In a December article for The New Republic, "The Grayest Generation: How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society," the magazine's science editor Judith Shulevitz points out how the growing trend toward later parenthood since 1970 coincides with a rise in neurocognitive and developmental disorders among children.
Drawing on research published in Nature, Shulevitz writes that, while the associations between parental age and birth defects were largely speculative until this year, "when researchers in Iceland, using radically more powerful ways of looking at genomes, established that men pass on more de novo — that is, noninherited and spontaneously occurring — genetic mutations to their children as they get older. ... [T]hey concluded that the number of genetic mutations that can be acquired from a father increases by two every year of his life, and doubles every 16, so that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old to bequeath de novo mutations to his children."
By proving that it's not simply the mother's age and health that affects the fetus, Shulevitz says the dynamic surrounding discussions of fertility will change. "No longer need women feel solely guilty," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They can point to their husbands — and perhaps that's not really a nice way of putting it — but it means that the problem is shared by both sexes."
There is also some research that indicates fertility treatments taken by women of advanced maternal age could contribute to developmental delays. Shulevitz herself took the fertility drug Clomid. She had her first child when she was 39 and her husband was in his mid-40s, and says she began looking into the connections among fertility treatments, parental age and children's health while taking her son — who had a minor case of sensory integration disorder — to occupational therapy. As she'd sit and wait for him, she'd watch a parade of older mothers with children who had much more serious disorders than her son's.
This doesn't mean Shulevitz is a proponent of rushing parenthood. She acknowledges that there are "very powerful social forces at work on women that make it hard for them to even imagine having babies before their early to mid-30s."
"The thing I want people to take away from this article," she says "is that we're not studying [fertility] enough. We don't regulate it enough. ... [W]e celebrate triumphantly each breakthrough as if it was an absolute good, and we don't go cautiously enough and I think that's a problem, and as the age of first birth creeps up more, and more women are going to be availing themselves of these technologies, and I think that we really ought to go carefully."
On why she decided to use Clomid and the guilt she carries that it may have contributed to her son's development
"The doctor said, 'You know what ... you're 38. You're going to have a hard time getting pregnant anyway. Let's just throw Clomid into the mix and speed this process along,' because this was a decade ago, and it was before a lot of these concerns about endocrine disruptors and hormones and patterns of gene expression and patterns of fetal development had been raised, and everyone thought it was really safe, and I now blame myself for having this cavalier attitude toward taking drugs before, you know, hatching a baby in my womb. Do I know for a fact that [Clomid] has anything whatsoever to do with [my son's] condition? No. It could easily be genetic. I have appalling handwriting, and one of his problems is fine control — you know, holding a pencil, or was — so who the heck knows. He could have just gotten that straight from me."
On how the issue of fertility is one that affects not just elite women
"I've been accused of kind of having a class bias in this article, of only focusing on the problems of elite women, and I think that's fair to some degree. I perhaps didn't make it clear enough that what I think is the problem is that if you want to pursue the American dream and move out of poverty into the middle class, which requires you to pursue a career or a profession, you are hard-pressed to have your children in your 20s. ... It's a problem of women who want to work in the professions, who want to build an actual career for themselves rather than go from job to job or get mommy-tracked, but I don't think that's just a problem of the elite. I think it's a problem for everyone because it limits social mobility and it limits the choices women have. I don't want women to feel like they have to have children in their 20s, but I've talked to some women who wish they had, and they felt that they didn't have the choice to."
On why she ended up marrying and having children late
"I honestly sort of forgot to get married. I just sort of forgot. I, like, woke up in my early 30s and thought, 'Gee, I kind of forgot to get married here.' I didn't meet a man I wanted to marry till I was 34 — that's my current husband — and we didn't actually marry till I was 36, and I started worrying about our ability to have children when I was 37. And I've talked to a lot of women like that who say, 'Look, I didn't meet the guy I wanted to marry till I was in my mid-30s, so that's when I was able to start having children and start a family. To which I say, you know, 'great.' Once you've met the person you want to marry, you can't imagine doing it any other way, of course, and I don't mean to criticize you for having done it that way. It was what it was. But I think that I wasn't thinking about it. I wasn't taking my relationships all that seriously because no one around me was. I was a journalist, and it was expected that I put in these crazy hours and devote myself entirely to my career, and I was perfectly inclined to do that and everyone around me was doing that, so it just didn't occur to me to think about it. Maybe the reason I met the guy I wanted to marry when I was 34 was because I was ready to start thinking about getting married.
"There's a kind of either-or here. There's an either you become a respected journalist by working your head off, or you go and start a family, and what I'm saying is we have to start thinking about combining those two, because I found myself in a situation where I worried that my advanced maternal age was endangering my children and even threatening my chances of having any, which is what drove me to the fertility doctor. ... If it had been something other people were doing, I might have started to think about it, and if it had been something that my bosses would have thought was fine, then I might have started to think about it. I mean my bosses — who are part of the same system — would have looked askance. They would have said, 'Well, she's not serious.' "
On wanting to live to see and get to know her grandchildren
"My son said to me recently — he's 10 now — and said to me, 'So, let's see, you were 39 when I was born, so if I wait to 39 or 40 to have my first child, you will be almost 80. What kind of grandmother are you going to be?' And, you know, I had nothing to say to that. I mean, hopefully, a living one. ... I don't want to be too old to be a presence in my grandchildren's lives. ... I think it's really important to have the generations communicating among one another and to have family traditions and history being passed along and for parents to have that kind of familial support that grandparents can offer."
On how she reconciles the large roles that both science and religion play in her life
"What we're discovering is that we're enormously malleable. We're really responsive to our environment, and not just to our environment in a physical sense but also in a psychological sense, in the sense that stress is one of the really big forces in epigenetic changes. So the malleability of the human body seems to me an argument for creating a better community, a better society, and that's what I love about religion, is that it's a place where you can turn for ideas about the good society. I recognize — as many people go around arguing — that religion can be used as a force for bad — as any set of ideas or ideology can be — but it can also be used as a source of ideas that drive us to the greater good. So I turn to science to tell us how to live, and I turn to religion to tell us how to live, and I follow neither of them slavishly."
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