The transition to parenthood is a key moment in a person’s development. Children often represent a key source of meaning and stability in parents’ lives. The joy of parenthood, however, comes hand in hand with a great many demands on parents’ financial, emotional, and temporal resources. It is therefore important that prospective parents are prepared for their new role – a first birth which comes at a time when parents lack the necessary resources to cope can create stress, financial hardship, and impact on subsequent educational and labour market attainment.
This study contributes to understanding the link between age at first birth and subsequent parental health in later life by contextualizing this relationship in terms of the parents’ broader socio-economic, partnership, and parenting circumstances. Using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, we analyse the relationship between age at first birth and general physical health and number of chronic diseases.
Consistent with previous research, our results show that older age at first birth is related to significantly better general physical health and fewer chronic diseases for both men and women. However, we also find that the magnitude of this relationship is reduced for more advantaged persons, suggesting that new parents who are more generally ‘advantaged’ are able to deploy their resources to better juggle the demands of parenthood with the competing priorities of work, partnership, and their health, mitigating the worst health consequences of a poorly timed first birth.
We also show that the strength of the relationship between age at first birth and physical health depends on marital history in a gender-specific fashion. Relationships between age at first birth and general health/chronic disease were notably stronger among women who either never married or were unmarried at the time of the first birth. This likely reflects the importance of husbands’ resources and assistance for new mothers’ ability to manage competing demands in the family and labour market over a period of their life course when mothering demands may significantly limit their ability to generate resources independently.
Our research emphasizes the need for researchers to address relationships between life course trajectories and health in a more integrated and holistic fashion which incorporates the dynamic relationships between multiple social domains (partnership, fertility, work, etc.) and the way in which statuses in these domains may alter the meaning and consequences of other statuses.
November 30, 2015