Is Older Parenthood the Crisis Judith Shulevitz Thinks it Is?

December 26th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Judith Shulevitz’s long, thoughtful article in The New Republic here has drawn interest from a variety of commentators (The New Republic, 12/6/12).  Entitled “How Older Parenthood will Upend American Society,” the article comes to grips with the fact that Americans (and others around the world) are deferring childbearing until later in life than ever before.  That discussion of course is feminist territory since Second Wave Feminism has long instructed women to put off childbearing – or preferably eschew it altogether – in favor of a career.  Many women have done just that, and Shulevitz is now calling those choices into question.

K.J. Dell-Antonia writing here in the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog (New York Times, 12/14/12) and Katie Roiphe here in Slate (Slate, 12/12/12) join Shulevitz’s hand wringing.  Dell’Antonia calls the piece a “must read” and Roiphe calls it an “excellent and disturbing meditation.”  And indeed, the piece contains a lot of fascinating information, some of which we’ve known for a long time, some of which I, at least, haven’t.

For example, we’ve long known that babies born to mothers in their 40s are significantly more likely to have Down Syndrome and other more obscure conditions.  More recently we’ve learned that older fathers are more likely than younger ones to produce offspring who become schizophrenic later in life.  Shulevitz reveals that older fatherhood also is associated with increased likelihood of autism.  Apparently, the sperm of older men can be problematical.

Why do older men make such unreliable sperm? Well, for one thing, unlike women, who are born with all their eggs, men start making sperm at puberty and keep doing so all their lives. Each time a gonad cell divides to make spermatozoa, that’s another chance for its DNA to make a copy error. The gonads of a man who is 40 will have divided 610 times; at 50, that number goes up to 840. For another thing, as a man ages, his DNA’s self-repair mechanisms work less well.

As Shulevitz points out, not all the problems with older parenthood are biological.  For one thing, the older a person is when they become a parent, the older they are when their children reach adulthood.  That means they’re older and less likely to provide vigorous grandparenting to their children’s children.  And of course they die on average when their children and grandchildren are younger, cutting off their ability to provide the wisdom and guidance elders can impart to later generations.

Then of course there’s the fact that deferring childbearing means women have fewer children overall.  It’s just not possible to bear as many children if you start at age 35 as it is if you begin at 25.  Fewer children means fewer people to support the older generation which results in a choice between keeping the older generation working longer or placing more onerous burdens on the young.  This can be a problem.

According to Shulevitz, all the detriments of older childbearing (and older siring) can be resolved in only one way.

If you’re a doctor, you see clearly what is to be done, and you’re sure it will be. “People are going to change their reproductive habits,” said Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University medical school and the editor of an important anthology on the origins of schizophrenia. They will simply have to “procreate earlier,” he replied.

Older Parenting a Problem Mostly for the Well-Educated

Hmm.  I appreciate the information in Shulevitz’s piece, but I’m not convinced.  For one thing, perhaps the most important realization people have made over the past 20 years or so is that the world is overpopulated.  Too many people and too much consumption of resources have put the planet’s ability to support the existing human population in dire jeopardy.  The oceans are already over-fished and so far only a small percentage of the world’s human population lives the lifestyle with which we’re familiar in the United States and Western Europe.  Add China and India to that level of extravagant consumption and the earth’s resources will likely be taxed to or beyond the breaking point.

And that’s if the population doesn’t change a bit, but of course it will.  By mid-century, population experts figure we’ll have more than doubled our current human numbers.

To all those very real and dangerous scenarios, Shulevitz devotes but a single sentence.

Fewer people, of course, means less demand for food, land, energy, and all the Earth’s other limited resources.

Yes, and…?  Shulevitz simply ignores the little problem of the potential for mass starvation and increased global warming by moving on to another topic – the fact that it’ll be difficult for a less numerous younger generation to support their more plentiful elders.  To put it mildly, the topic needs more discussion than Shulevitz gives it.  It’s by no means clear that we need to increase childbearing; indeed, I’d say the opposite is true, whatever political negotiations may need to be made to accommodate future generations.

Then there’s the problem of numbers.  Shulevitz is correct when she says that both men and women are waiting longer to become parents.  Nowadays, the average age of first birth for a woman is 25.4 years and about two years later for a man.  Forty years ago, both those numbers were about four years lower.  So there’s a clear trend toward older parenthood.

The question becomes “is that a problem?” but Shulevitz’s conclusion that it is appears rushed.  After all, are there biological/physiological problems with women bearing children for the first time under the age of 26?  No, in fact, those are pretty much prime birthing years, and half of children born have mothers that age or younger.

So what about the other half?  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008, about 86% of children were born to mothers who were under the age of 35 and a hefty 97.3% were born to mothers under the age of 40.  (Predictably, the Census Bureau has no data on the age of fathers at the birth of their first child.  After all, why would fathers matter?  But, since the average age of fathers is about two years older than mothers, it seems safe to add 2 to the age of mothers to get that of fathers generally.)

By contrast, in 1980, 98% of children were born to women who were younger than 35.  A look here at the Census Bureau data shows that the age range 35-39 is where by far the greatest change in first childbirth has come between 1980 and 2008.  In 1980, there were 141,000 births to U.S. women in that range; by 2008, the number had more than tripled to 489,000 even though total births had increased only about 16%.

So is childbearing between 35 and 40 a problem?  Are there significant health detriments to children of women giving birth in that age range?  If there are, Shulevitz doesn’t mention them.  Not a word of her lengthy piece claims that children, mothers or fathers are adversely affected by first childbirth at that time of a mother’s life.

As we’ve come to expect with articles like hers, the “issue,” to the extent there is one, arises from the behavior not of women generally, but of that of the educated and well-heeled.  As Shulevitz admits, “[a] college-educated woman had a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older; the odds that a woman with less education would wait that long were no better than one in ten.”  Once again, a writer has conflated mostly white, well-educated affluent women with women generally.  According to the Census Bureau, in 2008, there were a total of about 113,000 births to women over the age of 40 in the entire United States.  Of those, some small percentage gave birth to children with health conditions related to the advanced ages of their parents.  This may be a problem for those few parents and their children.  It is not a problem for the rest of us.

So all of the angst about childbearing in advanced age is really about the choices of comparatively few, comparatively privileged women and men.  For many months now we’ve heard the angry and anguished words of those who rightly decry the power of “the 1%.”  And yet here we have Judith Shulevitz arguing for major policy changes (e.g. government subsidies for bearing children) to accommodate the poor choices of the 2%, i.e. those who elect to have children past the age of 40.  To top it off, she’d give those subsidies (a) to less educated women who are having babies earlier in life and (b) to better-off women who don’t need them.  Shulevitz proposes sweeping reforms for the few well-to-do that would likely have little effect on their behavior.

No one argues for more children burdened with autism or Down Syndrome.  But a little education about the detriments of having children late in life will, I predict, go a long way toward rectifying behavior that can be bad for all concerned.  That such behavior is yet another outgrowth of feminism that still believes that it can reconstruct families and children to suit its political ideology comes as no surprise.  Once women and men figure out that it’s better for children to bear them when the parents are under the age of 40, and preferably earlier than that, I suspect we’ll see a change in behavior.

And once family laws and family courts understand that fathers should be allowed to play an equal role with mothers in parenting, all those educated parents will be able to arrange their lives and careers so no one needs to bear too much of the burden of child rearing and no one has to bear too much of the burden of earning.  In short, beyond changing child custody laws to encourage shared parenting, there’s not too much to do.

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