challenging for all but the most fortunate. The cost of living is brutally high in most American cities, healthcare is at peak unaffordability, and the specter of college tuition looms large in the financial futures of prospective parents. A hospital birth alone can run well into the thousands. So some delay trying to conceive until they are more financially secure, and others who need fertility therapy also end up waiting--until they can afford procedures like egg freezing, IUI, and IVF, which can be prohibitively expensive if not covered by insurance.

As the professional landscape has changed for women since the 70s, career concerns are at play for many, and, interestingly, the single most determining factor of maternal age at first pregnancy is not where you live or what your socioeconomic status is––it’s how much education you have. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that women with college degrees have babies an average of seven years later than those without.

Insurance coverage of fertility treatment is woefully inadequate for many. However, 16 U.S. states do require that insurance either cover or offer coverage for infertility, a real sea change from what was previously available.

The boom of reproductive technology

The advances in assisted reproductive technology (ART) that have occurred since the 70s are huge––what we can do today was the stuff of science fiction back in 1976. Between egg freezing, IVF, IUI, and ICSI (that's when a single live sperm is injected into an egg) and more sophisticated and nuanced understandings of things like the “fertility cliff,” the sense that once the biological clock starts ticking, it must be treated like a hot potato, has somewhat faded with the help of science. (It turns out that fertility doesn't so much go off a cliff as gradually decline with age.) While the onset of declining fertility is unfortunately still a thing, we may have been wrong about when it starts.

While egg freezing is not an insurance policy, under the right circumstances it can serve as a “pause button” on your fertility, and many women are embracing this option, seeking satisfying partnerships, using the time to work on their careers, and have the kinds of adventures that are easier to pull off as a solo entity than with a newborn or toddler (we’re looking at you, #vanlife).

From test tube stigma to empowered parenthood

Changing mores and diminishing stigma around fertility treatments may also be a factor. ART is seen by many women as an empowered proactive choice, not a last-ditch option. Louise Joy Brown, the first “test tube baby” (thanks, 1970s, for that delightful turn of phrase) celebrated her 40th birthday last year, giving the fertility community an opportunity to reflect on how far we have truly come.

So what’s the takeaway? What to do if the combination of decision fatigue and the precarity of the unknown gang up to make you feel completely cray when it comes to your fertility timeline? The solution is information. Modern Fertility’s hormone testing can help you get real about your situation, in the privacy of your own home and at a fraction of the cost of a fertility clinic. Whether you’re 25 and contemplating your reproductive timeline, or 35 and wondering where your fertility is at, the first step in making empowered choices is taking a look at one aspect of your current fertility status.

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M. K. Steines

M.K. Steines is a writer based in Tucson, where she is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona. Her work can be found around the web and in print. Instagram @redstateblues

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