CDC Reports Examine Childbearing Patterns in Three Different Eras

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By Jill Arnold

CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics made two reports available today which present three contrasting patterns of first childbirth and childlessness and discusses the context of these patterns in the United States.


From the introduction:

Both the timing of the first birth and the percentage childless have profound consequences for society. These include the demand for schools and housing, as well as the development and utilization of women in the labor force. Moreover, the lives of women who become mothers are significantly different from those who do not. To give birth (and to raise a child) results in a transition to parenthood, with immediate and generally permanent implications (1). In industrialized societies, parenthood affects the acquisition of material goods (such as choice of place of residence, housing type, and consumable goods) (2). When and if women become mothers, they can encounter opportunity costs (for example, those that limit education, the ability to work full-time, the possibility to obtain higher professional attainment, promotions, and higher incomes) (3).

In nonindustrialized societies, rather than material or maternal opportunities, the degree of kin availability—that is the presence of children and the children’s spouses—is of great importance for the elderly. Consequently, the proportion of women with any offspring is key to the well-being of families in these societies (2)

Childlessness has increasingly become an acceptable lifestyle in North America and Europe. However, lifestyle decisions are only one of the reasons for having a child. Not having a child may be due to postponement of childbearing, rather than early sterility (such as premature menopause). Intervening factors leading to childlessness include partners’ availability and intentions, life course events, subfecundity, and unplanned events (1).


Key findings:

*Of three generations of women born in 1910, 1935, and 1960, those born in 1935 had the most children (on average 3.0 children per woman) and those born in 1960 had the fewest (2.0).

*Women born in 1910 and 1935 started their childbearing at the youngest ages with an “average” or median age at first birth of 21 years; more than 70 percent of their first births occurred to women under age 25. The median age at first birth was oldest for the 1960 birth cohort (23 years).

*Thirty-seven percent of women born in 1935 had four or more children; women born in 1960 were the most likely to have two children (35 percent); and women born in 1910 were equally likely to have no, one, or two children (approximately 22 percent each).

*Of these three cohorts, women born in 1910 were the most likely to be childless by age 50 (20 percent), whereas those born in 1935 were the least likely (11 percent).