Time To Wake Up to the Male Biological Clock?

Here’s a preview of what’s to come has Quirkyalone expands to become a group blog. This piece is written by my fantastic, quirkytogether poet friend Elline Lipkin. It’s cross-posted on girlwpen.com.

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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Elline Lipkin grew up in Miami, FL, and attended Wesleyan University. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 1994 and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston in 2003. She has worked as an editor in both New York City and in Paris. Her book about Girls' Studies is forthcoming from Seal Press in the fall of 2009. Elline has written about online dating and the mating game for Salon.com. Elline is also a recently married quirkytogether, a fact that she considers "a miracle."

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Posted in Parenting, Quirkytogether
9 comments on “Time To Wake Up to the Male Biological Clock?
  1. Matt says:

    The tone of this entry seems rather demeaning to any quirkyalone men out there… so, only women are allowed to enjoy being single for long periods of time?

  2. Les says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. What Lisa Belkin mentioned was the tip of the iceberg concerning disorders that rise with rising paternal age in offspring, on a population level. Risk of Hemophilia, cancers, Alzheimer’s, type 1 diabetes, MS, etc. etc. have been found in offspring and grandchildren of older fathers.

  3. Sasha says:

    Hi Matt, I don’t think that Elline is suggesting that quirkyalone men shouldn’t enjoy being single for long periods of time. I think she’s pointing out that we are still protecting the delusion that men can father children in their 40s, 50, and 60s without health consequences for offspring.

    Most intriguing are the questions about how our social policy and workplaces–and relationships–would change if men and women would wake up to the fact that men are on a timeline too. Then maybe:

    – men in their 40s and 50s would be more open to dating women their own age (ask any single woman in that age group and she’ll tell you this is a huge issue)
    – 30something women wouldn’t be so utterly alone in the attempts to balance the desire to have children and continue their careers
    – workplace policies might be more flexible to accommodate childrearing if men in their 30s realize they don’t have all the time in the world either

  4. Onely says:

    I definitely did not hear a demeaning tone in the article. What I heard is Belkin saying that with this new discovery about men’s fertility, we can go one of two ways: we can start treating men the way women have been treated since time immemorial (demean them by harping on their supposed shelf life and chastising them if they push the boundaries of their supposed shelf life), or we can realize that men have the right to be single (and child-free) for longer periods of time the way they always have, even though we now know that men “spoil” too the same way women do.

    Belkin is saying we need to choose the latter, which benefits both quirkyalone men and women (and quirkytogethers and quirkychildfrees and quirkywithchildrens and pretty much everyone).


  5. Onely says:

    I mean–choose the latter and allow both women and men to postpone childbearing equally, as possible–if both sexes have “shelf lives” then there’s no more reason to denigrate older mothers as selfish while admiring older fathers who finally “see the light”.


  6. Salvasan says:

    Only false expectations are ever demeaning. Exposing that male fertility shares the same best-before date as for women is no more than an inconvenient truth. As I am already of the age where my fertility is on a steepening downhill track, I see this research as one more reason to remain childfree. That said, one needs to guard against males now suddenly aware of their own biological clocks, rushing to couple-up and risk viewing women as mere walking wombs and not as individuals to be valued in their own right.

  7. alan p says:

    Reading the original research, it seems that what the adjusted data actually says is that men decline till about 40 and then stay the same.

    I think this has always been known at a sociobiological level, older men traditionally have had to display additional wealth to make up for their declining genetic benefit.

    If one were to quirkily base one’s mating strategy on these curves of course, 40+ women should be chasing very young men. So Cougardom is clearly based on rational sociobiologic strategy 😉

  8. Jon says:

    If you want people to not meander from in their own age brackets then we all have to agree to only date in our own age brackets. A May connecting with a December results in some other lonely December and/or another settling May. I’m up for staying in my own age bracket. Anyone else?

  9. Adam Barron says:

    Excellent site on this subject…some additional good reading on this topic is called “The Male Biological Clock Ticks, Too” by Leslie Yeransian


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