There's No Perfect Time to Start Having Kids

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Let's all take a deep breath.

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Another week, another series of hand-wringing articles about how women are doing it wrong. This round's theme is how we all (men too!) need to have babies earlier before we get too old and our sperm and eggs rot out from under us. In the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz reports that American mothers have aged on average about four years since 1970, and that men have also aged. She then goes on to worry about the resulting social and health consequences and, somewhat improbably, about the very future of the species.

It was impressed upon me that parents like us, with our aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments, would change the nature of family life. We might even change the course of our evolutionary future. For we are bringing fewer children into the world and producing a generation that will be subtly different—"phenotypically and biochemically different," as one study I read put it—from previous generations.

Alison Benedikt at Slate, who is herself 35 with a third child on the way, adds,

You know what I am doing? I'm wishing. I'm wishing we had started popping out those kids, oh, say, five years earlier than we did, so that maybe, by 40, my bedroom and my sons' bedroom wouldn't be separated by a fake wall.

I hear where Bendikt and Shulevitz are coming from; I'm 41 myself with a 9-year old, and my wife is 46. It would have been nice to have had the kid a couple years earlier, maybe. We'd be sprightlier and better able to chase him down, anyway. Maybe we would have even had a second. And, were we going to have a second right now, certainly Shulevitz's discussion of the way that some birth defects and syndromes (notably autism) rise with the age of the father and the mother might have given us pause. The science doesn't sound 100 percent conclusive or anything, and expert opinion gets reassessed on such matters a lot more than you might think. Still, given what she says, there's reason to forego the fertility treatments...and perhaps reason to think about adoption if you're an older prospective parent (an option Shulevitz doesn't mention).

Still there's more going on here than just regrets or sober weighing of possible downsides. Shulevitz, after all, in that quote above, is raising the specter of vague catastrophic evolutionary I-don't-know-what. Elsewhere in the article she brings up past Malthusian foreshadowings of overpopulation apocalypse—not to suggest that such scare-mongering turned out to be kind of silly, but instead to let us know that the real apocalyptic scare is population decline. If it's not one over-hyped doom, it's another.

That over-hyped doom, is, at bottom, and again, the fear that we, men and women, but especially women, have fumbled the ball. Somehow, it turns out, women don't have it all —the successful career and the happy family; the carefree young years without children and the fulfilling young years with children. The feminist dream of absolute empowerment has proven to be a mirage, and all that is left is concern-trolling, neurosis, and gnashing of dentures.

Of course, the feminist dream isn't actually one of absolute empowerment—or, at least, it shouldn't be. Absolute empowerment isn't possible. Everybody, even the most self-actualized among us, is eventually going to experience suffering, and everybody is going to die. Both Shulevitz and Benedikt present the possibility of dying when their children are in their 30s as a major anxiety for older parents. But just because you're a young parent doesn't mean you're ensured seeing your kids into their 50s. And even if you do, leaving them will still be hard. It doesn't matter how old you are or how young; nobody gets out of this world alive.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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