In an episode of New Girl from earlier this season, Jess loses her shit over being 30, childless, and potentially infertile. While I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg that the show took things a tad far ovary-panic-wise, I found myself nodding—just a teeeeeeeny bit—in agreement. I too am 30 and childless, and while I have no idea how fertile I might be, there is truth to the idea that the older a woman is, the harder time she might have getting pregnant if/when she wants to.
Myself and many women like me, who’ve grown up privileged, educated, single, childless, career-oriented, and feminist, have also figured that we’d get around to having kids eventually. Unlike generations of women who came before us, we have the option of delaying the babymaking process until we’ve taken care of other business we might want to accomplish, like advancing our careers and finding people with whom to have and possibly raise said babies. Many men are considering those factors too, putting off fatherhood as a result. It is a good thing that we have those options. But what happens when a whole bunch of people decide to have kids later in life? According to the latest issue of the New Republic, delaying parenthood might have further-reaching consequences than we realize.
In her article “The Grayest Generation: How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” Judith Shulevitz recounts her own story of fertility drugs and later-in-life pregnancy (she had her son when she was 37) and uses it as a jumping-off point to examine parenting trends in the United States and, to a lesser extent, abroad. Parents are older now than they used to be—first-time mothers are now four years older on average than they were in 1970 and the average first-time father is also about three years older. That might not seem like much, but it is a shift. Says Shulevitz:
A remarkable feature of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph, in part because it’s the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it. Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they’re not wrong about that. So each time an age limit is breached or a new ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) procedure is announced, it’s met with celebration. Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children.
Sounds great, right? But that’s not all. Shulevitz reports that along with the “feminist triumph” that is delayed parenthood come birth defects, learning disorders, unknown side effects from fertility drugs, parents who are too old to care for their children, grandparents who are too old to care about their grandchildren, lower birth rates, and economic decline. As a rational feminist who believes in reproductive rights, birth control, and planned parenthood (and Planned Parenthood), this piece still inspired a bit of New Girl-esque fertility panic in me. What if I’ve waited too long and now my gray-haired babymaking RUINS IT FOR EVERYONE?
But no five-page article can cover every base, and there’s plenty more to the story than this. First, every pregnancy has the potential for complications, health or otherwise, and age is by far from the only factor. Also, there are plenty of benefits that come with waiting to have kids. Some of Shulevitz’ (and, in a much douchier fashion, Ross Douthat’s) arguments linking the economy to birth rates are pretty much bunk. And of course there are plenty of drawbacks that can come with having kids at a younger age. As Alec Baldwin, himself a later-in-life dad, will tell you: It’s Complicated.
So what are we to do about our aging parental units? Just convince everyone to have children when they’re younger? No. Because the system that encourages some parents—women especially—to wait until their careers and lives are more established to have kids remains largely unchanged. Says Shulevitz:
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.
For the parents Shulevitz is talking about in her piece—and she’s only talking about a small group here, because there are plenty of people in the US and around the world who are under 30 and have kids—culture discourages taking time to raise families when they should be advancing their careers. She mentions women and men, but of course women are the ones who can’t “have it all” when it comes to work-life balance, whereas men don’t face the same consequences. Hence, women wait until we’re in our later thirties to have kids, and hence: PANIC.
Panic aside, Shulevitz raises some good questions. Though not as scary as it might sound, many parents are indeed having kids later, and many parents are also using fertility drugs and treatments to get pregnant. These procedures are relatively new, and we should pay attention to how they might affect kids and society at large. However, waiting to become a parent has its pros just like having babies at a younger age has its cons, and vice versa. And yes, examining this change in parenting is important, and it obviously caught my (and my ovaries’) attention. But I’m still waiting for the article about how society has changed to support women in all parenting (or non!) decisions. And I’m still waiting to have kids, too.