by Kathleen Goodwin
Men worldwide may have been startled to hear a ticking as their biological clocks sputtered into existence this week. A study of Swedish children born over a nearly 30 year period revealed there are negative health outcomes for those born to older fathers. In a paper published in JAMA Psychiatry this past Wednesday researchers found that in a sample size of over 2.6 million, advanced paternal age has a detrimental effect on the mental health of offspring, with a greater risk for autism and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, as well as likelihood of suicide attempts and low educational attainment, even when controlling for multiple other factors. These findings have the potential to drive a cultural shift in the attitudes currently directed at mothers who postpone pregnancy until later in life.
For years research has shown that women put their unborn children and themselves at increased risk for a host of issues when they delay the onset of pregnancy— the most well-known example being that children born to mothers over 35 are significantly more likely to have down syndrome than children born to younger mothers. Despite these complications, and the reality that fertility peaks in the mid to late 20s, women in developed countries are delaying having children in ever higher numbers and at increasingly later ages. This demographic shift is attributed to women prioritizing education and career advancement before marriage and children— thus while women are making up a larger percentage of law, medical and MBA classes and achieving the kind of power in business and government that second-wave feminists dreamed of, they are also still committed to fulfilling roles as mothers, and consequently putting themselves and their children at risk.
In an powerful piece on her New Yorker blog page, Amy Davidson responded with provocative insight to the controversy created by the Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, earlier in February of this year. Armstrong explained his decision to make cuts to employee retirement benefits by offering the excuse, “two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost.” The ensuing firestorm of criticism directed at Armstrong was deserved and revealed a pattern of repugnant behavior when it comes to protecting quality of life for his employees and their families throughout his career. However, Davidson aptly connects this one example to a larger problem in American culture, where young adults are expected to delay the responsibilities of family in order to study and/or work round the clock. Davidson writes:
“We have an economy, culture, and workplace that push women and families in a certain direction, and then treat the higher risks they take on as theirs alone. Contempt replaces community. If Armstrong illustrates anything, it is the quickness with which a modern company can abandon those who reshaped their lives on its behalf, and made it rich.”
Her conclusions resonate when one considers the essential value that young educated professionals are contributing to Wall Street, Washington D.C., Silicon Valley and in our nation's hospitals. Young women, specifically, are facing a paradoxical double burden. They are encouraged and expected to be contributing to the great American and feminist dream, but find little to no support when it comes time to face the consequences these contributions have on their reproductive capabilities and the health of their children. Women are quite aware that every year they postpone decreases their likelihood of being able to get pregnant and increases the risks to their unborn children. These dueling priorities often force women to make trade-offs that negatively impact both their careers and their families at some point. The cruelest aspect of this situation is that while women are lauded for the achievements that were only made possible by delaying their first pregnancy, they often face judgment and stigma for attempting to becoming pregnant at a later age because of the dangers their children are more likely to face. Additionally, as Davidson's piece discusses, the associated financial burden of fertility treatments and high-risk pregnancies are thought to be unnecessary costs by employers and health insurers and therefore are often taken on by women and their partners out of pocket.
Until now, the onus of choosing when to prioritize career and when to attempt pregnancy was ultimately a woman's to bear. While men are undoubtedly affected by their partners' decision to delay pregnancy and the ensuing fertility issues and health risks that accompany this decision, they were free of the worry that their aging sperm would have any negative consequences on their unborn child. Anecdotally, there are many examples of successful men have married younger women and thus been able to avoid the complications of advanced maternal age (Donald Trump comes immediately to mind—his current wife Melania Knauss-Trump is 23 years his junior and he was 59 when their son Barron was born). The publication of this study puts the age of a father into the list of factors that parents must balance when deciding to begin a family. If this study is able to be replicated with the same results and becomes part of the public health lexicon, men will be forced to consider their own age when it comes to planning their careers and choosing when to have children with their partners.
Perhaps it will take the discovery that older fathers are also putting their children at risk to allow a positive shift in the way modern society views and supports older parents. It is predominantly male executives who are justifying policies that alienate mothers in the workforce, particularly mothers who take on high-risk pregnancies later in life. If men are also responsible for considering the effects of their personal decisions on their unborn children then maybe they will be motivated to help reverse these kinds of attitudes. Let's hope the persistent ticking of the now universally experienced biological clock doesn't distract from the task at hand.