Judith Shulevitz has an interesting write-up in The New Republic online where she discusses “how older parenthood will upend American society.” Modern medical research is weighing in on a recent trend among couples to wait until their mid-to-late thirties before attempting to have children. The belief, as Judith Shulevitz writes, is that due to the every-increasing parity between genders in the workplace, that men and women can cement their careers and then have families later without any lasting consequence. Unfortunately, biology isn’t playing along:
WHAT SCIENCE TELLS US about the aging parental body should alarm us more than it does. Age diminishes a woman’s fertility; every woman knows that, although several surveys have shown that women—and men—consistently underestimate how sharp the drop-off can be for women after age 35. The effects of maternal age on children aren’t as well-understood. As that age creeps upward, so do the chances that children will carry a chromosomal abnormality, such as a trisomy. In a trisomy, a third chromosome inserts itself into one of the 23 pairs that most of us carry, so that a child’s cells carry 47 instead of 46 chromosomes. The most notorious trisomy is Down syndrome. There are two other common ones: Patau syndrome, which gives children cleft palates, mental retardation, and an 80 percent likelihood of dying in their first year; and Edwards syndrome, which features oddly shaped heads, clenched hands, and slow growth. Half of all Edwards syndrome babies die in the first week of life.
The risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy rises from 2–3 percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when a woman is in her forties. A fetus faces other obstacles on the way to health and well-being when born to an older mother: spontaneous abortion, premature birth, being a twin or triplet, cerebral palsy, and low birth weight. (This last leads to chronic health problems later in children’s lives.)
Men aren’t off the hook when it comes to these types of consequences. According to some of the same studies that Mrs. Shulevitz cites regarding women, the age of the father plays an important factor:
We have been conditioned to think of reproductive age as a female-only concern, but it isn’t. For decades, neonatologists have known about birth defects linked to older fathers: dwarfism, Apert syndrome (a bone disorder that may result in an elongated head), Marfan syndrome (a disorder of the connective tissue that results in weirdly tall, skinny bodies), and cleft palates. But the associations between parental age and birth defects were largely speculative until this year, when researchers in Iceland, using radically more powerful ways of looking at genomes, established that men pass on more de novo—that is, non-inherited and spontaneously occurring—genetic mutations to their children as they get older. In the scientists’ study, published in Nature, they concluded that the number of genetic mutations that can be acquired from a father increases by two every year of his life, and doubles every 16, so that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old to bequeath de novo mutations to his children.
The Nature study ended by saying that the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade. Researchers have suspected links between autism and parental age for years. One much-cited study from 2006 argued that the risk of bearing an autistic child jumps from six in 10,000 before a man reaches 30 to 32 in 10,000 when he’s 40—a more than fivefold increase. When he reaches 50, it goes up to 52 in 10,000. It should be noted that there are many skeptics when it comes to explaining the increase of autism; one school of thought holds that it’s the result of more doctors making diagnoses, better equipment and information for the doctors to make them with, and a vocal parent lobby that encourages them. But it increasingly looks as if autism cases have risen more than overdiagnosis can account for and that parental age, particularly paternal age, has something to do with that fact.
The simple fact may be the most obvious one: we can’t have it all. Due to science (not a male-instigated conspiracy to limit women’s equality), perhaps it is wiser to follow the realities of biology rather than the push and pull of cultural or feminist pressures. Maybe the right way to look at this is that rather than try and head-fake biology, we as a culture and society need to esteem more, the parents (more often mothers) who sacrifice in their prime career years to raise a healthy family. In that environment, men and women would not feel the lure of career and glamour of economic success as acutely. Ironically, Salon.com puts it best:
Without judging any individual families, leaving alone for a moment the mother—in sneakers, gray roots showing, pushing a twin stroller—who has after all made her own negotiations with fate, we could perhaps benefit, à la Shulevitz, from a slightly more honest reckoning with the biological truths and how we found ourselves in thrall with late parenthood. And in the informal feminist education of future generations, we may need a little more of Margaret Fuller’s “I accept the universe” and a little less bourgeois having-it-all talk.