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It’s no wonder the average age of new mothers in Ireland is at an all-time high

The days are long, the years are short and the torrents of unwanted advice are interminable

It’s hard to imagine any woman makes it to 35 these days without being able to rattle off the very long list of things that are supposed to negatively affect her fertility: age, weight, food additives, plastics, alcohol, diet, stress, genes, smoking, even shampoo. But women either haven’t been listening to the endless dire warnings, or they have been ignoring them, because the average age of mothers giving birth in Ireland is now at its highest since records began.

In 1991, the average age of all mothers was more or less unchanged from 30 years previously, at 29.6. But by 2021, according to data just published by the CSO, it was 33.3. And just as the number of women over 40 giving birth is reaching its highest level – 5,101 births, an increase of one third on a decade earlier – the number of teenage mothers has plummeted to its lowest point since 1958.

Data can only ever offer a tantalising glimpse at a wider truth about society, but what these figures hint at are two increasingly divergent experiences of motherhood.

Take the figures for mothers by occupation. In 2021, only 17 per cent of mothers put their occupation down as “homemaker”. But that figure conceals dramatic variations. Two thirds of mothers under 20 years and 43 per cent of those in their early 20s said they were a homemaker, compared with 12 per cent of those in their 30s and 40s.


Mirroring trends in other parts of the world, women in more prosperous areas and those who are in long-term relationships appear to be choosing to give birth later. In affluent Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, the average age of women who were married or in a civil partnership at the time they gave birth was 35.7. In Co Cork and Co Galway, it was 35.3, and in Dublin City and Cork City, it was 34.8. In contrast, those who were not married and were living in Co Carlow, Co Westmeath and Co Wexford accounted for the youngest first-time mothers, giving birth around 28.5. Data from the 2022 Census also finds that the average number of children per family fell by 26 per cent to 1.34 on the previous censuses.

This is partly because children are expensive and because it takes much longer now to buy a home than it did for previous generations. But it’s also a reflection of women pushing back against the confusing messages society gives about what is expected of them. “Work hard!” “Study STEM!” “Be financially independent!” “Get a degree!” “You’re not still single are you?” “Find a job with meaning!” “Don’t neglect your career!” “Lean in!” “Oops, don’t forget to have a baby!” “Who’s minding the baby?” “Is dad babysitting?”

“You should breastfeed for at least a year.” “You should go back to work at nine months.” “Your babies won’t be babies forever.” “Unfortunately the creche won’t have a place until 2025.” “Asking for part-time work sends the wrong message.” “Don’t forget the school closes for midterm at 11.30am.” “Our clients don’t work 9 to 5, you know.” “Children need their mothers around.” “Set a good example to your daughters.” “It’s when they’re teens that they really need you at home.” “Do you work, or are you a full-time mother?”

The days are long, the years are short and the torrents of unwanted advice are interminable.

The truth is that, of course, women who are waiting longer to have children didn’t just wake up one day and realise they’d forgotten to have them. They are making an entirely rational choice in a society that, despite the data to the contrary, still stubbornly behaves as though 100 per cent of households with children have a full-time parent at home. They are familiar with the warnings about the so-called fertility cliff; equally, they want to be established in their lives and careers. They know that as soon as they do have children the motherhood penalty will kick in, marking a slow, inexorable decline in their career trajectory that will last a decade or two.

So they postpone it for a bit, getting their ducks in a row before introducing any ducklings. And then yes, just like the hectoring media warned, some wait so long they bump into a fertility crisis.

Of course, there’s another dimension to this story that rarely gets mentioned. It takes two people – at least – to make a baby. If mothers are waiting longer, then so are fathers. Yet it’s only women who are judged harshly or expected to grin their way politely through the prodding and the hectoring and the chiding.

While hardly a month goes by without some dire warning about women’s fertility, the notion of a male biological clock remains an absolute taboo. But we know that men’s fertility, just like women’s, declines with age. A study of more than 40.5 million births in the United States revealed potentially harmful effects of advanced paternal age, including prematurity, low birth weight, low Apgar score and risk of seizures. Other studies have found an increased incidence of autism.

It is telling that the CSO does not capture the age of fathers as part of its Vital Statistics Annual report (although it records everything from the baby’s birth weight to parental nationality), as though that’s nobody else’s business. The message from society generally is that men can go on having babies forever. Just look at Robert de Niro still popping them out at 79. And nobody asks him who’s going to mind the baby when he goes back to work.