26 March 2007

Is There a "Right Age" to Have a Baby?

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

I was recently asked to comment for the Sunday Star Times about the career implications for women of having their first baby at different ages. Being a newspaper article, there was only space to quote a little of what I said. Of course, I realised Professionelle was the place to express in full my thoughts on the question.

Let's just start by saying that I don't think there is such a thing as the "right age" to have children. Full stop. We're all different and we're motivated by different things. These differences impact on how we respond to parenting.

From a career perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to having children at every age. It is up to us to weigh them up and make our decision accordingly. And also, we must always remember that life is what happens when we are busy making plans!

So for those of you who are thinking of having children and wondering what implications this may have for your career when you are in your twenties, thirties or forties, here are my thoughts:

Having a baby in your twenties

When you have a baby in your twenties, chances are you've recently graduated, or you're in the process of graduating, and that you've had a little bit of experience and a taste of the reality of life in your chosen occupation.

According to statistics New Zealand the median age of New Zealand women giving birth during the year ended December 2002 was 30.1 years.

Having children in your twenties is becoming less and less common among professional women in New Zealand and there are some distinct career disadvantages to becoming a mother in this life decade. The good news is that there are some advantages as well.

Disadvantages:

Given the reality of child rearing in New Zealand, if you choose to have a child in your twenties, you are losing out in work experience to the women and men who have the time to put in the hours. When you want to go back to work after having the baby, chances are you'll struggle to be able to get a really good job because you'll still have your work-home balance to accommodate and realistically you haven't proven yourself yet in the workplace.

It's our observation that mothers in their twenties end up not working for a while. When they do come back to work, quite a few end up doing something different to what they originally planned.

You might find yourself reporting to someone who was in the same year or even behind you in University, which can be disheartening. From a social perspective, you'll also be out of sync with your peers who are in the 'work hard and play hard' mind frame.

Advantages:

Physical peak reasons aside, when you have children in your twenties, you're more likely to have the time and the maturity to figure out what kind of career will work best to accommodate your talents, interests and being a mum.

Often, we go to university straight after high school and study something that might not be quite right for us. Once you've had a child, however, you have the luxury of thinking about what will work for you in your new situation. You can consider what will enable you to have a fulfilling career while raising your child/ren.

The key here is that you haven't invested too much time yet in advancement, so it might be easier for you to change your career path now than later on.

In some fields, women who go back after they've had children have life experience that they can bring to the table. That can make them a lot more attractive to potential clients than a twenty-six year old with a degree who's never actually lived.

Having a baby in your thirties

Most professional women we know choose to have their first child in their thirties. From a career perspective it makes sense: you've put in the hours and the time needed to establish yourself, you've gained the experience and you've earned the reputation. And as we often hear, the longer you wait to have children the harder, on average, it becomes. On the face of it, then, your thirties sound like a good compromise.

You must remember of course, that we're talking a decade here. Things can be quite different if you have your child in your early thirties as opposed to your late thirties. By the time you're in your late thirties, you've really had a chance to prove yourself and you may be in a stronger position to negotiate something that will work for you. On the other hand, there's that biological clock ticking...

Disadvantages:

Unless you're really high up in your company or organisation, having a child does impact your career opportunities. Once you have children, people look at you differently in terms of your ability to give it 'all you've got'. You may be overlooked for exciting projects or even promotion.

The key challenge here is that once you have a child you have to re-negotiate it all; your working habits, your time with friends and your relationship with your partner. And that can be very difficult. Those late meetings you're expected to attend may become dependent on your ability to organise child care.

It has to be said that there is a growing acceptance that you can keep performing with one child; however, it is our observation that things change quite dramatically when you have more than one.

Advantages:

Firstly, in your thirties you're more likely to have the emotional maturity and life experience to handle being a mum. From a career perspective, the advantage is that you might be able to create for yourself a position to do really interesting work and have more of a balance, because you've already proven yourself to some degree. In your twenties, you aren't that likely to have that leverage. Also, depending on how much support you have at home, you might find the career interruption almost minimal.

In your thirties, you might have been working for more than ten years and feel ready to take a career break and re-evaluate and re-shape your career to suit your new realities. You'll have relationships with clients and colleagues and have proven yourself. You can choose a less orthodox career path such as contracting.

We know of many professional women in their thirties who've had children and opted out of the 'traditional' career path by becoming contractors or independent consultants. This allows them to continue and work in their fields but have a higher degree of work/life balance as well.

Having a baby in your forties

I am not commenting here on medical issues, but of course, we are all aware that the chances of getting pregnant reduce dramatically as you approach your forties.

From a career perspective, by the time you're in your forties, you have probably well and truly earned your stripes. The chances are that you'll be able to negotiate a career path solution that will make it possible for you have a career and be a mum. It is also very likely that from a financial perspective you'll be in a position to afford excellent child care which will make things a lot easier for you.

By the time you're in your forties you'll have a well established work ethic and working habits. As a senior person, you can be very efficient and delegate a lot of the work. You'll be able to act more independently and also set your own routine.

Let's face it, in today's tight labour market your company will probably try very hard to keep you, your experience, your connections and (if you are in a professional services firm) your clients.

Disadvantages:

There are some distinct disadvantages, not necessarily career-related, in having a baby in your forties that are worth thinking through:

  • The physical aspects - Having a baby is hard on the body and it gets harder as you grow older. The recovery may be tough and it can impact on your physical ability to return to work.
  • The psychological aspects - When you are a high powered career woman, used to being in charge, having a baby can prove very difficult. All of a sudden there is this creature who is completely dependent on you and who doesn't seem to have an off button!
  • The emotional aspects - You might find it difficult to go back to work after you've had a child. You might just decide that you'd prefer to stay with him or her and take a career break!

When to have a baby is one of the most sensitive issues we can think of. These are our views, what are yours? What have your experiences been? We would really love to hear from you.

© Professionelle Ltd 2007

Comments (0)

Add your comment

Add your comment

  • This is not shown on the site, but required for emailing follow up comments to you.