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New study shows real reason women delay having children

Education is not the main reson women pospone motherhood, despite studies suggesting that over recent decades. New research shows family background has a bigger influence on the decision.

New research from the University of Oxford in the UK and the Universities of Groningen and Wageningen in the Netherlands sheds new light on the theory that women have postponed motherhood largely because they want to go onto college or university to gain qualifications or fulfil educational aspirations before starting a family.

The researchers found that in the UK, a woman’s family background was the major factor rather than education.

Compared with the end of the Second World War, the average age of first-time mothers throughout Europe and the United States increased by as many as four to five years at the end of the 20th century.

Researchers now calculated, using nationally representative data, that for every extra year of educational enrolment after the age of 12, a woman delayed motherhood by an average of six months. But scientists also found that the main influence on whether a woman postpones having children is largely associated with her family background.

The paper Education, Fertility Postponement and Causality, published in the journal Demography, concludes that family environment, a combination of a woman’s social, economic and genetic factors, is significant, with education alone contributing to only 1.5 months of the total six-month delay.

“Our research casts doubt on previous studies that claim a strong link between educational expansion for women and the postponement of motherhood. We find that both education and a woman’s fertility choices seem to be mostly influenced by her family background, instead of education influencing fertility behaviour directly. For example, families provide social and financial support, and pass on genes affecting reproductive behaviour. A large part of the observed association between education and age at first birth in other studies can actually be explained by the family environment.” lead author Dr Felix Tropf, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, explained.

In isolation, education has a much smaller effect. We hope this important finding that a large part of the link between educational enrolment and fertility postponement is not causal but spurious may inform those forecasting future fertility trends or shaping family policy.” he added.

According to the paper, the average age of women when they left education rose steadily throughout the 20th century, however, the age of first-time mothers did not follow the same pattern but formed a U-shape instead. New mothers were still relatively young after World War Two during the so-called ‘baby boom’ but were also generally becoming more highly educated.

Only from the 1960s did women start to delay motherhood; this development coincided with the introduction of the contraceptive Pill, notes the research.

The scientists used nationally representative data from the Office of National Statistics for cohorts of women born in the UK between 1944 and 1967 to track patterns of educational enrollment to see how they influence reproductive behaviour.

The researchers also compared the fertility histories of more than 2,700 female twins from the largest adult twin register in the United Kingdom (set up in 1992), which acts as a controlled trial because this isolates the effects of different levels of education between siblings in pairs of twins who share so many other characteristics.

John Beckett