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Survey: What Is the Best Age to Have a Baby?

Did you grow up listening to Olivia Newton-John, or to Britney Spears? Was your favorite sitcom Happy Days, or Beverly Hills, 90210? Women entering motherhood these days have a wider range of cultural touchpoints than ever before. And while a baby doesn't care what kind of music you used to listen to (as long as you dance to Raffi now), other moms may not be so accepting. Many of you—now that you're parents—are feeling the sting of ageism for the very first time. At least that's what more than 15,000 readers told us in our exclusive survey "Younger vs. Older Moms." Mothers of all ages (35 percent were 24 or younger, 30 percent were 40 or older and the rest were somewhere in between) not only answered our questions on the pros and cons of having a child at different life stages, but wrote page-long essays on the topic, many of them rants about the exclusion they've felt from other moms.

The average age at which women in the U.S. have their first child is 25.2, according to a 2003 National Vital Statistics Report (the most recent available) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that number's in flux. In 1970, for example, the average was 21.4. This isn't breaking news: A series of social and medical advances over the past 50 years—the women's rights movement, the Pill, infertility drugs, in vitro fertilization and egg and embryo freezing—have steadily extended the age at which women can (and want to) become mothers. But what hasn't been explored is how all these different types of moms now connect, share and support one another. Are they even connecting at all?

Immature brats vs. old hags

That title is a lot more polarizing than the rather delicately worded "younger vs. older" name we chose instead for our survey, but apparently there's some truth to those ugly descriptions when it comes to how the two groups regard each other. And while both sides slung arrows, it was the supposedly more mature older moms who were the harsher. Thirty-six percent of younger moms (and a whopping 54 percent of moms 24 years old or younger) say that an older mom has tried to make them feel like they're too immature or inexperienced to care for a baby. On the flip side, just 12 percent of the older moms report that a younger mom made them feel like they're too old and not energetic enough to care for a child. In addition, a full third of the younger group complain that they've been actively snubbed by other moms because of their age, compared to just a tenth of the older group. "When I pick up my daughter from daycare, the other "older" moms look me up and down and make up excuses not to arrange playdates with me," says Sheena Perez, 21, of Elgin, Illinois. Christina Malerba, 24, of Staten Island, New York, feels the bias, too. "I run into older moms who just assume I'm a bad parent because of my age. It's not hard to tell what they're thinking," she says. "I try to talk to other moms in the park, but they look at me like I'm a little kid." And Marlea Bergeson, 26, of New London, Connecticut, reports, "My husband is 36, and so most older mothers take him way more seriously as a parent than they do me. They don't even acknowledge me."

The younger moms may feel the heat more because, according to our survey, older moms do tend to make more judgments. But that doesn't mean the 35-and-older set gets off easy. Andrea Cicalla, 24, of Memphis, has this to say about her older counterparts: "They usually have one child and then spoil him like a grandkid!" And one reader from Long Island, New York, says that as a teacher, she's seen kids whose older parents can't keep up with them, leading her to believe that "having kids after age 45 is just selfish." That remark is typical. "I was six months pregnant and shopping for maternity clothes," recalls Deb Clough, 35, of Burnsville, Minnesota, "when the sales clerk—probably in her early twenties—asked me how old I was. When I told her, she seemed stunned. Then she said, 'I want to have kids soon so I can keep up with them while I'm still young.' I couldn't believe she said that to my face!"

The best time to have a baby

Clearly, both older and younger moms have opinions about each other and who makes a better mom. But both groups also seem to be on the defensive. Could their reactions hint at an underlying insecurity with their own life decisions? Possibly. An equal percentage of both groups—one quarter—report that they feel self-conscious around other moms because of their age. At the same time, though, only 4 percent of the older moms and 13 percent of the younger ones cite "the disapproval of others" as one of the main drawbacks to having kids when they did. So where does the self-consciousness come from, if they don't care what others think? Astonishingly, the moms were hardest on themselves. More than half of the older moms wish they'd had their baby when they were younger; 22 percent of the younger moms wish they had waited.

Turns out, the perfect age to have a child is as much of a myth as the perfect mom. Every woman's own calculation of the right time to have kids is a complicated formula of emotional and practical factors—health and fertility, financial stability, romantic status, career and personal development. No matter which factors weigh most heavily in your formula, the decision to become a mom always involves trade-offs. It's those trade-offs that make us question our choices—and the choices of other moms.

Growing up—at any age

But for all the debate about the perfect age, many women find that their plans don't amount to much in the face of fate. For them, the perfect age comes when it comes.

"I didn't plan on being an older mom," says Ruth Babick-Scofield, 39, of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, "but Plan A—to have kids before I was 35—did not happen. And neither did Plans B or C. In fact, I was on Plan XYZ by the time I had children. It took many years and three failed pregnancies before I became a mom. Plan A would have been nice, but Plan XYZ isn't so bad, either."

That sentiment was echoed by so many of our survey respondents. When they became a mom wasn't as important as that they simply did. Whether she had a child at 20, 28, 34, or 45, each mom has her own story to tell, a journey that she cherishes. The woman who had her daughter at 47 wrote to us about trying to conceive after years of caring for her sick parents. "After seeing so much death, I wanted a baby. I went to the fertility doctor the day I closed on the sale of my parents' house." And the 23-year-old who grew up in an instant when she gave birth to a beautiful special-needs child tells us, "She is the joy of our lives."

Perhaps none of us truly grow up until we take on the responsibility—and experience the joy—of caring for a child. "Just remember," Sarah Campsey of Portland, Oregon, says, "it's hard to be a mom, no matter how old you are. So let your guard down and go talk to moms of any age. We all have something to share, something to learn."

Written by Patty Onderko. Additional reporting by Abigail Cuffey and Reena Vadehra.