I'm 51. My Son Is 5. But Who's Counting?

By Philip Lerman
Sunday, June 17, 2007


It's the cry of delight I've come to live for -- and to dread. I've just heaved my 5-year-old son, Max, above my head and over my shoulder and let him scramble down my back to the floor for what I would conservatively estimate is the one-millionth time in a row. And he has called for another encore.

It's in moments like this that I realize: I'm in the presence of a young spirit who has conquered time, because all of time has been compressed into this single moment, endlessly repeated. The lesson the child teaches the father is laid out before me: to be in the moment and of the moment.

It's also in moments like this that I realize: I should have had kids when I was a lot younger.

An hour later, after hobbling away like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I'm stretched out on the chiropractor's table, hearing him once again lecture me with sentences that begin, "At your age. . . . " As I wait for the flames in my lower back to subside, I have a moment to contemplate what it really means to be an older father of a young child.

Other than the fact that you keep losing your reading glasses in the Lego box.

The waters are treacherous for older fathers these days, even though there are more of us. In 1980, the number of men fathering children after the age of 40 was 25.7 per 1,000; in 2002, the figure was 32.7. Perhaps because of our somewhat increased visibility, the scolds who have focused until now on women who wait until their late 30s or into their 40s to bear a child have turned their attention our way.

And they are not at all happy.

The argument begins with the math. A new study shows, for example, that the chance of fathering an autistic child is five times greater for men older than 40 than it is for those younger than 30. "Older Fathers Put Their Child's Health at Risk," the headlines scream.

Let's put aside, for now, any questions about the study's veracity. Let's assume it's just plain true that men in their 40s have a 3-in-1,000 chance of fathering an autistic child. Three in 1,000 is not awful. But it's not nothing. And when you pass 50, the statistics get worse.

Studies examining the sperm of older men show a marked fragmentation of the DNA, year by year, after age 40. And others indicate that older fathers are more likely to have children with Down syndrome, schizophrenia, Marfan syndrome, dwarfism and many other abnormalities.

It's terrible to think that we older fathers are putting our children's health at risk.

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