Delayed Gratification

Generally, there are lots of benefits to acquiring a tasted for delayed gratification. However, is seems to delay the gratification of becoming a parent is a high-cost proposition.

Judith Shulevitz had a fascinating article in The New Republic this past week, about the impact on parents, society and children of the trend to delay parenthood.

OVER THE PAST HALF CENTURY, parenthood has undergone a change so simple yet so profound we are only beginning to grasp the enormity of its implications. It is that we have our children much later than we used to. This has come to seem perfectly unremarkable; indeed, we take note of it only when celebrities push it to extremes—when Tony Randall has his first child at 77; Larry King, his fifth child by his seventh wife at 66; Elizabeth Edwards, her last child at 50. This new gerontological voyeurism—I think of it as doddering-parent porn—was at its maximally gratifying in 2008, when, in almost simultaneous and near-Biblical acts of belated fertility, two 70-year-old women in India gave birth, thanks to donor eggs and disturbingly enthusiastic doctors. One woman’s husband was 72; the other’s was 77.

Enthusiastic? I would say that these are negligent doctors, not taking into consideration either the well-being of their client or the as yet unborn children.

One of the interesting features of the article is the attention Shulevitz pays to the implications of fathers deferring parenthood; my sense is that the general public tends to dwell more on the questions around an aging maternal population.

It badly misstates the phenomenon to associate it only with women: Fathers have been getting older at the same rate as mothers. First-time fathers have been about three years older than first-time mothers for several decades, and they still are. The average American man is between 27 and 28 when he becomes a father. Meanwhile, 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.

As I’ve definitely pointed out more than once in this blog, we are experimenting with families and society over a very short period of time, without really considering the ramifications of these changes.

Soon, I learned that medical researchers, sociologists, and demographers were more worried about the proliferation of older parents than my friends and I were. They talked to me at length about a vicious cycle of declining fertility, especially in the industrialized world, and also about the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies (ART) that are commonly used on people past their peak childbearing years. This past May, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 8.3 percent of children born with the help of ART had defects, whereas, of those born without it, only 5.8 percent had defects.

A phrase I heard repeatedly during these conversations was “natural experiment.” As in, we’re conducting a vast empirical study upon an unthinkably large population: all the babies conceived by older parents, plus those parents, plus their grandparents, who after all have to wait a lot longer than they used to for grandchildren. 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.

The article goes on to discuss possible birth defects to children born to older parents, including a higher incidence of autism and schizophrenia. The author also – bravely in my opinion – tackles some of the emotional costs of delaying parenthood:

But the experience of being an older parent also has its emotional disadvantages. For one thing, as soon as we procrastinators manage to have kids, we also become members of the “sandwich generation.” That is, we’re caught between our toddlers tugging on one hand and our parents talking on the phone in the other, giving us the latest updates on their ailments. Grandparents well into their senescence provide less of the support younger grandparents offer—the babysitting, the spoiling, the special bonds between children and their elders through which family traditions are passed.

The primary emotional difficulty of delaying parenthood must surely be the concern that the parent will grow old and die before seeing his or her child fully launched into adulthood:

These numbers may sound humdrum, but even under the best scenarios, the death of a parent who had children late, not to mention the long period of decline that precedes it, will befall those daughters and sons when they still need their parents’ help—because, let’s face it, even grown-up children rely on their parents more than they used to. They need them for guidance at the start of their careers, and they could probably also use some extra cash for the rent or the cable bill, if their parents can swing it. “If you don’t have children till your forties, they won’t be launched until you’re in your sixties,” Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist who studies families, pointed out to me. In today’s bad economy, young people need education, then, if they can afford it, more education, and even internships. They may not go off the parental payroll until their mid- to late-twenties. Children also need their parents not to need them just when they’ve had children of their own.

There’s an entire body of sociological literature on how parents’ deaths affect children, and it suggests that losing a parent distresses young adults more than older adults, low-income young adults more than high-income ones, and daughters more than sons. Curiously, the early death of a mother correlates to a decline in physical health in both sexes, and the early death of a father correlates to increased drinking among young men, perhaps because more men than women have drinking problems and their sons are more likely to copy them.

Which leads to the question – how do we, as a society – fight these trends? The author suggests social and work environments which support having more babies, and having them at a younger age:

Demographers and sociologists agree about what those policies are. The main obstacle to be overcome is the unequal division of the opportunity cost of babies. When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t. Some experts hold that, to make up for mothers’ lost incomes, we should simply hand over cash for children: direct and indirect subsidies, tax exemptions, mortgage-forgiveness programs. Cash-for-babies programs have been tried all over the world—Hungary and Russia, among other places—with mixed results; the subsidies seem to do little in the short term, but may stem the ebbing tide somewhat over the long term. One optimistic study done in 2003 of 18 European countries that had been giving families economic benefits long enough for them to kick in found a 25 percent increase in women’s fertility for every 10 percent increase in child benefits.

More immediately effective are policies in place in many countries in Western Europe (France, Italy, Sweden) that help women and men juggle work and child rearing. These include subsidized child care, generous parental leaves, and laws that guarantee parents’ jobs when they go back to work. Programs that let parents stay in the workforce instead of dropping out allow them to earn more over the course of their lifetimes.

I’m not sure that the article suggests a comprehensive solution to the problem, and I’m not sure that there is one; having family, giving ourselves over to raising children, involve (extremely gratifying!) sacrifices, which I’m not sure everyone in the Western world is ready to make. I once read an article where a man in Western Europe basically said that if having a child meant that he can’t go out to a movie when he wants, kids just aren’t for him.

Read the entire article, it’s full of interesting statistics, and a powerful analysis of the material.

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