Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

When Is the Right Time to Get Married and Have a Family?

The children pay for our freedom

Judith Shulevitz has a thought provoking article in The New Republic about the cost of the feminist breakthroughs of birth control and equality in the workplace.  Nineteenth-century French critic Alexis de Tocqueville had deplored how the independence of American women was irreversibly lost in the bonds of matrimony, with the burden of immediate and extended motherhood. The technological advancement of birth control has allowed women to choose when or if  to have children and the advancement of women in education and in the vocational world in the last century has resulted in deferring starting a family. A new study from researchers at Brigham Young University concurs, showing that college students now target the age of 25 as the right time to get married, a four-year jump since 1970.  

As in any change in society, there is always a cost which has been little mentioned until now: the children.

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Ms. Shulevitz observed that when college and career women face an unequal penalty for having children that their male competitors don't face, they behave rationally and tend not to reproduce or reproduce later and at a lower level than they would have otherwise desired. But if women are repopulating America at an older age, then it means many men are also becoming fathers with gray on the temples.  This has a biological cost, as age diminishes fertility for both sexes and increases the statistical chances for birth defects. For instance, the Center fof Disease Control reports that the number of infants born with Down Syndrome was almost five times higher among births to older mothers than to younger mothers.  In addition, fertility treatment is being used by a desperate older population willing to try out relatively new techniques as human guinea pigs, with a slightly increased chance of birth defects from assisted reproductive technologies, according to  a recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The costs of women deferring motherhood are well known, but there is a less well known cost to men deferring fatherhood. Dwarfism, Apert Syndrome, Marfans Syndrome and cleft palate are some of the genetic mutations that can be passed on from father to child. Research shows that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old man to transmit these kind of genetic defects to his children. Although some researchers think the 17% increase in the last decade in learning problems, ADHD, autism and other developmental challenges in children may be due to better reporting or other environmental factors,  some think it may be due to the recent phenomenon of both men and women deferring parenthood.

American women have always known they ultimately face a biological clock. But the clock tolls for men too. Many people consider their 20s as a time of educational and career advancement, experimentation and finding oneself. The knowledge that deferring children to some later date has equal genetic risks for men as well as women is an important factor everyone should take into account as one enters a relationship and contemplates having a meaningless fling or perhaps consider a deeper commitment leading to marriage and family.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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