Babies and Bucketlists

Putting Off That First Child, Part 2 of 2

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People are waiting longer and longer to have their first child. Good thing? Bad thing? Christian thing? Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

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John Stonestreet

Yesterday, I told BreakPoint listeners about a recent New Republic cover story on the impact of older parenthood on American society.

I emphasized the health risks associated with giving birth after the age of thirty-five. Simply put, delaying childbirth places your unborn children at a significantly greater risk of genetic, developmental and mental disorders.

But the impact goes far beyond possible medical issues. As author Judith Shulevitz points out, the longer we postpone having children, the less time we’re likely to be around to help them. It’s simple math: While a “35-year-old new father can hope to live to see his child turn 42,” a “45-year-old one has until the child is 33.”

It’s the kind of math people don’t want to be reminded of. When researchers, at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, made the “fairly obvious point that older parents die earlier in their children’s lives,” the response from the audience was hostility. As one of the researchers told Shulevitz, “We got a lot of blowback in terms of reproductive rights and all that.”

Someone else who experienced “blowback” was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who noted recently the decline in American birthrates since 2008.

Douthat rightly pointed out that historically birth rates go down during tough economic times like these. But declining birth rates are about more than economics: They are, according to Douthat, “a symptom of late-modern exhaustion,” which he characterized as “decadence.”

You can imagine how that went over. More than one critic invoked the old “barefoot and pregnant” trope. Mind you, very few disputed the data underlying Douthat’s column or its implications, just as few people dispute the data Shulevitz cited in her article.

And when emergent church author Phyllis Tickle suggested something similar at a conference of emergents recently, many left angry and disillusioned that she would dare encourage things that smacked of old, outdated versions of motherhood and parenting.

At the root of this is the belief our right to determine our own lives in whatever way we please trumps any sense of responsibility. With that is a complete denial of the idea that facts about consequences should in any way inform the way we choose to live our lives. Being reminded of things, such as the downside of postponing childbirth, becomes a kind of “oppression.”

But demonizing facts by calling them “oppressive” doesn’t make them less true. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

What can we do about it? As Douthat pointed out, the trends we’re witnessing are the products of “cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change.” Sure, we can tweak incentives in areas such as tax policy to encourage family formation and childbirth.

But ultimately, postponing childbirth or foregoing it altogether is a response to a cultural narrative about what it means to live the “good life”—education, followed by professional advancement and then, when the time is “right,” starting a family.

The Christian response involves telling and, more importantly, acting out, a different story. It begins with the worship of the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). In this story, the measure of the “good life” consists of our willingness to serve others, postponing, even foregoing personal gratification—including that next career move—in pursuit of that service.

When you look at life this way, children are ends in and of themselves. Participating in their procreation and rearing is an enormous blessing precisely because they’re made in the image of God, and as Jesus said, “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father” (Matthew 18:10). 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.

Can Christians reverse the trends Shulevitz and Douthat wrote about? Perhaps. But our calling is to be the alternative to decadence, even at the risk of blowback.

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

More Babies, Please
Ross Douthat | New York Times | December 1, 2012

Emergence Christianity, Women, and the Fall of Christendom
Julie Clawson | January 14, 2013


I too want to thank everyone who took the time to comment, and to ask you to stay tuned: The BreakPoint program is going to address some of these concerns next week.
Thanks to the commentors
I'm so thankful for those who commented on the narrowness with which this commentary was offered. Again, I agree on the statistics for which his point is made but they were given in total disregard to the numerous families who exist in godly marriages and very much desire to have children and yet experience fertility issues. I couldn't even stomach reading the whole of both articles for how much they were spoken in judgement over my ovaries not working properly. Please at least take into consideration the numerous anomalies to your observations when making blanket statements about social views such as these 2 articles. They were both incredibly insensitive.
I felt the tone of this breakpoint clip was harsh and small-minded. You should have emphasized that you are speaking to a married, christian audience with no fertility problems assumed...in that case, I see your point. It is not always self indulgence that causes people to have children at a "later" age. I am single and eager to have children - with the RIGHT man. I am not sinning by waiting for that. Many many women are having children before marriage by "surprise" and by choice. That is a whole other discussion, but I have chosen not to take that route. Couples with infertility issues were also not addressed. These are extremely sensitive topics for women.

Yes, I wish people were more marriage/family minded. I would've been happy to already have children at this point, but that obviously hasn't been God's plan as of yet. I have in no way delayed children in pursuit of "the good life".

This broadcast actually made me feel anxious and sad that I have not had the blessing of children yet. Thats not how God wants me to feel. I am an elementary school teacher and will be an excellent wife and mother in God's perfect timing. I do not believe that waiting for the right person is offensive to God.
I was driving to my internship as I listened to this clip on the radio. The words I heard were harsh and judgmental. I get the point. I agree in a sense. But to hear someone talk about postponing children as though I had planned it and had never thought about the fact that if I have children at 40, they'll be 20 when I'm 60 and my own mother only made it to 53. Some of us really don't need to be reminded of the math. Those numbers smack us in the face without anyone else's help. If circumstances haven't opened up for me to marry yet at 39 when I wanted children at 28...it isn't all about statistics and planning/postponing.
I'm not sure how I feel about this commentary. On the one hand, the facts you mention are accurate.

On the other . . . I put off marriage until I was 29. My husband and I dated for five years until we were married. In fact, he proposed to me once, and I turned him down because I didn't think we were ready to get married (and my husband says I was right to say no at that time.) Then, my father became terminally ill, and I didn't think that having my father see me get married before he died was a good reason to push marriage with my husband. (I knew someone who got engaged and married right after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She left her husband right after the honeymoon. I've since learned that there was more going on with that relationship than just her mother's illness.)

When my husband and I did get married, we waited to start a family because we had just moved to another city and he had trouble finding permanent work. I was 33 when we started trying . . . and we ended up going through infertility treatment because I had trouble getting pregnant. I got pregnant at 34 and had my son at 35. At the age of three, my son was diagnosed with autism.

If I had married sooner, would I have had trouble getting pregnant? Would I have had a child with autism? My only honest answer is, "I don't know."

Some people don't have the maturity to handle marriage when they are physically the most fertile. I'm sure I was one of those people. Should I have gotten married just so I could have had a healthy kid?
A partial solution?
Sometimes two problems can be each other's solutions. On this page and the previous one, over and over again I have read about (mostly in the comments but also in articles referenced) single American women bemoaning the fact that a man hasn't come along. In the meantime there is a shortage of women in China because of the one-child policy and the resulting gendercide. So while we wait for China to reverse their policy, maybe we could get the Chinese men and the American women ...

Of course the former group is probably larger, and most of them are not Christian. That's why I say it is a partial solution, at best. Just a thought.
It's not always a choice
Maybe it's different with non-Christians, but I sure don't know of any Christians putting off marriage and childbearing deliberately.

I know tons of singles who would LOVE to have families, but simply don't have anyone to marry. It's painful enough to be in that situation without being told you're doing it deliberately, on top of it all.
Is it moral?
Our culture does not encourage males to mature. More women are in college, thats good. But males are not going to college as much as they used to. This is a big problem. If a college educated woman and a high school educated man get married and kids come along, who stays home to take care of them? Chances are the woman makes more money. This is a major problem in our culture.

I think we need better education during the elementary school years and teaching our young boys how to become men.
You are on target in naming the problem, but the causes are much more complex. I became a father for the second time at age 49 and it has been a joy, but believe me, it was never how I would have planned it. I don't care to divulge the particular issues that precluded me from having more children at a younger age. but the general societal issues are pretty well recognized.

Many researchers have come to realize that adolescence is being prolonged well into the twenties and even early thirties. This generational immaturity leads one to conclude that even if they married and had children earlier, they wouldn't be particular good parents.

This generational immaturity is fed by a pervasive acceptance and embrace of narcissism, which extends well into the church.

There have been great advances (if one may call it that) by women in the last few decades, but men are falling behind badly. Hardly anyone seems to even know, much less care. Who are these women to marry?

I applaud you for raising this subject, and as a physician and amateur social analyst, you are correct in calling it a problem. Just don't stop there. Pursue the causes; and don't simplistically brush it off as selfishness (as you say, pursuing the "good life"). Yes, there's much of that, but that is how they are being reared.