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Ready?

I never even thought about kids until my early thirties. But at that point, fresh out of grad school and starting the career I’d worked hard for, I could begin envisioning the future. Though there remained a few things I wanted to accomplish before taking the plunge, the attractions of children—of packing lunchboxes, telling jokes at the dinner table, and singing with my own kids the songs my mama sang to me—were exerting new influence.

A few years later, on a hospital visit to a good friend who had just delivered her second child, my husband and I admired the rather surprised-looking baby, listened to the heroic labor story, congratulated everyone involved, and got up to go. As we hugged good-bye, my friend looked at me and said, “Your turn!”

We knew she was right. Recently married and newly tenured, Patrick and I definitely felt ready to expand our family. A year later, our first daughter was born on a steamy August day in Houston. I was 39.

Fast forward to kindergarten: When we walked into the classroom with our daughter on her first day, she took off to connect with all the other 5-year-olds, and we met a collection of moms and dads. Unlike the kids, the parents varied in age—but I was particularly alert to the moms: some were 20-somethings, but most had passed 30 and six of us were over 40. At 44, I was not the oldest. As a group, our mix was pretty standard for urban schools these days, though in some urban neighborhoods you have to look hard to find a new mom under 30. As we worked on school projects together in the next few months, I learned what these women did for their livings; they were doctors, administrators, software managers, scientists, architects, bankers, and dentists. Most of them worked full time, but several had “retired” from long careers—for the time being, anyway.

What a different scene from the one my mother entered when she first took me to kindergarten. Though she started her family at 30, most of the other moms were in their twenties. And while most of them had worked and some kept on working, their career paths tended to be much less professionally oriented, much less well paid, and often much shorter than moms’ careers today.

If you’re a woman thinking about children these days—either because you have them already or because you’re thinking about whether or when to have them—the link between job opportunities and age means something to you. Usually when you hear it mentioned in the media, it’s presented as a problem—even a contradiction. You may remember how a few years back Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life made a lot of us suddenly nervous about our fertility when she told us very firmly that, if women delayed their childbearing to focus on their careers, they were going to miss their opportunity to have kids. If you wait, you’ll be too late, story after story since then warns us.

But what about all the 40-something moms dropping off kids at the grade school gates these days? How do they fit into the picture?

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