How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society: The scary consequences of the grayest generation.
December 11, 2012
We’re living longer, we’re healthier than our parents and grandparents. We’re emotionally younger than they were at the same age. Medicine and technology are advancing at a pace where the population of healthy octogenarians and and centenarians is ever expanding. Even when we retire chances are we won’t be sitting on the front porch, rocking away the time. Retirees are starting businesses, pursing new hobbies and traveling the globe.
So what happens when parenthood is delayed until the 40.s and beyond? What does that mean for school boards? How will they respond to seasoned parents with decades of fiscal management experience? How will schools and teachers respond to parents more seasoned in life? Will younger parents be intimidated by the resources and ideas of older parents? Will older parents have different expectation of their children than do younger parents?Will childhood be different with older parents? If so, how?
The questions are endless as we move int these uncharted waters. The answers will remain far more elusive.
OVER THE PAST HALF CENTURY, parenthood has undergone a change so simple yet so profound we are only beginning to grasp the enormity of its implications. It is that we have our children much later than we used to. This has come to seem perfectly unremarkable; indeed, we take note of it only when celebrities push it to extremes—when Tony Randall has his first child at 77; Larry King, his fifth child by his seventh wife at 66; Elizabeth Edwards, her last child at 50. This new gerontological voyeurism—I think of it as doddering-parent porn—was at its maximally gratifying in 2008, when, in almost simultaneous and near-Biblical acts of belated fertility, two 70-year-old women in India gave birth, thanks to donor eggs and disturbingly enthusiastic doctors. One woman’s husband was 72; the other’s was 77.
These, though, are the headlines. The real story is less titillating, but it tells us a great deal more about how we’ll be living in the coming years: what our families and our workforce will look like, how healthy we’ll be, and also—not to be too eugenicist about it—the future well-being of the human race.
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. OK, I’ll admit it. We’re on the outer edge of the demographic bulge. My husband was in his mid-forties and I was 37—two years past the age when doctors start scribbling AMA, Advanced Maternal Age, on the charts of mothers-to-be—before we called a fertility doctor. The doctor called back and told us to wait a few more months. We waited, then went in. The office occupied a brownstone basement just off the tonier stretches of New York’s Madison Avenue, though its tan, sleek sofas held a large proportion of Orthodox Jewish women likely to have come from another borough. The doctor, oddly, had a collection of brightly colored porcelain dwarves on the shelf behind his desk. I thought he put them there to let you know that he had a sense of humor about the whole fertility racket.
The steps he told us we’d have to take, though, were distinctly unfunny. We’d start with a test to evaluate my fortysomething husband’s sperm. If it passed muster, we’d move on to “injectables,” such as follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormones. The most popular fertility drug is clomiphene citrate, marketed as Clomid or Serophene, which would encourage my tired ovaries to push those eggs out into the world. (This was a few years back; nowadays, most people take these as pills, which are increasingly common and available, without prescription and possibly in dangerously adulterated form, over the Internet.) I was to shoot Clomid into my thigh five days a month. Had I ever injected anything, such as insulin, into myself? No, I had not. The very idea gave me the willies. I was being pushed into a world I had read about with intense dislike, in which older women endure ever more harrowing procedures in their desperation to cheat time.
If Clomid didn’t work, we’d move into alphabet-soup mode: IVF (in vitro fertilization), ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), even ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer). All these scary-sounding reproductive technologies involved taking stuff out of my body and putting it back in. Did these procedures, or the hormones that came with them, pose risks to me or to my fetus? The doctor shrugged. There are always risks, he said, especially when you’re older, but no one is quite sure whether they come from advanced maternal age itself or from the procedures.
My husband passed his test. I started on my routines. With the help of a minor, non–IVF-related surgical intervention and Clomid, which had the mild side effects of making me feel jellyfish-like and blurring my already myopic vision, I got pregnant.
My baby boy seemed perfect. When he was three, though, the pediatrician told me that he had a fine-motor delay; I was skeptical, but after a while began to notice him struggling to grasp pencils and tie his shoes. An investigator from the local board of education confirmed that my son needed occupational therapy. This, I discovered, was another little culture, with its own mystifying vocabulary. My son was diagnosed with a mild case of “sensory-integration disorder,” a condition with symptoms that overlapped with less medical terms like “excitable” and “sensitive.”
Sitting on child-sized chairs outside the little gyms in which he exercised an upper body deemed to have poor muscle tone, I realized that here was a subculture of a subculture: that of mothers who spend hours a week getting services for developmentally challenged children. It seemed to me that an unusually large proportion of these women were older, although I didn’t know whether to make anything of that or dismiss it as the effect of living just outside a city—New York—where many women establish themselves in their professions before they have children.
I also spent those 50-minute sessions wondering: What if my son’s individual experience, meaningless from a statistical point of view, hinted at a collective problem? As my children grew and, happily, thrived (I managed to have my daughter by natural means), I kept meeting children of friends and acquaintances, all roughly my age, who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, sensory-integration disorder. Curious as to whether there were more developmental disabilities than there used to be, I looked it up and found that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, learning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays increased about 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. One in six American children was reported as having a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier.
Soon, I learned that medical researchers, sociologists, and demographers were more worried about the proliferation of older parents than my friends and I were. They talked to me at length about a vicious cycle of declining fertility, especially in the industrialized world, and also about the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies (ART) that are commonly used on people past their peak childbearing years. This past May, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 8.3 percent of children born with the help of ART had defects, whereas, of those born without it, only 5.8 percent had defects.
A phrase I heard repeatedly during these conversations was “natural experiment.” As in, we’re conducting a vast empirical study upon an unthinkably large population: all the babies conceived by older parents, plus those parents, plus their grandparents, who after all have to wait a lot longer than they used to for grandchildren. It was impressed upon me that parents like us, with our aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments, would change the nature of family life. We might even change the course of our evolutionary future. For we are bringing fewer children into the world and producing a generation that will be subtly different—“phenotypically and biochemically different,” as one study I read put it—from previous generations…