Women opting for younger motherhood?

Or the Wall Street Journal opting to cover a "trend"?

By Lynn Harris

Published February 4, 2009 6:09PM (EST)

Maybe it's just me, but whenever I see a headline announcing that "women" are "opting" to do, or not do, or put off, or quit doing, whatever it is on any given day, I "opt" to be suspicious. And so it was that I cast a chary eye over Sue Shellenbarger's blog in today's Wall Street Journal declaring that "Women Are Opting to Have Babies Younger." (The post is based on this related WSJ article, also by Shellenbarger.)

Here's the news, such as it is: "For the first time since government records have been kept, the average age at which women have their first babies posted a decline -- according to newly released data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Mothers' mean age at their first childbirth fell to 25.0 years in 2006, the most recent figures available, from 25.2 in 2005."

Even a 0.2-year drop is statistically significant, apparently, given that it's the first recorded reversal, and so is this: "Women ages 20 to 24 led the shift, with a 5% increase in the rate of first births."

But does a one-year reversal constitute a trend? Shellenbarger notes, correctly, that it does not. And then -- hey, waitasecond! -- goes on to write a trend piece.

"The study," she says, "lends weight to anecdotal evidence" that young women -- like pregnant WNBA star Candace Parker, 22, and others she interviews -- "are tuning in more closely to their biological clocks" and having children earlier rather than delaying motherhood in favor of their careers.

Except it kind of doesn't. (Nor do such choices always comes down to kids vs. career in the first place.) Shellenbarger's piece itself lays out all the factors that could lower mean age at first birth: rising numbers of Hispanics, who tend to start families earlier; a 4 percent rise in first births to girls aged 15 to 19; and the "sheer size of the baby boomlet generation, now entering the child-bearing years." Nothing in there about the ol' tick-tock. Or, for that matter, about the other people often involved in this calculus: men. Who, last I checked, were necessary.

I don't know, maybe -- as Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families suggested to the Journal -- more young women today do "feel less compelled to spend a decade proving themselves on the job before kids." And if so, that's a story. (Especially if that's why those 15- to 19-year-olds are getting pregnant.) But it's not one these numbers are telling. 

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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