Deciding when to pursue parenthood is as personal as decisions get. You can Google “What’s the best age to have a baby?” and get a dizzying array of info.
The optimal age for a woman to have kids biologically? There’s a stat for that. The ideal age if you want a smart baby (show us a mom who doesn’t!)? There’s a study on that. The perfect age to have your first baby if you’re Sophia Loren? That’s easy: 34. The research is, to say the least, confusing.
Now, reports the The New York Times, there is data on which ages are ideal for starting a family if you hope to eventually catch up to the man in your life in terms of earning power. Per The Times, “Women who have their first child before 25 or after 35 eventually close the salary divide with their husbands. It’s the years in between that are most problematic, research shows.”
Women who out-earn or are on relatively equal financial footing with their spouses see their salaries drop dramatically immediately following the birth of their first child. This seemingly instantaneous doubling of the pay gap is part of what’s known as The Motherhood Penalty. (That term also describes the workplace bias moms face wherein managers and colleagues evaluate them as less competent or committed regardless of effort and performance.)
“When women have their first child between age 25 and 35, their pay never recovers, relative to that of their husbands,” per the The Times, as that decade is prime time to both build a career and have kids. “Yet women who have their first baby either before 25 or after 35—before their careers get started or once they’re established—eventually close the pay gap with their husbands.”
One theory is that if you have your kids relatively young, once they become more independent, you can reenter the work force and—still in your 30s—climb. If you have your first child after 35, your career is probably already well-established. You are likely a highly-educated higher earner to begin with, thus paid leave, some flexibility and being able to afford childcare are all within reach—and contribute to career success. Also, statistically, more women who start families in their late 30s have only one child; possibly the biggest money and time saver of all.
According to science, the timing for moms on the outer edges of the bell curve simply sucks a little less. Having kids between 25 and 35 “seems to be particularly problematic for women building their careers, when they might have to work hardest and prove themselves most, and less so for women who have already established some seniority or who have not yet started careers.”
Here’s another question for the ages: How old does your kid have to be before you can start playing catch-up? “The pay gap grows larger with each additional child,” says The Times. “It does not begin to shrink until children are around 10.”