Hewlett's book, and the media onslaught that followed it, seem to have reflected a nostalgia for an earlier, simpler age, when men were men and women stayed home to take care of their children. And once upon a time, that division of labor made sense. In the agricultural age, women conceived younger and many more children because children were economic assets as workers on the farm. In the post-industrial age, children are emotional assets but economic liabilities, costing both a middle class husband and wife and a single parent over $10,000 a year. More often than not, the male head of household cannot support that family on his own. Women need to build their careers in order to become their own economic assets and to support their families. (Many women, of course, have also found that they really like working.) Women have therefore put earning power before procreative power. We are getting married and having children after we get our master's degrees and the corner office.
The age of first-time motherhood - and fatherhood – is rising all over the developing world, especially in urban centers among the middle and upper middle class. Just in America, the number the number of women becoming pregnant between the ages of 35 and 44 has nearly doubled in the US since 1980. In 2003, the number of women over 40 who gave birth in a single year topped 100,000 for the first time.
The shape of human life has changed dramatically in the last 100 years throughout the industrialized world. It's not just that women are waiting longer to have children. People are also living much longer -- nearly twice as long they were as 100 years ago. The various stages of our lives – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond –are all extending, and sometimes we're shifting the sequence as well. Technology and feminism have made it possible for women to make choices they couldn't have made even a generation ago. Many women are getting pregnant before they get engaged or walk down the aisle. Some women are even having children as "Single Mothers By Choice" before finding husbands, or freezing their own eggs to donate to themselves further down the road. Amidst the flurry of stories about "Baby Panic," I read an article about a 58-year-old British woman who had given birth to twins conceived from donated embryos!
The effect of Hewlett's book, and the "baby panic" furor that followed, was to make women feel women more constrained by biology at a time when they should be feeling less constrained than ever. Women have a range of choices unprecedented in human history.