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Best of 2009: Another Fake Trend Story on Women, Childbirth and Careers

All day, we’re re-running our favorite blog posts of the last year. This post was originally published on Feb. 4, 2009.

The Wall Street Journal attempts to add another chapter to the long-running debate over women seeking to balance raising children with careers. In a story today, the Journal reports that new data shows a reversal of a long-term trend, with younger women now having children at earlier ages and delaying careers.

I’d put this piece away in the circular file.

First, the story – like so many others – somehow assumes that either women procreate on their own or make all the decisions about childbearing in their relationships. One would glean from the Journal piece that men are apparently absent from these major life decisions. They are never actually mentioned by name in the story, so we can only assume that men never choose to delay building a family for their careers. They want to start popping out dozens of kids from the get-go, it seems, but career-obsessed women stand in the way.

I’m sure you know lots of people in relationships just like that.

From the Journal:

For the first time since government records have been kept, the average age at which women have their first babies posted a decline — according to newly released data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Mothers’ mean age at their first childbirth fell to 25.0 years in 2006, the most recent figures available, from 25.2 in 2005. Women ages 20 to 24 led the shift, with a 5% increase in the rate of first births.

A one-year reversal doesn’t make a trend, of course. But the study lends weight to anecdotal evidence that young women are tuning in more closely to their biological clocks. “It’s the first time it’s ever gone down, and certainly that’s noteworthy,” says Brady Hamilton, co-author of the study.

There’s that anecdotal evidence again. The story notes, correctly, that a one-year reversal doesn’t make a trend, then writes a trend story about it anyway. Here’s more of the “evidence”:

Other factors are at work too, including rising numbers of Hispanics, who tend to start families sooner, says Steven Martin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. A 4% rise in the rate of first births to older teens, ages 15 to 19, is also playing a role. And the sheer size of the baby boomlet generation, now entering the child-bearing years, may be skewing new mothers’ mean age lower.

So basically, we don’t know what the decrease really means. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, in general, I don’t find a slight rise in older teens having children any kind of positive trend – although I guess you could say those young women certainly aren’t putting their careers first!

Never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the Journal goes on to cite experts who say the numbers – even if we don’t know what they mean – really do show a new trend, and then pulls out a few examples of younger women saying they didn’t want to put off having kids for their careers.

Their husbands and boyfriends are never interviewed or quoted talking about their preferences, or whether the entire trend of women delaying childbirth for their careers had anything to do with men choosing to delay starting a family in favor of their careers.

Women may face pay inequalities and other discrimination, but apparently they rule the roost in all things having to do with childbirth and careers, and men are mere bystanders. And when it comes to the Journal, even if we’re not really sure what women are doing and why, we’re going to follow the time-honored journalistic tradition of fake trend stories about women and work and just say what we’d like to believe — and then hope that someday, maybe, it comes true.

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