U.S. Women Are Delaying Motherhood, But They’re More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago

January 18, 2018, 3:00 PM UTC

What does the average American mother look like? A report from Pew Research Center out Thursday paints a new portrait of mom: She’s considerably older, but she’s having more children than a decade ago.

For years now, data has pointed to American women delaying childbirth, just as they’ve delayed marriage. The Pew study puts a finer point on that trend. It finds that the median age at which women become mothers in the U.S. is 26. In 1994, it was 23. (The Pew’s analysis, designed to assess fertility, defines “mother” as a woman who’s given birth, but it acknowledges that women who do not bear their own children are also mothers.)

The shift toward older moms is due, in part, to the decline in teen mothers. In the mid-1990s, 22% of women in their mid-40s had given birth before age 20; in 2014, that share stood at 13%. Women are likewise delaying childbearing through their 20s. In 1994, 53% of women at the end of childbearing years had become mothers by age 24. In 2014, this share was 39%.

At the same time, growing shares of well-educated women are becoming moms. For women ages 40 to 44 without a bachelor’s degree, the rate of having a child has held steady over the past 20 years. But better-educated women, especially those with Ph.D.s, have recorded dramatic increases.

In 2014, 82% of women at the end of their childbearing years who’d earned a bachelor’s degree were mothers, versus 76% of their counterparts two decades earlier. Among similar women with a master’s degree, 79% had given birth in 2014, compared to 71% in 1994. The biggest jump occurred in the relatively small group of women, ages 40-44, with Ph.D.s or professional degrees, with rates of motherhood soaring from 65% in 1994 to 80% in 2014.

Pew deemed another trend in its report “particularly striking:” a larger share of never-married women at the end of their childbearing years had at least one child—55% in 2014 versus 31% in 1994, even with the recent falloff in teen births. The increase took place across all education levels. For instance, Pew says childlessness was nearly universal among never-married women in their early 40s with a postgraduate degree in 1994; in 2014, 25% of such women had a child.

Motherhood among women who have married, meanwhile, remains high: 90% in 2014, compared to 88% in 1994.

Interestingly, given the overwhelming trend toward delaying motherhood, American women aren’t necessarily having fewer babies. While that shift is driving down annual fertility rates, women are in fact more likely to be mothers than in the past and women who become mothers are having more children.

In 2016, 86% of women had become mothers by the end of their childbearing years, compared to 80% in 2006. And the women who become mothers had 2.42 children, up from a low of 2.31 in 2008.

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