Last weekend many of us around the world celebrated Mother’s Day. Our eldest son made Shannon a card and then couldn’t wait to give it to her on the day, and so she received it a day early. We went out with Shannon’s parents for a late brunch on the day and gave small gifts to the mothers – the usual stuff that one does on Mother’s Day.

But as another Mother’s Day rolls around, it might give us slight pause to note that, in the USA at least, mothers as a societal group are becoming less common. According to this article in the Atlantic magazine, it is true that the absolute number of mothers in the USA is growing, but this increase is not keeping up with population growth as a whole. Thus, “the share of the American population who are mothers is at the lowest point it’s been in a quarter century”. After hitting around 28 per cent of the population in the late 1980s, the number of mothers has declined to around 27 per cent today. The number of mothers with children at home with them has also declined even more, from 17 per cent in the 1990s to almost 15 per cent today. Despite the growth of the phenomenon of older children returning to live at home with their parents, the decline in mothers with children at home with them perhaps suggests the current 27 per cent of the nation who are mothers are made up of older mothers whose children have left home and that these older mothers are not being adequately replaced by younger ones.  

And there is no doubt that, in general, the age of mothers in the USA has increased. According to the Atlantic:

“In just the past few years, the peak childbearing age range for American women has advanced from 25-to-29 to 30-to-34. Meanwhile, childbearing among women under 20 has fallen by half or more, while childbearing among women 35 and older is rising.”

The reasons behind this increase in the age of American mothers are varied: the well-educated tend to be delaying marriage; the wider use of contraceptives and sex-ed; perhaps the increased use of social media and pornography which diminishes the face-to-face time of teens and reduces the opportunity time for high-pregnancy-risk sex.

At the other end of the age scale, the ability for women to have children later in life is increasing due to a large number of fertility-enhancing medications, reproduction-assisting technology, better medical care and improved maternal education. However, it seems highly unlikely that increases in the number of later-in-life babies will be able to offset the fewer babies born earlier in life.

Ironically perhaps, retail spending on Mother’s Day in the USA is rising, even as mothers are shrinking as a proportion of the population. This may simply reflect the overall growing population, or it may be that the larger proportion of adult children spend more generously to celebrate the mothers they no longer live with (At 12 per cent, the proportion of the population who are empty-nest mums is at its highest in US history). So even as mothers become less common, do not expect the retail paraphernalia of Mother’s Day to decline anytime soon!

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...