Waiting, Waiting, Waiting

First-time Parents Getting Older Part 1 of 2

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It’s not news that people are waiting longer and longer before they marry and have children. What’s becoming news are the consequences. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

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John Stonestreet

In October, a son was born to an Indian man named Ramjeet Raghav and his wife, Shakuntala. This story made news around the world because Raghav claims to be 96, which would make him the oldest man living to have fathered a child. Lost in the questions about Raghav’s age is the fact that his wife was 53 when their second child was born.

India isn’t the only place where new parents are getting older. In a recent New Republic cover story, Judith Shulevitz notes that having children “much later than we used to” has become “perfectly unremarkable” for most Americans.

But “unremarkable” is not the same as “without consequences,” which is why her article is entitled “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society.”

What will “upend” our society isn’t the occasional outlier, such as Larry King becoming a dad at age 66—it’s countless Americans postponing having children until their mid-to-late thirties and even forties.

Since 1970, the average age for first childbirth for American women has gone up by four years: from 21.5 to 25.4 years old. The average age for first-time fatherhood is now 28.

That may not sound all that significant, but averages can be misleading: a college graduate is more than three times more likely to have her first child in her thirties than her non-graduate counterpart: 30 percent of them postpone childbirth until their thirties.

Even more telling is the fact “as the U.S. birth rate slumps due to the recession, only men and women over 40 have kept having more babies than they did in the past.”

According to Shulevitz, we are in the midst of a “natural experiment” that will measure the impact of “aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments” on family life.

The results won’t be completely known for a long time, but what we already know, as Shulevitz puts it, “should alarm us more than it already does.”

That’s because there is a well-established correlation between the age of the mother and chromosomal abnormality: a child born to a mother in her forties is 15-20 times more likely to suffer such an abnormality than one born to a mother in her twenties.

Then there’s the less well-known link between parental age and mental illness: “men over 50 were three times more likely than men under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.” Earlier this year, the British journal Nature published a study whose conclusion was that “the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade.”

These results are controversial, to put it mildly. But what isn’t controversial is that postponing childbirth increases the health risks to our children. What Shulevitz dubbed “a vicious cycle of declining fertility . . . [and] the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies” was producing a generation of children who are “phenotypically and biochemically different” from previous generations.

Yet despite these undeniable risks, our culture treats this phenomenon as a “triumph.” Technology has “freed” both women and men from having to make difficult choices.

Except that it has done no such thing: nature is not infinitely malleable to be conformed according to our selfish whims. Biology will have the final say, even if those fighting biology aren’t around when the bill comes due.

So, what should the Christian response be? That’s the subject of our next broadcast. Please tune in.

Further Reading and Information

How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society
Judith Shulevitz | The New Republic | December 6, 2012

Stiff-arming parenthood
Michael Reneau | World magazine | December 11, 2012


Thank you
Thank you Richard and Stephanie for responding to my post so thoughtfully. Please know your gentle responses uplifted my heavy heart. It felt like a hand reaching down to me into this pit I feel I’m in. Sometimes God uses strangers to get you through a difficult day and remind you there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you Lord for his redeeming work in my life. Infertility has broken me and God can use it for my good to help me be more conformed to the image of Christ. My God redeems. I hope my infertility will be used for good in my life and others. Amen.
The odd study of odds
It is not because I have already replied to most of the other comments that I am compelled to answer Elizabeth's, but because she asks questions that must be answered and so far no one else has. The main point that must be made is that the only thing that can be said about older mothers is that the probability of birth defects is higher; it is not 100%. The second is that God is omniscient and omnipotent. So of course he knew about the odds of birth defects being higher. But God doesn't deal in odds, He deals in certainty. He has perfect foreknowledge. But even if the probability of a baby being born to a particular woman having birth defects had been 99.999%, He was perfectly capable of causing that baby to be born completely healthy. I'm sure He did so in the cases of Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

Aside from that, let us not forget that at the time of Abraham and Sarah, the decline in the lifespan of humans that followed the flood was not yet complete. Recall that before the flood, people typically lived to be 800 or more and had their first child at the age of 65 to 187 (I'm assuming that the births recorded in Genesis 5 were of first children or at least first sons). I would not be too surprised if menopause did not occur until at least the fifth century of a woman's life. It has been noted that the lifespans recorded for the patriarchs following the flood showed a decrease approximating exponential decay. This has been used as evidence of the divine inspiration of Genesis, because otherwise, what would Moses have known about exponential decay? Anyway, that decay clearly had not reached the current actuarial range since Abraham lived to be 175. And while he thought his wife of 90 to be post-menopausal, she was not described as a wrinkled, stooped-over, feeble old woman but a beauty. Perhaps the typical age of menopause in those days was in the 70s or 80s. Sarah was 77 when Ishmael was born.

Also, Sarah's age was not the only reason to be concerned about the health of her children and grandchildren. After all, she was Abraham's half-sister. Not only that, but Isaac married his first cousin, and Jacob's wives were his first cousins on his mother's side and second cousins on his father's side. Yet Jacob had at least 13 healthy children, 12 sons and 1 daughter, of whom 8 sons and the daughter were borne by his wives (the other 4 by their maids). Whether this was because of providence or the fact that the human race was young and the gene pool had not been very corrupted yet, who knows?

The bottom line is: if you have a child late in life, there is no guarantee (s)he will have birth defects, but the odds are higher than if (s)he had been born earlier. If I were in your situation and I wanted a child, I would adopt (no surprise there, if you read my previous comment), but it's your choice. If you pray for God to give you a healthy child, I won't complain.
So many things to discuss....
As I stated in my previous post, this issue is multi-faceted. A discussion about older parenthood naturally lends itself to sparking discussions about singleness, infertility, adoption. I am a little embarrassed that my initial reaction to this topic was a whine-fest about my singleness. ;) I have actually given this topic a great deal of thought. I am a graduate student of Bioethics, and much of my work has been in the area of beginning-of-life ethics, so I have had extensive readings and discussions about this very subject.

Today's (1/25) breakpoint commentary is a sequel to this one where John unpacks this topic a little more. At the heart of all the above issues is the important question of what is Christian Worldview of childbearing?

After some study and personal reflection on this topic, I have come to the conclusion that children are a gift given by God for His purposes. As John says in today's breakpoint "They’re not something to get around to once all of our other life goals have been achieved. And they’re certainly not a means to achieving our own personal happiness, an exercise of our reproductive rights, or one more item to check off the bucket list."

Unfortunately, our culture sometimes views children in that way. Apart from people like myself (men and women of childbearing age who cannot find a mate) and those couples struggling with infertility, there is a significant trend in our society towards delaying childbearing until later for personal reasons (career goals, traveling, finances, etc.) More and more women are struggling with infertility because they have waited until later to attempt pregnancy. John is right, advanced maternal age is a huge risk factor for a lot of health issues for both mom and baby. We do not like to be reminded of that, but it is true. As a neonatal nurse, I have first-hand clinical knowledge of this.

One problem is that our give-it-to-me-exactly-when-I-want-it society often sees fertility treatments such as IVF and surrogacy as a convenient way around these issues. (Observe how many older Hollywood stars turn to these technologies to procreate). The fertility industry (professionally represented by the ASRM, whom John references in his second commentary on this subject) has a huge financial interest in promoting these technologies (among others, such as the use of donor gametes) as great alternatives for the older couple who would like to have a baby of their very own.

What many people refuse to consider (even within the church) is that these fertility technologies are on very shaky ethical ground. (I say this with utmost compassion and empathy for couples who are struggling with infertility) It is nearly impossible to estimate the number of IVF-created embryos who are languishing in freezers as "leftovers". A decade-old survey by the RAND Institute found "that as of April 11, 2002, a total of 396,526 embryos have been placed in storage in the United States." (Hoffman et al., 2003) These days, that number has probably risen significantly due to the increase in the number of assisted reproductive cycles over the past decade. (I have references available for anyone interested).

Not all reproductive medicine is ethically problematic. I believe that even IVF can be practiced in ethically responsible ways that would be compatible with a Christian Worldview. However, much of reproductive medicine is practiced with a view of children as commodities, who can be purchased when we want them and how we want them. This is the danger that John is trying to warn us about in these breakpoint commentaries.

(For more information on Christian Bioethics and reproductive ethics I suggest checking out the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity -www.cbhd.org . There you can find a wealth of resources about this topic.)
Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth
And what about those who don’t choose to wait but have been waiting a decade or longer because of infertility? Will God give us a handicap child because our eggs have aged a whole decade and our spouses are a decade older now? Should we stop trying after I’m over 40 to prevent that possibility? Is that really God’s will? Did God do that for Sarah and Abraham? Did they have children with chromosomal abnormalities? Maybe environmental pollutants, like car exhaust, corn diets, or cultural habits like working in front of computers are lowering sperm rates and damaging eggs these days. Hannah, Elizabeth and Sarah in the Bible were all godly women whom God closed their wombs until old age. Wouldn’t God know they were likely to have these chromosomal abnormalities you speak of? How is a handicapped child any less made in the image of God anyway? Not that you are saying that, but it sounds like it’s a consequence of delaying. All children are a gift from God. And what about the time before the availability of birth control, did women have children into their forties, possibly fifties until menopause? Did their children have birth defects due to age? What’s the data there?
can of worms
Wow! So many comments that are just barely related to the topic, but who am I to talk? I've posted my share of such comments. Let's take them one at a time.

Tami posted the first comment and pretty much established the subject matter of the rest. I am sorry that I cannot help her (by marrying her) for several reasons: 1) I'm older, and 2) I am happily child-free and have no desire to change that, although I have wanted to marry but that hasn't worked out. Also, the scripture verse she mentioned has been one of my favorites for many years.

As for Stephanie's post, my response to Tami's applies to hers as well.

I have to be careful replying to Kenny Jr. not to sound insensitive, which is never my intention. We who were born with autism tend to have that problem. I have run into people who desire to have their own children, rather than adopt, before, even in my own church. Needless to say I have never been able to identify with that, but that's neither here nor there. I would only say that, not being a doctor I am not sure, but I believe that there are ways around your problem, which you may or may not have religious objections to. If your wife still has at least one ovary, it might be possible to extract an egg or two and do an in vitro fertilization and implant in a surrogate mother. That's just one example but it is the one that comes to mind. Come to think of it, I can't think of any others off hand, but that certainly is no proof that there aren't any.

Finally, Mr Reed raises an interesting point about the Lord's adoptive parents. Most of the time that the subject of their ages has come up, what I have heard is that she was about 13 or 14 and he was in his 40s or 50s. That was common, I have been told, in that culture at that time. It raises all kinds of questions about what the guys did the previous 3 or 4 decades, but I'm not going to dwell on that. As for teenagers not being able to get good-paying jobs today, yeah, and for obvious reasons. Those jobs usually require at least a college education, and except for a handful of prodigies, there isn't enough time for them to get that until they are in their 20s. Perhaps we could arrange loans for the more promising ones, hoping they will get educated and get a good job later so they can pay them off, but it is almost guaranteed that in some cases we will guess wrong, and in others they might squander the money and refuse to pay it back. Details.
It happens every Christmas season, we hear the story of Mary & Joseph. Someone comments that they were most likely around 15 to 16 years old. We say "Oh my goodness that is so young!" But the truth of the matter is, in most cultures people get married and start families before the age of 20. I heard a statistic that prior to the 20th century the average age of college students was between 13 and 17. What has happened to our culture that we can not prepare young people for adulthood?

If we study biology we see that human reproduction is most optimal between the ages of 16 to 30 years of age. We now see what can happen when we ignore God's design. So what is the solution? I know that our culture does not encourage our young men and women to mature emotionaly by the mid teen years. Our economy does not allow teenagers to get jobs that can support a family at that age. Can we change that? I don't know the answer myself, but we need major changes to our culture.
God is still soverignly in control
As a man who didn't meet the right woman until I was 34 & couldn't have children with my wife due to her needing a hysterectomy to head off uterine cancer I remember that God is still sovereignly control & if I & my wife were destined to be parents God would have made it possible. It still is possible through adoption, but we will never have our own children through the act of procreation. To all those like Tami please remember God has a plan for you. God also doesn't work in our time restraints. Please be patient & wait for God. If you are destined to be have children you will meet the right man for this to occur. If not, God has other plans for your life & will indeed reveal them to you in His time. I know it's hard to be patient & wait for God, but it always results in great results.
I couldn't agree more. This problem has many different facets, but one important contributor is the lack of men stepping into marriages until later. At 28, I have so many beautiful, intelligent, kind, hard-working girlfriends who desire marriage but who cannot find a man who shares that desire. We would love to be mothers - where are the men who want fatherhood?
Our culture is broken, but God is beyond powerful, and I am trusting that He has wonderful plans for our lives.
I understand how you feel, Tami. I'm in the same boat.

A friend of mine wrote this article; I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

Good, but sad commentary
I appreciate this commentary, but it made my heart very sad as well. There are those of us "older" woman of whom I am one who have desired marriage for many years and are now in our late 30s/early 40s and the Lord simply has not fulfilled that desire of our hearts yet. We have waited and are still waiting. We have saved ourselves for marriage and are still saving ourselves while we see the dream and desire of bearing a child of our own slowly slip away. I can't help but wonder if with the 55 million babies that have been aborted since 1973 that maybe one of them could have or would have been my husband or at least a good friend. I can't know that, but I know that God is still in the business of meeting the desires of our hearts per his promise in Psalm 37:4 whether that be through providing a long desired husband and children or whatever means he chooses.