Will “older parenthood” really upend American society?

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Editor’s note: Some readers have written us to note that the full article characterizes disability, specifically developmental disabilities, as unnatural and alarming.

Reading Judith Shulevitz of The New Republic recently wrote a piece claiming the trend toward older parenting will “upend American society.” The article itself is long and comprehensive — Shulevitz discusses the rise of developmental disabilities and delays, men’s declining fertility, and genetic mutations — but definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in genetics and fertility:

That women become mothers later than they used to will surprise no one. All you have to do is study the faces of the women pushing baby strollers, especially on the streets of coastal cities or their suburban counterparts. American first-time mothers have aged about four years since 1970 — as of 2010, they were 25.4 as opposed to 21.5. That average, of course, obscures a lot of regional, ethnic, and educational variation. The average new mother from Massachusetts, for instance, was 28; the Mississippian was 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother was 29.1; the African American 23.1. 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.

It badly misstates the phenomenon to associate it only with women: Fathers have been getting older at the same rate as mothers. First-time fathers have been about three years older than first-time mothers for several decades, and they still are. The average American man is between 27 and 28 when he becomes a father. Meanwhile, as the U.S. birth rate slumps due to the recession, only men and women over 40 have kept having more babies than they did in the past.

In short, the growth spurt in American parenthood is not among rich septuagenarians or famous political wives approaching or past menopause, but among roughly middle-aged couples with moderate age gaps between them, like my husband and me.

Head over to The New Republic to read the rest.

Comments on Will “older parenthood” really upend American society?

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I chose to have my first child at 20 and want to be done with childbearing by 30 (for a lot of reasonings but a main pusher was watching my mother deal with breast cancer at age 36 and being glad I was a teen, in case she died, I had so many memories with her). I also wanted a career at the same time. At 26, I have 2 kids, 2 degrees, and now a career. It has been very hard doing both, but also very rewarding. I often wonder who I would have been and how I would have parented if I were younger or older when I had my children. I remember an anatomy class where we discussed the teen years as being the optimal time for our bodies to procreate, that our biology has not caught up to our social standards. I find this so very interesting!

    • Eek, actually a woman’s fertility peaks in her 20s, making that the best time, biologically. There are actually some physical risks associated w/ teen pregnancy (as compared to pregnancy at, say, 25).

      • I might be wrong, but I remember learning that biologically, at least for most of human existence, we were meant to max out our lifespans in our 30s, if lucky, 40s. Women didn’t menstruate until 16 or 17. Having kids at that time (and into early twenties) was ideal. Women menstruate earlier now, though pregnancies in your early teens are not ideal either. Now we acknowledge not just physical, but also mental/emotional maturity into the equation, along with increased lifespans and better technology. I find this topic so interesting, I now know what I’ll be doing for the next few days instead of all the cleaning and packing that’s calling to me now:)

        • (puts on nerd hat) Most anthropological research shows that late teens and early 20s is the healthiest with best outcomes for the mother and baby. Earlier teens are a problem, particularly in countries where malnutrition slows growth and people don’t reach their full size until later. Fertility begins to decrease at around 29, and continues decreasing until menopause. While many people die in their 30s and 40s, less technological ‘advanced’ cultures do still have post-menopausal elders hanging around and a minority of people in these societies do live to see what even we would consider old age. Grandparents in most cultures have important roles in child raising. (removes nerd hat)

  2. I have to say I used to be judgmental of older parents, especially with an in-law in his 60’s when he started a second family and then had a massive, life-threatening heart attack. His kids were 4 and 6.
    Then I read a piece in NY magazine that challenged a lot of my prejudices. http://nymag.com/news/features/mothers-over-50-2011-10/
    I can’t say it is the lifestyle I want or have chosen but I do feel differently after reading the article.

    • That article is really interesting indeed!

      I really don’t know how I feel about the issue. I wouldn’t say I’d ever really judge someone for having children much later in life, but at the same time, there are very real risks. And in progressive, liberal circles where older parenthood is becoming the norm, it’s become somewhat politically incorrect to discuss the risks and realities of much later parenthood, and I don’t know that it’s helpful to deny those risks. (I’m not saying we should be fear-mongering either, but I am saying we should be realistic).

      That being said, there are other potential risks with younger parents that are perhaps less biological (less money, less time, less life experience) so I guess, like the article suggests, everything balances out in the end.

      I would say I draw the line at using drugs to bring yourself back out of menopause in order to have a child biologically. Again, it’s a personal choice, but more than anything I’d be concerned about the long-term effects that could have on the mother. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, bringing women out of menopause, so have they really had the opportunity to evaluate the long-term effects? (this is genuinely a question, not a statement)

      Anyway, a really interesting topic, regardless. Would be curious to hear the rest of the discussion.

      • the evaluation of long term effects hasnt really been studied in any of the fertility drugs, and now they are learning that some directly contribute to birth defects…

        i think that once they found out that the treatments worked, nothing was really thought as to the long term effects, they were just marketed and sold to as many people as would buy.. the fertility industry is like a 6 billion dollar a year industry! i think a lot has to with the fact that money was considered before anything else.

        • Not to mention the health risks for the woman taking the drugs. It’s anecdotal, but the number of women I know who have developed cancer in the years after fertility treatments is disturbingly high. None of them have been diagnosed in the early stages either. I really think we need a lot more research into the meds being prescribed so people can make an informed decision with all the risks on the table.

          But given it’s almost impossible to find the true success rates of most treatments I’m guessing it’s not going to happen any time soon.

          • What you are describing is anecdotal, though. And success rates for fertility treatments are easily found both in journals and on the websites of individual clinics. I don’t mean to be rude, and I am terribly sorry to hear of your friends’ illnesses. But I don’t agree that women don’t have enough information currently to make an informed decision. I did a lot of fertility treatments (including IVF) and even though I ended up with a bad outcome (did not have a baby, did have major side effects), I made each decision based on sound information and an understanding of the odds and risks I was taking on. It was a risk worth taking, even if it didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped.

          • but is it really sound information if it is missing a major component like long term implications (to mother and child)?

            this isnt to say that fertility treatments are bad, they just need to be studied and regulated just like everything else. the fertility industry is heavily un-regulated, and i think now we are starting to see the negative effects of that.

          • Joanna, success rates for clinics aren’t regularly published where I live although when they are you can see that clinics in this country aren’t getting the success rates published in journals. Even from journal articles I had a lot of trouble finding the actual likely success rate of ovarian drilling which was the last treatment recommended to us. I also found it hard to get decent info about how my weight would affect the success rates.

            Then there’s what ‘success’ means. I’ve heard over and over about people being told they had a 60% success rate, only to find that was the chance of getting to transfer, not actually getting pregnant or giving birth to a healthy baby. Not everyone has it in them to do their own research and too many bloody doctors misrepresent treatment options and won’t ever advise you to stop.

            I also know women who have been told they can only do 3 rounds of this protocol or 5 rounds of this med because the clinic feels there are health risks beyond those. But they vary so much from clinic to clinic I wonder where they’re basing their info from and what they know that we don’t.

            Feel free to disregard me as a crazy person. I’m usually not one for medical hysteria, I’m all for vaccinations for example. But I really feel there are significant health risks that aren’t being studied or published right now. Saying that, I still did treatment and I support others doing the same. But I don’t think we have the whole picture yet and the risks might be higher than we realise.

    • I had my first child just before my 33rd bday and am approaching 37 with plans to get pregnant again. I do feel that physically and psychologically I was much better equipped to have a child in my early 20’s (I worked as a nanny so I can compare then to now), but financially and relationship-wise it wasn’t an option (I got married at 29). I do feel like a better solution would be to do kids first and career second, but I doubt that’s a realistic option since so few men would be interested in having a baby at 20-22 yrs old. Sure I’m generalizing here, but even if two people were in love/married and said they def want a family at some point, I think for the majority, being young = having fun, not having babies and the difficulties of family life. So while I think I, personally, would have had 1. More energy 2. Better physical and emotional bounce-back, and 3. Better career prospects returning to the work force at 30 vs. over 40…. I don’t think a trend of early family making is going to happen. We have extended adolescence well into the 20’s now, and kids are less mature with each decade.

      • There’s also no guarantee of fertility even if you start young. My husband and I wanted to do kids first, (my) career second, but we found out we had fertility issues in our first year of marriage when I was 21, he was 24.

        I make no judgements on people choosing to have kids in their 30’s and 40’s. But in terms of our society it does concern me. The average age of an adoptive Mum here is 44. Thinking of people I know in their 40’s who have had babies, and found it (generally)much harder than people I know in their 30’s, I wonder if that’s the best thing for everyone involved.

        • It could be possible most adopting moms are a bit older because it’s no cheap thing to adopt a baby, and it’s a long wait to get said baby to boot. I know I certainly would not have had the money to adopt, and certainly not a baby, in my 20’s. I probably will NEVER have the money to adopt a baby, or try fertility treatments. If we can’t get pregnant the old-fashioned way, there will be no children for us, sadly.

          • Over here you only have to pay legal costs so local adoption is actually an option for low income families. The wait is significant. It’s taken us 4 years to not even be approved yet, and I really hope work is done to get that much lower. We have a very anti-adoption culture over here too (only 20 babies each year in my state) so I wonder how much that plays into it too.

        • “I make not judgements, but….” sounds a lot like judgement. It doesn’t become less judge-y just because you state that it isn’t.

          Concerns could be raised about people having children in their early 20’s — they don’t make enough money, they don’t know enough about themselves and about life, they don’t have enough worldly experience, etc. Is that the “best thing for everyone involved”? My paragraph contains a lot of generic statements about people baed on age alone – do they hold true, especially at the individual level? Likely not…so why is it ok to judge older moms just because of their age?

          • I think it’s possible to judge a collective trend without judging the individual and her decision making. I could make a decision that’s good for me and my life and family, but if a million others make that decision, it could collectively be bad for society or the environment or whatever.

          • I honestly don’t judge individuals in their 40’s having babies and adopting. I’ve had several friends do that with my full support and they are on the whole, wonderful loving parents. But they have all had a much harder time then my friends even in their late 30’s. And I think a lot of that is actually to do with a lack of support.

            Most don’t have living parents or their parents aren’t in good enough shape to be active, involved grandparents. And for most of them, they don’t have many other people in their lives with young children, and often talk about feeling like a freak or out of touch at mother’s groups. To me, it makes perfect sense that without that support they complain more about being tired and depressed. I’m not saying people in their 20’s and 30’s are magically better parents, but I think the supports they (generally) receive make it a lot easier on everyone.

            So to me, there are two problems – first, how to support older parents and secondly, how to support younger couples so those that would like to have children younger can. For example, none of my younger friends can afford to be stay at home Mum’s. Most are planning on waiting until they’re 35ish to have their first baby. I worry what that means for them, both with their chances of having children, the possible health risks of ‘advanced maternal age’, and if they’ll struggle like my 40 something year old friends do now.

  3. I really wish the US had better family-supportive policies to make younger motherhood feasible for women who also need/want a career in the many fields where an education (often post-baccalaureate) is expected to be obtained in your twenties so you can immediately get started building your career.

    I’ve chosen to have a child in my mid-twenties, and while I love my child, I am sometimes sad I’m giving up the chance to build the solid career I used to imagine. Staying at my job wasn’t really an option thanks to lack of paid parental leave (at both my and my partner’s jobs) and the extreme cost of childcare (especially in relation to the amount someone in my field typically makes in their twenties). Sure, I can enter the workforce again later, but being a parent, especially a mother, still hurts your standing in too many workplaces – bosses grumble about your taking time for a sick child, trying to arrange your work hours to fit with your kid’s school hours is a major hassle, and the years spent as a stay-at-home parent are considered a problematic gap in your resume.

    I know there are no easy answers here, and there is so much privilege that go into these decisions (if my partner earned less, there’s no way I’d be able to stay home with baby for even a short while), but I have to believe that policies such as paid parental leave, universal healthcare, subsidized childcare, and more protections for breastfeeding/pumping would make it easier for a woman to really CHOOSE when she wants to have a child. If people want to have children later in life (or earlier), that’s great – but it should be their choice, not something they feel they get stuck doing because of larger structural/societal factors.

    • “I am sometimes sad I’m giving up the chance to build the solid career I used to imagine.”

      I don’t think this has to be the case! With the economy as it is nowadays, and people taking longer to figure out what they really want to do, most people I know aren’t really getting their careers started until their late 20s anyway.

  4. what cracks me up is the idea that 28, the current average, is so terribly old for childbearing. zero women in my group of friends from childhood, or my college and early-to-mid 20s friends, had children until they were 33 or up, mostly older.

    i’m very happy with late mothering. then again—speaking of privilege—my body didn’t wait until my late thirties or forties to get creaky and painful and low energy. i was injured in my early twenties and got fibromyalgia in my late twenties.

    the idea of my incredibly screwed up 20-something self having babies is hideous! thankfully, i knew it at the time, too, and figured someone with my problems shouldn’t even have kids at all. (note: many other people are not screwed up in their 20s, not trying to say that by telling my own story.)

    • LOL – when I went to the fertility clinic at 28 I was told I was smart to come in when I did because I was at “the good end of the bad graph” age-wise! I was sort of dumbfounded that I was considered so “old” 🙂

  5. the no-older-parents arguments in that article are dangerous if you realize: if we’re going to get all judgey on a 50-year-old having a child because they’re not “vibrant” enough, we may end up collectively deciding that differently abled / disabled people shouldn’t be allowed to have offspring. ugh.

  6. I was 38yo with my daughter and we are planning on trying for a second, I am currently 40yo. Would I have liked to have kids earlier? Sure, but I didn’t get married until I was 36yo and it took us two years to get pregnant. If I decided not to have kids because of my age what else am I going to not do because of age? It is a slippery slope to make decisions based on fear. BTW I am a health care practitioner who treats fertility issues which makes me well versed in the pros and cons of my decision.

  7. I was an “old” mom — 34 with one and 37 with the other, and husband 37 and 40. For us, this made the most sense for a huge range of reasons, though we had been together 13 years before the first child! So we actually could have had children earlier and together. But I do not regret our decision, and I would never want THESE children not to exist on behalf of earlier ones.

    We made an informed decision, but we are aware that there are “downsides.” Chiefly, we might never know any grandchildren we might have. (Of course, we could die young anyway, and our children might not have children, but thinking in terms of typical trends….) Also, we are likely to be going through the trying teens while taking care of my ailing parents, and to be taking care of my husband’s parents when our children are even younger.

    So, I do think this older parent trend WILL have some implications like this and I think these are well worth discussing. But we should not demonize any individual’s informed decision.

    And, if we as a society want younger parents, we need to do more to support families and not just make it an individual issue anyway.

  8. This goes back to the “when is the right time to have a child” discussion for me. For me, the “right time” happened after I got pregnant for the first time and placed my son with an adoptive couple who just happened to be “older”. Age played no roll in picking this couple – age does not define who you are. They ended up pregnant about a month after our son was born – a complete surprise after attempts at fertility treatments, multiple miscarriages, and being told they were ultimately infertile. That pregnancy resulted in a happy, healthy full term baby. I couldn’t have asked for a better family for the child I was not ready for.

    That being said, I work in a perinatology office- for those who are not familiar, that means that I work with high risk pregnant patients. Which means 35 or older, 17 or younger, drugs(street or prescribed). Or the primary OB found something odd on ultrasound. Or she just wants a first trimester screen. We’ll have first time moms in the same age range as second time grandmothers. What this didn’t reflect upon was the rate of younger mothers. Society is changing, but I don’t think that the age at which people become parents will make a difference.

  9. I am an inner-city teacher. I will take an older parent over a very young one any day. A conference almost never ends well when a middle school child has a 25 year old mom.

  10. I’m 26 years old, married, pregnant with my first child, and living in Seattle. I knew that older parenting had become the norm when the staff in the OB office treated me like a clueless teenager and were surprised to find out that I am married. Looking around at the other expectant mothers in the office, I realized that I was likely half to a full decade younger than they were. Back home in upstate New York, I am exactly the average for having children, being married, etc.

    That experience is also why I am changing OB’s… I do think I should be taken seriously regardless of how much I am following or not following my region of residence’s norms.

  11. This might be slightly off topic but my mother had me when she was 38. Now I’m 26 and essentially don’t have a mother because early dementia has taken her from me. The risks of older parenting MUST be discussed and resources should be made available to those who choose that option because of whatever reason.

    However it happens, older parents can be awesome (my mom was) but the fact is that younger generations of children are going to have to address the health problems of older parents before the are ready. my siblings and I were NOT prepared for when my mother started to show signs of dementia at 60. I was still in college. How I was shocked, and depressed, and my aunts saved us all by bearing the brunt of the responsibility. Imagine you having to research nursing homes while you’re in finals week. This will happen more and more.

    Granted the 28 years in the article isn’t all that old, but the trend is that there are more and more people having kids so that they will be hitting their 60’s while their kids are still in college or high school, when they will be less prepared to handle the bills, doctors, health insurance, medications, research, and so, so much more should their parents fall ill.
    Preparedness should be key, if people want to have kids while they are older they need to make their wishes clear on their end of life options, and they need to try to figure out ways to fund medical emergencies and care. I know health is unpredictable, but situations like mine will happen more and more the older parents get. I’m not saying older parents are bad (for real, my mom was awesome) but these issues will need to be addressed, otherwise some unhappy situations for the kids and the parents could arise.

  12. So, I have several disconnected thoughts about this:

    28 is a few weeks away for me. I sometimes feel like I am going crazy with worry that I am getting “too old” to hve children, and I feel very reassured by those of you posters out there having kids in your 30s and up. Do I regret not having kids earlier? I do, but what kind of life could I have given them? What kind of father would they have had if I’d had kids with my college boyfriend versus my amazing new husband?

    I know people say “you’ll never really be ready” for kids, but my sister had her first at 19 and now has three beautiful daughters at the age of 26. She is an awesome mom, but I see how much she struggles just to keep them fed and clothed because she doesn’t have a spouse that can help her out financially or otherwise, and she can’t find a job that pays well enough that daycare would be an option.

    On the other end of the spectrum, my dad and my stepmother adopted a baby when she was 48 and he was 54. They have a gorgeous house with a playroom, and my baby sister is able to take dance, gymnastics, language classes, etc. There is a very real possibility that her parents may die before she graduates high school, but I do believe she will have a vastly better life than if she had grown up an orphan in China (and my Dad is loving every second of raising his third daughter!)

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