Delayed parenthood: The price of waiting

We're only now waking up to the “enormity of the implications” of having children later in life.

Americans are having babies later in life than ever, said Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic, “and we have no idea what we’re getting into.” Over the past half century, the average age of the first-time mother has climbed four years, and many professional urban couples are postponing having kids until they’re in their late 30s and early 40s. We’re only now waking up to the “enormity of the implications.” Scientists suspect that the rise in middle-aged parents explains the surge in childhood developmental disorders such as autism, as older moms and dads pass on more genetic mutations to their offspring. Fertility treatments increase the chance of genetic disorders. Kids born to older parents are also more likely to have elderly, infirm grandparents, incapable of babysitting or building “the special bonds between children and their elders through which family traditions are passed.” Older parents themselves probably will never see their own kids reach middle age, or their grandkids emerge from childhood.

This “post-familial culture” has set us up for an epidemic of loneliness, said Ross Douthat in Having smaller families later thins out “kin networks”: Kids miss out on relationships with brothers, sisters, and cousins who never exist. The loss may not seem obvious to career-minded people in their 20s, but later in life, you see that family ties are “richer, more primal, and more permanent” than friendships. Blame feminism, said Katie Roiphe in For decades, women have been told that they can “have it all,” including two or three beautiful children, even if you “dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s.” Unfortunately, Mother Nature refuses to cooperate.

This attack on modern parents is cruel and unfair, said Jennifer Rainey Marquez in There are many upsides to marrying and having kids later, including more secure finances and lower rates of divorce. Today, people don’t marry the first person they meet; we look for “a suitable partner,” and the timing of that is not fully under our control. Once again, women are being shamed and blamed for “doing it wrong,” said Noah Berlatsky in Women are judged badly if they give up their careers in their 20s to make babies, and if they don’t. But “our lives are our lives. You get a single story.” Did anyone really believe he or she could have it all?

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