The Older Parent Trend

My, um, well, I think of her as my sister-in-law because I like her so much but actually she is the wife of the man I used to be married to...anyway, Judith Shulevitz has just published an excellent--and frightening--piece in The New Republic about older parenthood. What does it mean, she asks, not only medically but sociologically and economically, that so many people have delayed--and are continuing to delay--having children? What are the consequences for society? What are the consequences for families?

Why did I start this post with a musing about what, exactly, Judith's title in my life is? Because her presence in my life, and in the lives of my children, has a great deal to do with this phenomenon. She and her husband started a new family as my children were heading into adolescence. That raises a whole host of issues right there--and I will be forever grateful that Judith was such a loving, warm, and devoted "step" to my children.

Judith makes the point that people--men and women--don't really understand the risks of waiting longer to have children; they kind of drift into the delay. However, I vividly remember the media blitz about the "biological time clock" that was ticking throughout my twenties. I remember the charts and graphs that showed the risks of chromosomal abnormalities rising rather sharply as women hit their thirties. And I remember thinking, O Heavens, I had better get going, a first child before I was 30 was key...We knew the risks--at least some of them. I felt like I was in a sort of feminist vice: wanting to get my career going, wanting to have some financial cushion, a track record of earning power, and yet racing against that tick tock in the alligator of trouble, creeping around in the swamp of the unknowable.

What changed is that it became medically possible to wait, and wait, because of fertility treatments. And, speaking for everyone who has been lucky enough to have the children they did because of those medical advances, I'm glad for them. There is a risk associated with anything that tampers with nature. (As we are learning, on a planetary level.) But the statistical possibility of something going wrong is much smaller than the enormous joy those later life children have brought into our lives.

One note Judith hits is that the longer we are around, gonads and all, the longer the chemical burden our bodies bear affects us. This ties directly to a nascent field of research around the older sperm's contribution to genetic abnormalities. We need much more research on the impact of all the toxic chemicals we sleep and sit on (those flame retardants in foam), the chemicals that off-gas from our furniture and cabinets (formaldehydes), the chemicals we rub into our skins or eat with our food (endocrine disrupters). That's my plug for toxic chemical reform. It will make parenting safer.

As for being young or old when you have children? All I can say, as a 57-year old mother, is that I hope my own children don't wait until I am too old to babysit. When would that be? When I'm 100. Is one ever too old to become a grandmother? I don't think so. But, ahem, hurry up, guys.

It is always a roll of the dice, having children. 


Sue Robins said...

Your friend Judith crafts a very well written piece - kudos to her. As a mother to a child with Down syndrome, I do object to the negative language associated with 'defects' (there's the first negative word). 'Risk', 'abnormality'...what if children with differences were embraced as natural parts of the human fabric of life, instead of judged as tragedies? My son has taught me to 'slow love life' in a way that neither of my 'typical' children did. Andrew Solomon's important book: "Far from the tree" explains this well.

theresa said...

Nice article. It raises some interesting points but it doesn't touch on tiredness - a huge undiscussed limitation to parenting, imagining all else goes well. But then I think would experience trump it? Hard to tell- must wait for grandchildren to test those waters.

Sara said...

Thank you for posting this, the article raised a lot of questions for me, but also answered some. I realized now that I feel rather strongly about having children the natural way and it may have been the decisive factor in my own decisions about the issue. When I found out at age 33, six years ago, that I have a such anomalies in my reproductive system that both conceiving and carrying a baby would (at least statistically, but to my mind also practically) be enormously difficult, and quite possibly lethal for one or both, I went through a mourning period of a couple of years. In the end, I decided to not even try to get pregnant, because I'd rather live a hopefully otherwise healthy life with my husband (I'd just met him when I found out all this) and two step-children, and concentrate on other wonderful things in life. They are so many, after all :) Occasionally, something will make me feel inconsolably sad about not having a child of my own, but if I let myself really feel that sadness, it passes.

In Finland, where I live, you see both a lot of teen-aged mothers and women who are having their first child near their forties, but not that many in their twenties and early thirties..

Sara said...

Btw, I know that the main issue in the article was different from what I focused on, but that's how it spoke to me..

karen S said...

very interesting article, especially her mentioning that we are conducting a massive experiment whose outcome we are just beginning to put together. we absolutely need toxic chemical reform and longitudinal studies before unleashing dangerous chemicals into the populace. The long-term effects of eating genetically modified foods (GMOs) is also just being discovered. Since they were quietly introduced into the food supply in the mid-90's, incidence of allergies, autism, and digestive disorders has increased.

thanks for posting ...

Karen Albert said...

Dominique I had my children very young and so now am enjoying my grandchildren. I would never want to miss out on that! I do respect everyone's choice though...

2012 Artists Series,

Mary said...

Great topic. One that I have dealt with my entire life (with some serious consequences) as my father was 50 and my mother 35 when I was born. It is not only the biological clock that is ticking. It is the energy level available to be spent on 22 years of raising the child. I am all for having children in late 20's and early 30's --as we humans were designed for that time frame. Thanks for making this conversation possible.

Benita G. Bowen said...

Oh my goodness. This is one of the most important articles i read lately, and thank you Dominique for sharing Judith's excellent research and well written discussion. Why, oh why, does the scientific community and government regulators allow drugs and procedures without solid knowledge about the consequences? It makes me very sad.

Windlost said...

This topic is so complex. I had many burdens early in my adult life - debt from my education, the need for a financial cushion as I am from working class means, and also a very ill parent for many years (I'm the only child). Also it took a while to find that mate with whom I felt safe and eager to have a family with! By then I was 39. I was sure I would conceive easily...everyone talks about fertility drugs. Well I did not conceive easily after many trials and IVF etc. So at 41 I am childless and not sure how to feel and whether to regret or just to accept this as the course my life took. Do we try a donor egg, adopt, or not bother? It is complicated. Women today have freedom of choosing to conceive and that leads to issues as we leave it later (for many good and valid reasons).

We have to accept the consequences. We are not all ready for a family at 30. We are not wrong to try when we are ready and I bet all of us who could not conceive at 40 wish we had tried sooner but you know, sooner wasn't possible. The best age to conceive is about 18 (haha) but many of us, had we done that, might not have had all the other successes in our lives. The only right answer is the individual's.

Darlene said...

Interesting article and conclusion. What if women did make starting a family a higher priority than starting a career. It might be a change in direction, but it's doable and makes a lot of good sense. You have more energy for the child and the career when you are young, and if you choose to have more children you have older children at home who can help. This actually was my situation. Our first daughter was born when I was 23 years old and our second daughter when I was 34 years old. I returned to work when our first daughter was 6 months old and when our second daughter was 15 months old. I can honestly say it had no effect on my career. The only negative I ever experienced was something my youngest daughter said to me when she was about nine years old..."Ma, you are really old. All the kids in my class have moms younger than you." Another reason for starting a family sooner than later - kids prefer younger parents.

warren said...

Color me and my ex lucky. Late to marry; late to parent. With none of the issues raised in that article. Now 63 with two teen girls 18 and 17 I feel blessed. I think I would have been a lousy(er) father if I had married and fathered earlier. Yes, it is hard to forge friendships with parents of playmates when you are 10-15 years older. Yes, the girls are beginning to notice my declining memory. (When the girls in some flummox remind me that I don't know anything, I am the first to agree.) Yes, they seem uncomprehending about my ability to nap.

Being older, I have already mourned and buried my parents. Being older and living in a state where details over my end-of-life decisions are more in my control, I have taken steps to make sure the girls are spared as much as possible.

My oldest has just been accepted into college. Every other conversation includes something like 'I wish I were in college now.' I am already missing her. She is already planning the arc of her life. Those plans don't include living near me, nursing me. Why should they?

Why do we have kids? When is the right time? God only knows. I just know I am glad I did -- even at 47.

As I write this Ravi Shankar dies at 92, father of 33 year old Nora Jones. Lessee that makes him 59 at her birth...... 61 at Anouska's.

warren said...

There is no doubt that environmental issues are challenging fertility and life expectancy. In colonial America the odds were that you would be dead by your early 30's. Most people married in their teens, with large families and high infant death rates. In 1900 the average man died at 55, now late 70s. Men's life expectancy in Russia has actually declined since the fall of the USSR. Tonight President Putin is warning about DECLINING population. He won't care how old couples are when they parent. France recognized this early with very pro-family social services.

Mia said...

The best thing you can do for your girls is live healthy, keep your spirits up, be easy to be around, and last but not least stay young. You know before you know it, your girls will be calling you, because Dads are always first up when they have a have a problem.
Here is a view of whats to come, the college years, lots of money needs...and broken hearts, not to mention roommate problems and mean professors.
First jobs are always a challenge, teaching your kids how to circumvent problems at work and handle difficult bosses and co- workers. Then comes the engagement, of course no guy is good enough for you, but your daughter is head over heels so you accept and act graciously at their weddings, Wedding for Dads aren't so bad, just expensive!
Then comes the first house and then again did I say expensive yet! You just get over that Dad, and then suddenly and joyfully you are a Grandfather, Oh the joy, Dad will you babysit for a few days while we go away??? Oh, by the way, grand-kids are also very expensive! One car seat will set you back $400.00, a high end and safe carriage $ 600.00. I could go on but I want to leave you some peace of mind.
So, I would recommend that you take the next few years of of your girls Independence and enjoy it, they will be BACK!

warren said...

Thanks Mia. I appreciate the time and thought you spent on this. We have a special relationship which can only get better. Guess I better start robbing banks, or better yet as the parable says in the Bible, 'teach them how to fish....'

Mia said...

Yes, I agree with you on the "teach them how to fish", living within your means and, yes, saying no to yourself and going without are very important for kids to learn. When my kids were growing up I think they saw this example. All my kids worked from the age of 15, now they are all working 50 to 60 hours a week because of job demands. I sometimes wonder if we set standards to high for them. Ah, but that's the lament of every parent, always wondering if you did the right thing. Because of a few wind falls and bonuses we were able to help them for a time.
Helping our children gave my husband great joy before he died. The last year of his life even while undergoing chemotherapy he insisted on traveling every week with me to care for our first grandchild while both parents worked, It is etched in my memory forever the sight of him walking the floor with a 3 month for hours, trying to hold down food himself, telling me the distraction helped.
My comment was just tongue and cheek, although there really is a lot of truth to it. Parents of our generation just seem to want to help their kids and make life easier for them, right or wrong who knows, and whose to judge really.

mary in Cincinnati said...

My ex married my husband's sister....no confusion over what to call them!!

Ginger Moran said...

Dominique, This is such an important topic and I'm so glad you pointed me toward this article that sums up the most recent findings so intelligently. I work in the field of college women's health and well-being and THERE IS NO SENSE WHATSOEVER that these intelligent young women should be paying attention to the clock ticking. I'm going to make it a point to get this article out there. I was personally unbelievably lucky to have had healthy kids at 39 and 40, but that didn't save me from facing the issue of going into my 60s with no grandkids in sight! I told my kids unabashedly and only half-jokingly that there is nothing wrong with teenage marriage, in a shameless effort to have those grandbabies while I can still be helpful. Neither boy listened. Now I will lobby for early-20s marriages!

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