Lisa Belkin, ever on top of the nuances and foibles of dating, mating and family making in our time, points in a recent Sunday New York Times magazine piece to a new study that is sure to make (at least some) men squirm and women, as she puts it, “chortle” with delight; although the news is, for anyone who thinks about having kids, actually sobering.
Women often bear excruciating pressures around choosing when to have a child, from all angles, while men are told their biology is limitless, hence their chance at fatherhood is as well. Not so anymore. Throughout the past few years more and more evidence is coming to light linking a father’s age at conception to schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder, as she points out (while the mother’s age at conception shows no such correlation). Two years ago the New York Times also ran a piece entitled “It Seems the Fertility Clock Ticks for Men, Too”. Now, Belkin highlights an Australian study that shows that children born to “older fathers have, on average, lower scores on tests of intelligence than those born to younger dads.
There are those who will take issue with the research, claim there’s no adjustment for environment, individual father’s IQ, parental involvement and more. But here are the two lines that made me want to sit up and shout “so there!”: “French researchers reported last year that the chance of a couple’s conceiving begins to fall when the man is older than 35 and falls sharply if he is older than 40.” Later in the article Belkin quotes Dr. Dolores Malaspina, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center who says, “It turns out the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father.” Ha! I wanted to shout at the screen as I was reading.
Really, what I wanted was to do was shout this to all the 50something men who, when I was 35 and entering into the online dating world, contacted me, ignoring their agemates, specifically because they felt they were “finally ready” to get around to starting a family. Most were utterly unapologetic that part of what they were seeking was a woman they perceived to be still fertile enough to incubate their suddenly desired offspring. My response that being contacted in part so I could incubate a legacy child for them was insulting often fell on deaf ears.
But what Belkin gets to at the end of her article –- and what I think bears far more exploration — is how scientific evidence that men too have a ticking biological clock could undermine what is a commonly socially accepted timeline. For women, shelf life and expiration date with fertility are fixed, while for men, well, they can always Tony Randall it, and procreate as he did in his 77th year. (Nevermind that in this New York Times article, “He’s Not My Grandpa. He’s My Dad,” Randall’s widow, left with two children under age 10, questions if her own long-range planning was all that wise and admits she’d tell her daughter not to marry an “older man.”
While women have been tying themselves in knots over the message (given freely from everyone ranging from their OB/GYNs to their grandmothers) that they’d better not wait too long to have a child or their time will run out, most men seem to blithely assume there’s never an end point, an assumption social convention has largely supported.
One past wannabe suitor even told me he thought it was great that his retirement would coincide neatly with his imagined child’s toddler years. When I asked him how much of his child’s life he expected to experience (did he think he’d ever be a grandfather if his child waited till his 50s to reproduce as well?) he admitted that just wasn’t something he had thought much about.
Beneath the social mating dance I experienced was the baseline assumption that male biology justified when men can start families – whenever they want – and their ageist attitudes toward women’s viability in this domain also went unquestioned, a mindset that smacks of patriarchal privilege. Belkin rightly points out how if this attitude was questioned, based on science, the mating priorities of both sexes could be upended, and changing that assumption is likely a good thing.
What if, Belkin asks, the dynamic I found myself in was reversed, and women now saw men as “too old” to procreate with? Men might have to date women in their own age bracket, or, more shockingly be forced to admit that they too can be aged out of the window in which they can procreate, maybe not as much for biological reasons, as for social ones, if younger women refuse them, now using scientific evidence as to why they’re not good genetic material – a neat reversal to what men have been doing for years.
Larger than this, I think, is questioning how social structures could reform if 35-year-old men didn’t want to climb up the ladder singlemindedly anymore, because they knew their chances at fatherhood would decline if they waited – and then shear off a cliff at age 40. Would childcare finally be a priority in the workplace, or paternity leave? Some of this speaks to who’s still mainly responsible for childcare once a child is present – but if men and women were biologically on the same timetable, as science more and more strongly suggests they are – could there be a reach towards a more equitable view of balancing work and family, instead of mostly women spending many an angsty moment in their 30s wondering just how this is all going to work out.
If a new understanding of blending career trajectory with family hits a man at 27, rather than 47 (the magic number, I found when it seemed to dawn on unmarried men ‘hmmm better get on this wife and kids thing’), how could this change social expectations as they cross with biological imperatives? Yet, I take to heart Belkin’s comment that this might just be another thing that women will worry about – rather than men.
And I’m sure the press will never blow up this story (lonely 50something man faces the fact he’ll never have kids!) the way this narrative comes around every few years as a cautionary tale meant for younger women not to wait too long or be too picky. Also galling is the propensity to hear humorous smirking at “late fatherhood” stories but the vilification of “older women,” who conceive using donor eggs, as ridiculously selfish in starting a late-in-life family. “But it would be a satisfying start if men had to pause and see age as part of their biological equation, too,” says Belkin.
I couldn’t agree more.
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