Blue State Blues: Is There a Downside to Waiting?

12.10.2012, 5:52 PM

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone have written eloquently in defense of the Blue (State) Family Paradigm, which entails postponing marriage and parenthood into middle adulthood, so as to maximize the accumulation of parental education, professional experience, and income before having a child. But there are downsides to waiting until your late 30s (or later) to marry and start a family.

The Grayest Generation“, the New Republic‘s latest cover story by Judith Shulevitz, paints a textured and sobering portrait of those downsides:

  • Unrealized dreams for a child or children;
  • 40something parents sandwiched between elderly parents and young children, struggling physically and emotionally to care for two generations at the same time; and,
  • Higher rates of developmental disabilities born to children of older moms and older dads.

Money quote from Shulevitz, who has personal experience with older motherhood and a son with a mild case of “sensory-integration disorder”:

[L]earning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays increased about 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. One in six American children was reported as having a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier. 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.

Let me clear: Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Other factors could be driving trends in children’s developmental disabilities. But it’s worth thinking more about, and seriously studying, the social, developmental, and physiological consequences of waiting until your late 30s or 40s to start a family.


31 Responses to “Blue State Blues: Is There a Downside to Waiting?”

  1. Mont D. Law says:

    To a certain extent this is irrelevant, the massive downside to having your children early is just too great. Particularly since it is women who bear the majority of the cost. Barring a change in that fact what you will see is women banking eggs in their 20′s for use later. You will likely see men banking sperm too as the links between old sperm and mental health issues become clearer and more widely known.

    This is another example of trying to address a problem by not addressing the actual problem.

  2. Kevin says:

    “Let me clear: Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Other factors could be driving trends…..”

    That would have been sound advice to give to Mark Regnerus, Mr. Wilcox.

  3. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law “To a certain extent this is irrelevant, the massive downside to having your children early is just too great.”

    Yes, but:

    a) Most of my friends had their children later than average. We didn’t know that there might be downsides. I’m not sure what my they would say if you ask them would they change things – would they have had kids earlier so that they wouldn’t have had fertility problems, or a child without a parent, or twins with developmental delays?

    The next generation may look at us and make different decisions. We might even advise our children to figure things out a little differently.

    b) The article in The New Republic actually concludes by saying that we need to change things for women so that they can have kids earlier and have careers. I agree. I think the social costs of having so many kids born later are a good justification for making some changes in careers, especially professional ones.

    I would argue that one of the single best social changes for women now would be to recognize the value of child rearing and make it easier for women to combine doing it with having careers, either later or at the same time.

    I’d like to see someone studying whether women do better in professions if they go to school first and then have kids or if they have kids and then go to school later. (The first group would have to include the women who dropped out of the professions later.)

  4. Philip Cohen says:

    I think it’s funny when people who advocate marriage before childbearing use the phrase “start a family” to describe married couples having children. Didn’t they start a family when they got married? Anyways.

  5. La Lubu says:

    The “Blue State” pattern of marriage and childbearing refers to people marrying and having children in their mid-to-late twenties or even early thirties—Cahn and Carbone specifically refer to people who consciously, deliberately wait until after getting a bachelor’s degree to marry and have kids. So, I find it interesting that this actual pattern is ramped up by a full decade, positing the statistical outliers as the norm instead of the actual norm. Is it because the actual norm is unremarkable?

    It’s also fairly dramatic to say that “this experiment” (women having children in their forties; older men becoming fathers) is new. It isn’t. It’s just new for women to have their first child in their forties. My grandmothers had children in their mid-forties, and no one found it remarkable—it was the norm for that generation to have several children with the last one(s) appearing sometime in the forties. History is replete with examples of older men becoming fathers, and it was the norm in many areas of the world (including Europe) for young women to be married off to men old enough to be their fathers. Nothing new to “older” childbearing.

  6. Diane M says:

    LaLubu, I think it is a change to have your first child in your late 30s or early 40s. It seems to be much harder to have a first child in your 40s than to have a second or third one. The fertility issue is more of a problem. Also, if your goal is to have children, it’s probably less of an issue to not have that final bonus baby than to discover you can have no babies at all.

    From the point of view of social trends, it also means that there will be a greater percentage of kids with birth defects. If most families have three or four kids and the youngest in each is more likely to have defects, you’ll end up with a smaller percentage of defects than if people start with a group of kids that are more likely to have defects.

    I think I’d have to say that some of the people I know who had a child with a birth defect later in life also had fertility issues. So if they had had children earlier, maybe they wouldn’t have had any more and there would be fewer kids with birth defects.

  7. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: History is replete with examples of older men becoming fathers,

    You’ve spectacularly missed the point.

    Older *men* becoming fathers is fine. Men’s fertility tails off much, much more rapidly than women’s, and men are capable of fathering children into their 60s, 70s or even later. Women are not. It’s *much* more problematic for women to delay childbearing than it is for men. If it were up to me, we’d work towards building a society where women could begin having kids in their early 20s or so.

    Re: and it was the norm in many areas of the world (including Europe) for young women to be married off to men old enough to be their fathers.

    Women generally married, in Europe, much later than a lot of people think (I think average age of marriage in 19th century England and Ireland, for example, was mid to late 20s for women, mid 30s for men). That said, the model you’re suggesting certainly works, younger women pairing off with substantially older men. In many ways that’s an ideal situation, as it allows the woman to have children in her early 20s, taking advantage of high fertility, while the man is older and more established and thus better able to provide for the children.

    What doesn’t generally work so well is the *modern* ideal, particularly among educated and middle to upper middle class American women, of delaying childbearing until they’re in their early to mid 30s. That’s really *not* a good model, and we need to radically change the social and economic institutions that encourage people to follow it.

  8. Mont D. Law says:

    (That said, the model you’re suggesting certainly works, younger women pairing off with substantially older men. In many ways that’s an ideal situation, as it allows the woman to have children in her early 20s, taking advantage of high fertility, while the man is older and more established and thus better able to provide for the children.)

    Which is all well and good but doesn’t address issues cited in the post. Dying when your children are young and your children having disabilities as a result of the age of at least one parent.

  9. La Lubu says:

    From the point of view of social trends, it also means that there will be a greater percentage of kids with birth defects.

    Except, the birthrate (for live births) for women between the ages of 40-44, and between the ages of 45-49, was higher in 1940 than it is now. If there is a greater likelihood of birth defects now, then perhaps birth defects were undiagnosed then, or something other than the age of the parents is causing them now.

    Look, I totally agree that if your goal is to have a biological child, you shouldn’t deliberately wait until your forties to do so. But this isn’t a trend—really. Despite the availability of ART, over-forty motherhood still hasn’t reached the level it was in 1940. It is worth paying attention to that children conceived via ART have a greater chance of birth defects; but statistically—those children comprise only a tiny proportion of children with birth defects. Environmental factors are having a far greater impact. We also need to keep in mind the positive effect—part of the reason more children have disabilities and/or learning disabilities is because they are alive—they would have died in grandma’s day. They are also being correctly diagnosed and treated, rather than neglected and/or shipped off to an institution.

    Older *men* becoming fathers is fine.

    Hector St. Claire, you have spectacularly not read the article. Older men becoming fathers is strongly linked to birth defects. Also, the model you recommend (young woman with a substantially older husband) is merely switching the age of the “sandwich generation”—instead of taking place in one’s forties and with one’s parents, reversing it to take place in one’s twenties and with one’s husband as well. Since that’s already a failure for parents who are both healthy and scrambling to care for children and parents, why you think it would be superior to add an aging husband (and perhaps the loss of his income to boot) just means you haven’t spent much time considering the matter.

  10. Diane M says:

    Thank you, LaLubu, for your response to Hector St Clair! Hector St Clair, I will second what she is saying. The article shows very clearly that we have more and more evidence that mating with an older guy is a good way to have a kid with schizophrenia or autism.

    In fact, I think an argument could be made that if an older woman who wants to have children should grab a guy in his 20s! He’s more fertile, he has higher quality sperm, and he can take care of the kids if you drop dead in your 50s.

    To add to the sandwich generation and older husband issue – a study came out in the last year or so that showed that marrying a man 15 years older than you increased your chance of dying young.

    Hector St Clair, you’ve managed to hit a few of my buttons. When you survey women about the age of man they want to marry, cross-culturally, most women want to marry a guy about 4-6 years old than them. They are not looking for guys way older than them. Furthermore, if you look at your Shakespeare, there is a long tradition in Western culture suggesting that young women married to much older men cheated on them.

    But to the issue – you need to look at men and women’s career paths if you want to help upper middle class women have children earlier. Even a woman who wants to stay home with her children will wait until her husband can support her – that doesn’t fit well with graduate school (and most women aren’t going to want to marry a much older man). For most couples, though, the woman is going to want to combine careers and child care in some way, and the more flexible her husband’s career is, the better the chance that she can do that.

  11. Diane M says:

    LaLubu, you’re right that this isn’t a trend for all Americans. I think the article presents it as though it is. Older first births, at least the kind in your late 30s and up, is a trend for college-educated women and professional women.

    “Except, the birthrate (for live births) for women between the ages of 40-44, and between the ages of 45-49, was higher in 1940 than it is now. If there is a greater likelihood of birth defects now, then perhaps birth defects were undiagnosed then, or something other than the age of the parents is causing them now.”

    I was trying to say that you might have a higher percentage of birth defects in the total population. Since the birthrate was higher at all ages in 1940, you would expect to have a lot of first children born to young mothers as well as fourth children born to older mothers. Now, if you have only first children born to older mothers, you’ll end up with a higher concentration of birth defects.

  12. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: The article shows very clearly that we have more and more evidence that mating with an older guy is a good way to have a kid with schizophrenia or autism.

    It’s hard to believe you actually think that’s a particularly significant factor.

    Age of the father does cause a large increase in the risk of those diseases, but the base risk is so small that your risk of having a child with one is still very low. Age of the mother, on the other hand, is much more critically important. Female fertility starts rapidly declining after 35 (starts declining somewhat after 30) and even much faster after 40. Your ability to have a child (not just the risk of defects) is greatly compromised after 35. The scale of the problem of men is much, much lower.

    And again, the reason women should ideally seek to marry much older men has less to do with his sperm quality than his ability to provide economic security for her and her children. There was an analysis of demographics from Scandinavia some time ago that suggested the ideal age gap for maximizing healthy children was the male partner 15 years older than the woman. Those would be the sorts of relationships I would be striving for, personally, and I think we’d be generally better off if they were treated as the ideal.

    Re: Hector St Clair, you’ve managed to hit a few of my buttons.

    You’ve managed to hit a bunch of my buttons too. I never fail to be amused, and annoyed, that the same types of feminists who are cool with childless marriages, same sex marriages and remarriages, have problems with marriages and relationships fearing large age gaps.

  13. admin says:

    All – The point of the conversation is not to push each others buttons. Achieve disagreement in a civil manner and try to avoid making generalizations.

    Thanks, the moderator

  14. La Lubu says:

    Hector, the article is quite clear about the risks of older fatherhood; it includes cites and links.

    Also: no one, feminist or otherwise, is concerned about age-gaps in relationships except where there is a power imbalance. No one is wringing their hands about 30-year-olds in relationships with 45-year-olds, or 45-year-olds in relationships with 60-year-olds, or 60-year-olds in relationships with 75-year-olds. But 36-year-olds in relationships with 19-year-olds? Yeah, that’s predatory regardless of the gender mix.

    So, feel free to promote an age gap of fifteen years; just don’t be surprised when people (especially young women, many of whom have already had a great deal of experience rebuffing the advances of creepy, predatory older men) reject your recommendation. Any time women have a choice, they choose men from their own age cohort. Fifteen years is a generational difference—which means differences in worldviews, communication styles, life trajectories and goals. Your view of intimate relationships as transactional business arrangements is unappealing to most people for quite rational reasons. Building a relationship on anything other than coercion requires being on the same page.

  15. alavine says:

    Hector, the “economic security” provided by a much older man is an unfounded- do you think all middle aged men are financially well established?
    Do you feel that women should marry for economic reasons? Some people call that a “gold digger-” not a flattering term. I personally feel there is something prostitution-like about it.
    Also, there aint no free lunches. that woman will pay dearly for that economic security when she is forced to spend her still energetic, relatively young years, caring for an old man, or face extreme censure from her children and society for abandoning him in his time of need.
    As for birth defects (by which you mean the chromosomal abnormalities, more common in older women?) the percentage has actually gone down due to prenatal diagnosis and abortion.

  16. Noelle says:

    It seems to me that for many women later childbearing is not a decision to “wait.” One can’t simply plan to get married and have children during one’s peak fertile years and then execute that plan. Outside of conservative religious communities, it seems rather difficult to find a husband during one’s early to mid-twenties. How many marriage-minded peers does she have? In urban environments full of young, single people, it seems difficult even to find an exclusive/official long-term dating relationship. Of course, this is just speculation, but I’d wager that plenty of women aren’t happy about the delay, and that plenty end up unhappily childless because things “didn’t work out.”

    That said, I do think it’s astonishing that there’s so much public focus on contraception and controlling female fertility, but at the same time women don’t seem to know much about their bodies, whether it concerns the difficulties with pregnancy at later ages or even how their cycles work. Just an anecdotal observation, but a friend of mine was on the pill for about 15 years before trying to get pregnant, and was kind of amazed to learn about how to naturally detect ovulation and sense all the hormonal fluctuations that govern the different phases of the cycle.

  17. ki sarita says:

    That’s because it takes intense attention paying to identify the fertile phase cycles, and even then may vary from woman to woman and not always be clear. Surprise, surprise, some women have other things on their mind than constantly examining their vaginas. Yes, when people are trying to become pregnant it sometimes does become the first thing on their minds.
    And of course if she was on the pill, she was infertile, so she would have no fertility signs.
    The idea that women don’t know anything is incorrect.

  18. ki sarita says:

    and regarding biological clocks I’ve noticed a funny thing, I’ve noticed most single women in their 30s absolutely terrified about their ticking biological clocks, whereas I’ve also other women in their early 40s insist that there is nothing to worry about. maybe they are trying to convince potential husbands. Or, Don’t know if this is a trend or not, but maybe at the stage when your options are limited why not think as positive as possible.
    In any case I really don’t think its correct that women don’t know anything about their biology.

  19. ki sarita says:

    there is this book “taking charge of your fertility” which claims to empower women by revealing to them essential withheld knowledge about their cycles which will free them from birth control; I found it an absurd idea because the intense level of focus on one’s body and the interference with natural sexual rhythms is extremely disruptive to many women.

  20. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: As for birth defects (by which you mean the chromosomal abnormalities, more common in older women?) the percentage has actually gone down due to prenatal diagnosis and abortion

    I consider that life begins at conception and abortion is homicide, so that hardly makes me comfortable, quite the opposite. What you’re saying isn’t the solution, it’s symptomatic of the problem.

    La Lubu,

    There’s so much wrong with your post I don’t know where to begin. Suffice it to say that I don’t think there’s anything remotely wrong with 19 yr olds dating 36 yr olds (or for that matter, 46 yr olds), I think most such relationships are probably healthy and wholesome, and I find it amusing that a group of people who defend abortion rights feel comfortable in being morally critical of other people. I’m not sure why I should care whether you think 19 / 36 relationships are wrong, any more than your side cares that some of us think gay marriages, remarriage, etc. are wrong.

    On the factual note, while the majority of people in our society (largely due to the corroding effects of our culture) might want partners around their age, there are certainly a minority who feel otherwise and prefer much older partners. I know quite a few couples who got together when the man was mid-30s and the woman somewhere between 18-23. One of them’s still married today (she was 19 and he was 33, I think). Not everyone has bought into cultural liberal ideals, and there are plenty of young women out there looking for an older partner to take care of them.

  21. ki sarita says:

    “I know quite a few couples who got together when the man was mid-30s and the woman somewhere between 18-23. One of them’s still married today (she was 19 and he was 33, I think).”

    ONE of them is still married- that says it all.

  22. ki sarita says:

    If you think pro-reproductive-choicers have nothing valuable to say on any topic why are you even here?

  23. ki sarita says:

    My great aunt cared for her 20-something year old husband through Parkinson’s, dementia and so forth for years when she was only in her 50s. She’s one of the bitterest women you could meet.
    but I suppose from the perspective of the husband, there is nothing wrong with that.

  24. ki sarita says:

    sorry i meant he was 20 something years OLDER than she. he was over 80 when he died.

  25. Diane M says:

    I have seen a good marriage with a 30 year age difference. The couple loved each other. They were both previously divorced with kids of their own and the (younger) woman worked for a living while the man was retired. So it didn’t have anything to do with trading economic security for your body.

    My point is that young women naturally want to marry young men. Liberals don’t have to do anything to promote it. It’s biology. Young men look better. Sociobiologists have collected evidence that shows that cross-culturally women prefer men 4-6 years older than them. Give young women the freedom to choose their mates, and very few of them will go for much older men.

    As alavine says, not all middle-aged men end up rich and powerful. Only a few older men are going to be able to attract gold-diggers. Most men actually have a better chance of getting a good mate and having kids of their own if they settle relatively early with someone near their own age. (Also if we have monogamy.) Young men who are going prematurely bald tend to settle down slightly younger; the theory is that they are having a harder time attracting dates because they look older.

    Do I have a problem with young women marrying much older men? I think there are a lot of risks involved and I would advise against it. Knowing that she would increase her chances of dying young and knowing what it means to care for elderly parents, I would be very worried. Love makes people willing to do those things, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re looking at in the cold-hearted economic way you want to.

    I am skeptical about the data suggesting that a 15 year age gap is ideal for the baby’s health. Most women aren’t attracted to men that much older; perhaps a man who can get a wife that much younger is well-to-do and in relatively good health.

  26. Diane M says:

    @Noelle: I think this is true and an important issue.

    “It seems to me that for many women later childbearing is not a decision to “wait.” One can’t simply plan to get married and have children during one’s peak fertile years and then execute that plan. Outside of conservative religious communities, it seems rather difficult to find a husband during one’s early to mid-twenties. How many marriage-minded peers does she have?”

    My generation basically thought there were no biological issues to waiting. Now young women are terrified about their biological clock, but having kids early is harder to do than ever. Both sexes are busy building careers and hesitant to marry or have children. (And they may believe that they shouldn’t settle down too early, they need to have fun, know themselves, etc.)

    I don’t think we should push anyone to have kids before they are ready, but I think it makes sense to talk about making it easier for young people to marry and have children.

    Keep in mind that the parents having tons of kids in the 1950s had the GI Bill helping them to get education and housing. Jobs were plentiful.

  27. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: ONE of them is still married- that says it all.

    I know plenty of other couples that are still married, but none of them has been married for as long as they have (12 1/2 yrs).

    Re: Give young women the freedom to choose their mates, and very few of them will go for much older men.

    Even if that were true (and I think it’s a byproduct of capitalist/liberal culture, not ‘natural’) there are many, many exceptions. Most of us know quite a few people who prefer to date substantially older, and plenty of those work out. If you want to date or marry someone much younger, it may take a lot longer to find the right person, but I’m happy to take that risk. The easy choice is seldom the right one.

    In any case, I’m less concerned in establishing a norm in society than in trying to pursue the type of relationships that I want in my own life. If other people want to do things differently, I might disapprove, but it’s not really my problem.

    Re: I am skeptical about the data suggesting that a 15 year age gap is ideal for the baby’s health. Most women aren’t attracted to men that much older; perhaps a man who can get a wife that much younger is well-to-do and in relatively good health.

    This one here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-is-the-best-age-difference-for-husband-and-wife

  28. Diane M says:

    Perhaps I am older than you, but I know many couples who have been married 20 years or more. All of them have a small age difference, probably less than five years in most cases.

    The study you link to has a lot of interesting things about it.

    First, it is of a specific pre-industrial society. The results may not apply to us, or even to other groups. In fact, the article cites another study in modern Sweden that found the ideal age gap is about six years. For a modern man, an educated wife might be more important in helping his children to survive than a young one.

    Second, and very significant for our discussion, the study found that most couples in pre-industrial Finland did not have an age gap of 14.6 years. There was a wide range, but the average age gap was only three years. This supports what I said above – the men with much younger wives might be different from other men in some significant way; they might be richer. It also might be that the women back then preferred men closer to their own age, or that their families preferred them.

    Third, the study was about men’s reproductive success, not women’s. The two are not always the same thing. A woman might be better off married to a younger man who lives long enough to help her raise her children.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that the men who married women 13 years younger than them might be widowers. Thus, they may have already had some children and their total number of children might be higher than a man who married a woman his own age.

    That gets at some of the problems if a whole society goes for young-old relationships. It’s not really reasonable to expect most men to wait until they are in their 30s to have sex. (I think I agree with Regnerus on this.) I think you and I agree that it would be bad for young men to marry when they are younger and then divorce the wife of their youth or for married men to add younger wives. And that it would be bad for young men to have children before they get married. And that it would be bad for young men to have affairs with the much younger women who had married the 30 year old men. And that prostitution is bad. It’s hard to make it work mathematically for many couples without causing social problems.

  29. Diane M says:

    Oops, being a widower was not a factor in the study. The men had not been married before. I am inclined to think, however, that they were probably richer and so their reproductive success wasn’t just about the women being young and fertile.

  30. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: As alavine says, not all middle-aged men end up rich and powerful.

    I’m not talking about rich and powerful, necessarily. I think we’d be better off as a society if more middle and upper-middle class men would marry working class spouses (and, sure, vice versa too. I have no *intrinsic* objection to older women marrying younger men. I think relationships are healthier when one partner is the main provider and another prioritizies childrearing, but I don’t think it it always has to work out with one gender taking on one role).

  31. ki sarita says:

    You seem to think you know a heck of a lot of what’s good for everyone else, although you don’t think that they know what’s better for themselves.