Thursday, December 13, 2012

Older parents: really such a novelty?

In December issue of The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz explores "How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society: The scary consequences of the grayest generation." Here's her jumping off point:

…we have our children much later than we used to…

Well, yes. Many of us are accustomed to the possibility of older parenting. I just had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who is 60 who is trying to adopt a 4 year old. (He knows what he is getting into; this would be a second round for him.)

Schulevitz, TNR's science editor, catalogues our emerging understanding of chromosomal and other genetic anomalies that apparently increase as the age of procreation rises. Scientists attribute to couples procreating over 35 much of an increased frequency in the incidence of a spectrum of disorders ranging from full blown autism through more subtle "delays" among contemporary children. Older childbearing exposes offspring to whatever accumulated environmental stresses the parents have survived and it is not as if our eggs and sperm live a safe, pristine setting. There's even a finding that men over 55 are "three times more likely to father a schizophrenic child."

She also knows the news about older parenting isn't all bad.

Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.

But she worries about how older parenting disrupts the social life-cycle:

A mother who is 35 when her child is born is more likely than not to have died by the time that child is 46. The [mother] who is 45 may have bowed out of her child’s life when he’s 37. The odds are slightly worse for fathers: The 35-year-old new father can hope to live to see his child turn 42. The 45-year-old one has until the child is 33.

And all this goes with a lower birthrate worldwide which she concedes may not be all bad.

Fewer people, of course, means less demand for food, land, energy, and all the Earth’s other limited resources. But the environmental benefits have to be balanced against the social costs.

She knows why birthrates go way down in all modern societies: when women can control our fertility and achieve creative satisfaction outside of raising the next generation, they (we) will do so -- in significant numbers. But she thinks the "social costs" are too high. I don't see it. I bet the species can figure out how to adapt to less population growth and different life-cycles.

Feminists have a lot to say about Schulevitz' themes. I ran across her piece through commentary at Feministe. I'm among those who question Schulevitz' handwringing .

But I want come at this here from a more personal angle: I'm the product of a long family line of people who had children when they were older. I can't say the family was completely well balanced, but I don't think my forebears were that much wackier than anyone else's either. Some data points:
  • My great grandfather was born nearly 200 years ago -- in 1814. His son, my grandfather who was a lively part of my childhood, was born when that great grandfather was 60 years old (to a younger wife in those pre-fertility-enhancement days). He had not married until he was 54. Such late marriages seem to have been a form of fertility control when birth control measures were less accessible and reliable; unless you were able to support them, it was thought irresponsible to have children.
  • My own parents were in Schulevitz' "old" category when I was born -- their first and only child. My mother was nearly 40 and my father older still. That's me at one year with my father at 45 above. According to Schulevitz, they might have been expected to die when I was in my 30s, but in fact I was 52 when my mother died. That is, I was grown up. Moreover, my older parents didn't operate under the social assumption Schulevitz makes that grown-up children rely on their parents into middle age. Perhaps as a familial adaptation to long generations, my parents seemed to assume that relations between grown children and parents would be loving, but not intimate. Some of my best times "with" my parents were when we were all just adults, independent. They struggled to remain independent of me as far as they could in old age. They thought that was how the life-cycle was supposed to work. That too is a possible social adaptation.
  • This may be a function of being a member of the earliest Baby Boom cohort, but I was not completely unusual in my childhood in having parents who were "older." I think this may have been a function of the parental cohort having come up first through the Depression and then through World War II. Times and livelihoods were simply too insecure to encourage forming families while young. They waited, even after they married. One of my mother's best friends had her first child (my age peer), when her husband came back from the war and she was 44. She then proceeded to have two more (!) children, all without any fertility enhancements that I know of. It was just what people did, when they could.
I don't know quite what all this means, except that I'm inclined to take Schulevitz with considerable grains of salt. Her article is an artifact of a very particular time, place and social situation, as is my life history. Human beings -- genes and societies -- find diverse ways of organizing how we perpetuate the species. Sure, there are (or were before some modern technologies) physiological constraints on how we can organize families, but possibilities are broader than any snap shot of "reality" is going to suggest.

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