Childbearing Postponement and Child Well-being: A Complex and Varied Relationship?

Abstract

Over the past several decades, U.S. fertility has followed a trend toward the postponement of motherhood. The socioeconomic causes and consequences of this trend have been the focus of attention in the demographic literature. Given the socioeconomic advantages of those who postpone having children, some authors have argued that the disadvantage experienced by certain groups would be reduced if they postponed their births. The weathering hypothesis literature, by integrating a biosocial perspective, complicates this argument and posits that the costs and benefits of postponement may vary systematically across population subgroups. In particular, the literature on the weathering hypothesis argues that, as a consequence of their unique experiences of racism and disadvantage, African American women may experience a more rapid deterioration of their health which could offset or eventually reverse any socioeconomic benefit of postponement. But because very few African American women postpone motherhood, efforts to find compelling evidence to support the arguments of this perspective rely on a strategy of comparison that is problematic because a potentially selected group of older black mothers are used to represent the costs of postponement. This might explain why the weathering hypothesis has played a rather limited role in the way demographers conceptualize postponement and its consequences for well-being. In order to explore the potential utility of this perspective, we turn our attention to the UK context. Because first-birth fertility schedules are similar for black and white women, we can observe (rather than assume) whether the meaning and consequences of postponement vary across these population subgroups. The results, obtained using linked UK census and birth record data, reveal evidence consistent with the weathering hypothesis in the United Kingdom and lend support to the arguments that the demographic literature would benefit from integrating insights from this biosocial perspective.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A few papers have looked for weathering among other ethnic groups (mainly Mexicans) and report mixed evidence (Khoshnood et al. 2005; Meadows et al. 2013; Wildsmith 2002).

  2. 2.

    The “allostatic load” refers to the price that the body pays for being forced to adapt to adverse psychosocial or physical situations, and it represents either the presence of too much stress or the inefficient operation of the stress hormone response system (McEwen 1998, 2000).

  3. 3.

    Losses to the sample occur because of death and out-migration of LS members, but the sample is maintained through addition of immigrants and new births with LS “birthdates.”

  4. 4.

    When this research was conducted, 2009 was the last available year of vital registration data in the ONS LS.

  5. 5.

    U.S.-born blacks have a similar lineage to the native-born black Caribbean in the United Kingdom (Muennig and Murphy 2011; Peach 2005), who have a less-recent migration history than the black African population (which is also a demographically mixed group). Sample size issues meant that black African and Caribbean mothers could not be analyzed separately and similarly to other studies (Muennig and Murphy 2011); they are grouped into a single category.

  6. 6.

    Registration into the LS occurs via registration to NHS.

  7. 7.

    The Carstairs Index is an unweighted combination of four census variables: unemployment, overcrowding, car ownership, and low social (occupational) class (Morgan and Baker 2006).

  8. 8.

    We classify mothers as having low (less than A-levels) or high (A-levels and above) education. A-levels in England and Wales are studied over a two-year period from approximately age 17 to 18. They are the standard for assessing the suitability of students for progressing to higher education and are, under the international ISCED codes, categorized as “above secondary education.”

  9. 9.

    Model fit tests indicate that adding a cubic term for age significantly improves the model fit when estimating the models for black mothers. For consistency, we estimate the models for white mothers with a cubic specification as well.

  10. 10.

    We conducted a series of robustness checks, which are discussed (but not shown) in Online Resource 1.

  11. 11.

    Results not shown here reveal that although the mean prevalence of LBW is higher for black Caribbean than for black Africans, it markedly increases with maternal age for both groups.

  12. 12.

    Specifically, 9.2 % of births to black mothers occur after age 35 (N = 24).

  13. 13.

    The significant result is driven by group differences at both younger and older ages, although the latter is of greater interest for this study.

  14. 14.

    Similarly to what we argue in the previous paragraph, the distribution of first births of these two groups is also different, with the black sample placed between the advantaged and disadvantaged white mothers.

  15. 15.

    10.7 % (N = 29) and 5.9 % (N = 16) of births to black educated mothers occur, respectively, after age 35 and before age 21.

  16. 16.

    Geronimus et al. (1994) analyzed the association between (young) maternal age and child well-being by looking at children’s cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Their analyses controlled for, but were not stratified by, ethnicity.

  17. 17.

    Details of the study can be found online (http://www.lifestudy.ac.uk/homepage).

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Acknowledgments

The permission of the Office for National Statistics to use the Longitudinal Study is gratefully acknowledged (ONS clearance number 30143), as is the help provided by staff of the Centre for Longitudinal Study Information and User Support (CeLSIUS). CeLSIUS is supported by the ESRC Census of Population Programme (Award Ref: RES-348-25-0004). The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data. Census output is Crown copyright and is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland. Goisis gratefully acknowledges the support of the ESRC ES/H013253/1 and the LSE Titmuss Meinhardt funding. Sigle-Rushton gratefully acknowledges the support of ESRC RES-177-25-0016 Children’s Health Disparities in the U.S. and the UK: The Role of the Family. We thank Alicia Adsera, Kathleen Kiernan, Sarah McLanahan, Mike Murphy, Lucinda Platt, Rebecca Sear, and Marta Tienda for useful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Alice Goisis.

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Goisis, A., Sigle-Rushton, W. Childbearing Postponement and Child Well-being: A Complex and Varied Relationship?. Demography 51, 1821–1841 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0335-4

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Keywords

  • Childbearing postponement
  • Maternal age
  • Weathering hypothesis
  • Low birth weight
  • Ethnicity