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Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Why Waiting to Have Children Poses More Risks Than Benefits

Should you consider freezing your eggs so you can have children later?

Apple and Facebook have decided to help women spend more of their prime reproductive years in the workforce by covering the cost of egg-freezing, up to $20,000 per employee. The cost of egg freezing is up to $10,000 per cycle. The idea is that such a move will free women from the inconvenience of their biological clocks, allowing them to build their careers when they are young and have their children later in life.

Is this something women should do? No, I don't think it is. Let's count the reasons why:

1. Age-related fertility decline isn't a "woman's problem".

As a man ages, his sperm decline in number and motility, they become oddly shaped, and they suffer DNA fragmentation. And that starts at about age 35. According to a 2011 report published in the medical journal Reviews in Urology, men over 35 are twice as likely to be infertile as those under 25. A 2008 study found that sperm from men in their late 30s were less likely to result in healthy pregnancy than sperm from younger men. Men older than 40 produced a successful pregnancy in only 10% of cases, and one third of these cases resulted in miscarriage. Other studies have shown that compared to the children of fathers aged 20 to 24, children born to men age 45 and older had about twice the risk of developing psychosis, more than three times the risk of autism, about 13 times the risk of having attention deficit disorder, and a higher incidence of academic difficulties and substance abuse.

So we need to stop thinking that only women have biological clocks.

2. Pregnancy becomes increasing more physically difficult and dangerous with age.

It's not just about the eggs. The environment within which the embryo and fetus develop matters as well. Pregnancy makes heavy demands on a woman's body in order to reach full term. According to the Mayo Clinic, pregnant women over 35 years of age are more likely to develop gestational diabetes, more likely to develop high blood pressure, more likely to have a low birth weight baby, more likely to have a premature birth, and are more likely to suffer miscarriage.

3. The problem isn't just pregnancy.

Giving birth isn't like having a tumor removed. When the pregnancy ends in childbirth, you have a baby-- a real live organism that expects and demands--more than any other species on the planet--a ridiculously high level of parental care. Human offspring cannot sit up when they are born, don't sleep through the night until their fourth month, can't walk until the end of the first year of life, don't begin forming intelligible sentences until the end of toddlerhood, and need constant supervision until almost the second decade of life. Compare that to dogs or cats who are fully functioning adults in a year.

The most crucial period is ages 0-3 when the brain experiences enormous proliferation and pruning of brain cells—if the brain receives proper stimulation. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a baby's brain reaches about 90 percent of its adult size by age 3. But this growth spurt is highly dependent on receiving stimulation that provides the foundation for learning. It is during this period that children are most demanding of adult attention, and their personality development is most influenced by the people around them. Yet we still tend to think taking care of very young children is nothing more than babysitting.

4. The workplace demands an unbroken career trajectory

The contemporary workplace was designed with the assumption of a sex-linked division of labor: The wife is home taking care of the kids and running the house, and the husband devotes most of his waking hours to building his career and bringing home a paycheck. When women entered the workforce, this didn't change. We initially believed that if Americans could maintain a middle class existence with one partner working 40-50 hours weekly, then we could maintain a middle class existence with two partners working 20-25 hours weekly.

But because we absolutely will not accept the idea of a part-time professional, going part time has continued to mean low-paying "support staff" positions that are kept as far from high level decision-making as possible. This is absurd. If a self-employed physician or attorney cuts back on work hours, they do not not suddenly become incapable of making high level decisions.

More importantly, the "ideal" career trajectory has not changed. We are supposed to enter the workplace in our twenties, build our careers in our thirties, and rise to ever higher levels of power and income in our forties and beyond. No breaks in this trajectory are tolerated--no time off, no "lateral moves" to positions that ease travel demands or work load, and definitely no part-time options.

This has spelled disaster for the American family. The workplace is full of twenty-something, thirty-something, and forty-something walking-zombie parents who discovered too late that raising preschool children isn’t like baby sitting at all: It is far more demanding. If we try to fob off childrearing onto women from lower socioeconomic classes (which is what we do these days), we're shocked to find that the market values childcare enormously: We find ourselves having to pay thousands of dollars monthly to someone else to raise our preschool kids for us. Add that to our monthly mortgage or rent payment and you will easily discover why we can't build any real personal wealth.

5. The pressure to freeze your eggs

Now that these forward-thinking technology giants have offered this "option" to female employees, it is only a matter of time before this "option" becomes implicit coercion. If a woman chooses instead to bear children while she is young and then discovers that her children "impair" her ability to work 100 hour weeks, the spoken or unspoken criticism will be "Well, she had the option to freeze her eggs, and she chose not to do it. So it's her own fault that her career has stalled." Once that "free option" is on the table, it forever changes the game for women in the workplace. And when the forty-something thaws her eggs to start a family, she is going to face all the very same problems, the vaunted "work-life balance" problem doesn't disappear because you are now in your forties. This is not progress.

A real, humane solution

Here is one real solution to the "work-life balance" problem: Insists that employers give up their demands and expectations for unbroken career trajectories. Workers who take time off, go part time, request flex-time, or make a "lateral move" to a position with fewer demands in order to invest in their own young families should not pay a heavy price in the workplace. Of course, their income declines, and they must plan judiciously to ensure that they can take that income hit.

No, the bigger problem occurs when their children are school aged and they want to swing back into that ever-rising career trajectory. What they find is that they are no longer taken seriously as job candidates because they put their own families' needs ahead of workplace demands. We need to reject the belief that someone who is serious about his or her career sacrifices EVERYTHING to that career. We need to put to rest the false belief that someone who carves out time for family formation is not serious about his or her career. The hours required for raising our citizens have to come from somewhere. It is a good investment in our country's future. We should make room in people's lives for raising the next generation of Americans because we all benefit from that effort.

For more on this issue, see my previous blogs here, here, and here. You can also hear me discuss this issue with Dr. Charles Sophy in his Podcast by clicking on the link provided on my professional webpage.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins October 15, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.