Delaying Parenthood May Come at a Cost

Our great natural experiment in late parenthood might yield some harsh surprises

Posted Dec 11, 2012

We're engaged in a great natural experiment in the timing of parenthood, according to a remarkable cover story in this week's The New Republic, and it's not necessarily going to end well.

With more and more young people waiting until their late 30s and early 40s to start their families, writes Judith Shulevitz, this great natural experiment will affect "what our families and our workforce will look like, how healthy we’ll be, and also—not to be too eugenicist about it—the future well-being of the human race."

The story starts with a long list of all the ways that delaying can wreak havoc with the next generation's health: higher risks of schizophrenia, autism, and developmental delays to children born to older fathers, more chances of chromosomal damage for children born to older mothers, increasing reliance on ever-more-intrusive forms of assisted reproductive technology (ART) the longer folks wait to get pregnant, a greater likelihood that the children of older parents will become orphaned as relatively young adults.

Shulevitz then breaks into an aside about some of the positive aspects of the slower path toward parenthood, especially for young women:

A remarkable feature of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph, in part because it’s the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it. Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they’re not wrong about that. So each time an age limit is breached or a new ART procedure is announced, it’s met with celebration. Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children.

As a result, the twenties have turned into a lull in the life cycle, when many young men and women educate themselves and embark on careers or journeys of self-discovery, or whatever it is one does when not surrounded by diapers and toys. This is by no means a bad thing, for children or for adults. Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.

The delay in first-time parenthood in this country is unmistakable. As Shulevitz points out, the average age of first birth in the U.S. was 25.4 in 2010, nearly four years older than it was in 1970. There's a lot of variation in this age, of course, in terms of geography, ethnicity, and class—ranging from 22.9 in Mississippi to 28 in Massachusetts, from 23.1 among African-Americans to 29.1 among Asian-Americans. One in three female college graduates waits until after age 30 to have her first child, while for women without a degree that number is just one in ten.

So there's a definite trend toward older parenthood. But even though it's a trend that she herself is part of—she was 38 when her first child was born; her husband was in his 40s—Shulevitz sees it as something to worry about, and something that we'd do well to try to reverse.

"Doctors will have to get the word out," she writes, "about how much male and female fertility wanes after 35; make it clear that fertility treatments work less well with age; warn that tinkering with reproductive material at the very earliest stages of a fetus’s growth may have molecular effects we’re only beginning to understand."

But, as she points out, getting the word out isn't enough. It's true that young people have surprisingly low "Fertility IQs" and really don't understand how hard it is to get pregnant, even with the help of ART, in your 30s or 40s. But it's not just lack of information that's keeping young people from rushing to have kids. They have to give up too much, with too little institutional help, to commit to a family before they feel completely secure in their professions and their personal lives. Gone are the days when young people grew up through having children; today, they feel that they have to grow up first. 

About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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