December 30, 2012

Motherlode: Older parenthood brings joy – and consequences

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

Older parenthood, proposes Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic, will "upend American society." Parenthood over the last century "has undergone a change so simple yet so profound we are only beginning to grasp the enormity of its implications," she writes. In short, we have our children much later than we used to.

The article is one of the year's "must-reads," a late addition to the Huffington Post's' "required reading for women" 2012  list that no woman or man should miss. Shulevitz is one of the finest writers working on the border between science and society, and in this article, she's laid out "the scary consequences of the grayest generation" without flinching. American parents, both mothers and fathers, are having children later (and she is one of those older parents) with relatively little thought beyond delight at having more control over the timing and processes involved, she writes. But "soon, I learned that medical researchers, sociologists, and demographers were more worried about the proliferation of older parents than my friends and I were."

From the links between advanced maternal and paternal age and various specific birth defects, through the suspected links between autism and parental age and the fears regarding fertility drugs and procedures, well into the societal and emotional effects of older parents aging or dying at different stages of their children's' lives, it's an unstinting look at the downsides of older parenthood.

It's an easy read because of the skill with which the subject is handled, but a difficult one to know what to do with. After all, most readers of this column, at least, have already had their children, or largely determined the age at which they will have them, if at all. Beyond worrying, patting oneself on the back or wondering exactly where, in this depressing litany, one stands, it's hard to know what to do with this information personally.

But it's not personally but societally that Shulevitz wants us to be concerned. She is just as direct about the reasons both men and women choose older parenthood as she is about the risks: career, financial security and then parenthood is a life pattern that offers both individual and societal benefits, but it's one that's taking up more and more of our early adulthood. To dial back the age at which we have children for not just some, but most adults, we're going to have to change the way Western societies approach family policy. As she writes:

It won't be easy to make the world more baby-friendly, but if we were to try, we'd have to restructure the professions so that the most intensely competitive stage of a career doesn't occur right at the moment when couples should be lavishing attention on infants. We'd have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women's problem, and reframe it as a basic human right. Changes like these are going to be a long time coming, but I can't help hoping they happen before my children confront the Hobson's choices that made me wait so long to have them.

(The full article is still accessible without subscription on The New Republic's website.)

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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