"Their 40s just seemed to sneak up on them"

The L.A. Times is more thoughtful than most about why women delay childbearing. But what about men?


Lynn Harris
December 5, 2007 10:45PM (UTC)

Here's a pleasant treat: from the Los Angeles Times, a balanced, non-exclamation-pointy and -- somewhat -- thorough piece about the risks associated with later childbearing. We've heard much of it before: Many women are "waiting" to have children until their late 30s and early 40s, and then finding out that a) it's not so easy, and b) there's a higher risk of complications such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, prematurity and multiple births -- check, check. I had my first two at 37, with an impact on both personal and public health.

But this piece does at least one thing many others don't: It qualifies and describes what it means by "waiting." (I still haven't forgotten the USA Today editorial in 2000 by a medical resident who essentially blamed picky women for all birth defects. "All of the thirtysomething women I know still are waiting patiently for their knight in shining armor to ride down Madison Avenue in a Porsche and whisk them off to his summer mansion in the Hamptons," he wrote. Thanks, hoser. Madison Avenue goes uptown.) Reporter Mary Engel, by contrast, paints a much more thoughtful picture of one fertility doc's patients: "One woman was on her second career and married to a man who already had children. She was certain she didn't want a child of her own. Then she hit 45, and suddenly having a baby was the only thing that mattered. Other women were busy with medical, law or graduate school and then long hours at the office. Their 40s just seemed to sneak up on them. Some of them spent years looking for a partner before choosing to become a single mother, or needed time to get used to the idea of a lesbian couple having a child."

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Some of the doctors' comments are measured, even optimistic. "Some fertility experts believe that awareness of the risks is already rising -- and that the boom in over-40s births may have peaked," writes Engel. "'What I'm curious about is whether this trend is going to continue or whether it is in fact going to reverse,' said [Dr. Richard Paulson, chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at USC's Keck School of Medicine and a pioneer of egg donation.] 'We've raised the consciousness of the population to the fact that the biological clock is a reality.'"

The female one, sure. But Engel makes no mention of the fact that the clock tolls for sperm, too -- and neither, really, does our culture. Two of my best male friends just turned 40. Both are single; both are interested in not being single. (Both are fantastic. Ladies!) And both definitely experience "societal" pressure to get married. But you can bet that no one's tsking or ticktocking them to get their sh*t together and knock someone up already, quick, before their swimmers slow down and/or start causing trouble.

This story (along with others like it) also misses a broader cultural point. "Their 40s just seemed to sneak up on them," Engel writes. Right. But doesn't that happen to lots of us these days -- especially as our 20s have become the time to NOT settle down? Isn't everything happening later, including old age? (Didn't our grandparents look way older than our parents do at their age?) Every decade is "the new" previous decade. I'm not saying that's good or bad; I'm just saying that as a phenomenon, it's coed. (And yes, partly class related.) As, biologically speaking, is childbearing. In other words, people are "waiting."

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Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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