Does having a baby before 30 hurt your career?

Sorry ladies, science says "yes!"

young mother nuzzling baby

Photo: iStockphoto

When I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter, Sophie, I was weeks away from turning 29. I remember thinking how old that was in comparison to my mom, who’d had my older brother at 26, and my grandma, who’d had my mom at 22. But when I announced our impending bundle of joy, so many of my work friends were totally surprised and said, “Wow, you’re going to be such a young mom!” I remember being dumbfounded by that statement, because at some point in the not-so-distant past, 29 was considered downright ancient.

And while I wasn’t exactly thinking about my career—more about my potential for fertility challenges, and needing to have age on my side—I certainly thought, “Okay, so hopefully I’ll have two in relatively quick succession and can then refocus on my career. I’ll be able to deal with any lost promotions and missed salary bumps at that point.” Well, it turns out I was technically kind of wrong, at least according to a new study out of Washington University in St. Louis, which says women who have their first baby at 30 or younger are more likely to have lower lifetime incomes than women who have their first child at 31 or later.

To estimate how a woman’s age at the birth of her first child impacts her lifetime earnings, the researchers analyzed a slate of data, including work experience and birth statistics, of nearly 1.6 million Danish women ages 25-60, from 1995 to 2009. Education was factored into the research and uncovered the starkest results for women without a college degree who had their first child before age 25. Those who had babies before they turned 25 lost approximately 2.5 years of average annual salary over their contemporaries who waited until after age 31. In contrast, college-educated women who had their first child after age 37 added a half-year to their overall lifetime salaries.

I find this to be both interesting (from a pragmatic standpoint) and infuriating (yeah, mostly infuriating). I was 29 when I had Sophie, so I was right on the cusp of reaching the age this study suggests would have been a smarter decision for my lifelong earnings. Maybe if I’d waited until 32—which is how old I was when my second daughter was born—I’d be in better shape. But splitting hairs like this just seems ridiculous to me.

Plus, on one hand, doctors are saying, “Don’t wait too long! Those eggs aren’t going to be around forever!” and on the other hand, society is saying, “Have your babies, but don’t expect to be able to make up the money lost when you take time out of your career. Hope the kids are cute.” Lose-lose, if ever there was one. I believe it, though. I’ve seen it happen over and over: women miss out on career advancements when they take time away for their families. I hate that we have to pick.

The study goes on to say that IVF has greatly influenced our workforce trends, because women can make the choice to delay motherhood, and rely on assisted reproductive technology advancements as a backup plan. Co-author of the study Raul Santaeulalia-Llopis says, “”If children are shutting down women’s career growth and these pervasive effects vanish after the mid-30s, then we should start taking seriously the case for employer-covered fertility treatments. But we need to dig deeper to establish causation and assess costs and benefits.”

To me, that seems like a Band-Aid solution, and a slippery slope toward employers having too much say when it comes to when (and how) their employees can start families. Instead, shouldn’t we just figure out how to stop the earnings gap from happening in the first place?

Most of us don’t get to order up our kids on an Adorable Baby menu to be conceived and delivered at exactly the right time for our careers. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Like UberEats, but for infants.) For some, fertility is a crapshoot, month after month. And while some lucky women, like me, meet the right partner when they’re 22, others don’t find their person—their someone—until much later. Many of us have to spend our 20s schlepping through internships, or working our asses off in grad school, and that’s why kids come later. It’s just not as black-and-white as this study makes it seem. I say you do what’s right for you. Either forget what these stats say, or go ahead and prove them wrong.

Read more:
How to ask for a pay raise—and get it
How to get the job you want after maternity leave
10 secrets of working parents

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