Delaying childbirth has come under a cloud recently, with the Pew Research Center recently reporting that U.S. birth rate dipped in 2011 to the lowest ever recorded.
The news raised worries that because we are increasingly delaying childbirth, we are having fewer children. In turn, we may be overloading the next generation, a group with too few numbers to support their aging parents.
Some have gone so far, as Ross Douthat did in the New York Times, to partially blame the decline on “a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.”
Now, The New Republic has offered its own rather terrifying entry into to the “why not to delay childbirth” oeuvre.
The Dec. 20 issue’s “The Grayest Generation,.” by science editor Judith Shulevitz (published in advance online) explores the societal, medical and personal repercussions of waiting to have a child.
“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,” she writes
Shulevitz goes on to discuss the prevalence of troubling conditions the plague some children of older parents, the likelihood that an older parent will die or become debilitated while their child still needs support and the larger problems caused by a general fertility plunge.
I asked Shulevitz, an older parent herself, more about why her research convinces her that costs of delay might outweigh the obvious benefits. Excerpts of our interview are below:
JD: What inspired you to tackle this subject now?
JS:One, I was tired of wondering whether all the problems I was encountering among friends’ kids and as I sat in the waiting rooms of the occupational-therapy gyms where I took my son for his fine motor delays — you know, the autism-spectrum and sensory-integration diagnoses, the ADD, other learning disabilities, and so on — were for real, or whether they were just the result of more doctors making the diagnoses and more parents trying to get them. What I learned is that overdiagnosis accounts for some of the rise in these disabilities, but not all of it. And one leading theory of why there are more of these disorders these days is that there are many more older parents having kids now that there used to be.
Two, I got very interested in neuroendocrinology and learned that we now know so much more than we used to about how babies in develop in the womb, and how incredibly sensitive they are to all kinds of influences, and that this new knowledge was leading researchers to ask all kinds of amazing new questions, and to make use of powerful new technologies that let us see things we’ve never seen before. I also learned that parental age, and assisted reproductive technology, which people resort to when they’re older, are very powerful risk factors for various birth defects and other developmental disorders. I just hadn’t known that when I had my fertility treatments. I was fascinated, and a little appalled.
JD: Weighing the benefits of delayed childbirth — female advancement, empowerment, parental maturity and financial stability — against the downsides you so devastatingly describe, is your conclusion that we as a society should wage a campaign to encourage couples to have kids at a younger age? If so, how can we retain the benefits?
JS: That right there is the million-dollar question. … Scholars who study this stuff pretty much agree that 1) women are going to work and 2) there is a steady trend toward them having their babies later, largely because they work, and 3) the key to persuading them to have their children earlier is implementing government policies that make it easier for both women and their husbands/partners to balance work and life.
On #1: More and more women just don’t have the choice whether to work or not; it’s no longer a feminism question, it’s a survival question... So that means .. they’re going to keep delaying babies, because it’s just too hard for a young person to pursue a career or make a living when he or she is having to manage babies. Unless we as a society get serious about ... putting in place much more child-friendly policies and making it possible for women and men to a) put their careers or education on hold to spend time with their babies without being forced out of the work force or suffering a lifelong reduction in earnings and b) put their kids in affordable, reliable child care. As I say at the end of the piece: “We’d have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right.”
JD: Since you talk about your own experience as an older mother, one who has benefitted from the wait in terms of your career and, perhaps, your financial and emotional stability, is it unfair to argue that other women not be given the same benefit of the doubt in terms of being able to weight the pros and cons?
JS: What I’m happy about is that I got to wait till I met the man I married, because I simply can’t imagine not being married to him. And we met when I was 34, and we married when I was 36, and my son was born when I was 39. On the other hand, the reason I was around to meet my wonderful husband is that it really had never seemed necessary to settle down. Marrying late was the norm for my generation. And if I’d started having babies earlier? That would have marked me as someone who wasn’t serious about her career in journalism, unless I really gave those babies short shrift and left early in the morning and got home late at night and had them raised by nannies. The only way we’re going to change our behavior (men’s and women’s) is if we change the norms, and the only way we’re going to change the norms is if society gives men and women real, concrete help with having babies earlier, and sends a signal that that’s a good thing.
JD: If readers were to walk away with one or two points from your piece, what do you hope they would be?
JS: 1. That we really don’t know enough about what assisted reproductive technology does to children, and that the U.S. needs to regulate the fertility industry much more stringently. We are tinkering with very basic biological processes that we’re only beginning to understand, and we need to collect more data and we need to study that data much harder and we need to give consumers more guidance than they’re getting.
2. That the worldwide fertility decline is linked to aging parents but it is not about decadence or self-indulgence, as some pundits seem to be saying lately, but about how we force women to pay the bulk of the social and economic costs of reproduction, which gives them an irresistible incentive to delay childbearing.
Where you stand on delaying childbirth? Is it an individual choice or a societal concern?