When the entertainment “news” broke the other day that 51-year-old “Friends” star Matthew Perry, aka Chandler Bing, had finally become engaged to his 29-year-old girlfriend and was “dying to be a dad,” according to sources, I thought to myself: He better brace himself for the vicious backlash he’s about to get as a older man looking to become a parent.
Not only can women have children later, but children, mothers and families as a whole often benefit precisely because they chose to wait.
That kind of backlash is reserved for older moms. At 41, I started trying to conceive shortly after marrying my 45-year-old husband, and chronicled my three-year journey in a column for The New York Times. The criticism was immediate. “You’re too old,” some commented. “You’re too selfish, you were focused on your career,” another said (a compliment I didn’t deserve because I actually hadn’t been that focused on my journalism). Someone even devoted an article to shaming me, asking, “Should We Be Sympathetic to a 42-Year-Old’s Fertility Struggles?”
No one ever criticized my husband’s age or motivations. No one claimed that he was too old to be a dad or hurled insults at him for delaying parenthood.
I wish we older women could be afforded the same respect — actually, “respect” is probably the wrong word; “not giving a #&@#!” is more like it. No one blinks an eye that actor Jeff Goldblum had his first kid at 62, and comedian Steve Martin at 67. Or that actor George Clooney was 56 when his twins were born. Meanwhile, his 39-year-old wife, Amal, a human rights lawyer, said she was done having kids after that because of her age, as “I already had them quite late.” She’s late but he’s not.
Can you imagine The Federalist writing this of a 31-year-old man who would like to delay becoming a parent — as it does of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for saying she might freeze her eggs: “If she truly wants to start a family, the perfect time for her to do it is now (although preferably after getting married).” Or for going after a male senator who has a baby at 50, as it did Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. “In 2020, the women we lionize are freezing their eggs until they’re 50 and embracing ‘dog motherhood’ in the meantime,” the piece declares, apparently talking about Ocasio-Cortez recently getting a pet bulldog.
The men themselves certainly don’t exhibit signs of any external attack, if actress-writer-director Lena Dunham’s description of the waiting room she visited with her dad during her attempt at in vitro fertilization is any indication. “We were right at home among the silver-haired men and blondes in yoga gear flipping through issues of Parents magazine. These men — tagging along to start their third families — were the most buoyant patients… .”
It’s true that women do have a biological clock that’s more limiting than a man’s. At 30, our eggs start to decline in quality and it takes longer to conceive. At 35, fertility drops, then declines more sharply at 37, then takes a nosedive at 40, mostly petering off around 44. But while men don’t face such a steep and absolute end to fertility, older men do have more reproductive problems than younger men: It takes a 45-year-old five times as long to conceive as 25-year-olds, according to a study, and as men age into their 30s, 40s and beyond, they have a growing likelihood of their children developing conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
Clearly, both men and women are competing with time. And science is helping to even out the playing field, thereby nullifying the idea that men have a greater claim to older parenthood. Egg freezing allows younger women to freeze their eggs to possibly have babies five, 10 or more years later, while egg and embryo donation can help older women give birth (because it’s most often the age of the egg, not the uterus, that determines the health of the pregnancy). This increasingly allows older couples to reproduce.
Yet, only mothers get berated for child-rearing at an older age. And it’s not just from female authors like the one who wrote The Federalist piece. I constantly hear women worry, “Am I too old to have a kid?” While some men worry about being too old to have a kid as in, will they be able to keep up with a baby, most don’t express much concern about what other people will say about them — because no one will say much of anything.
So why do we still call women, but not their male partners, selfish and career-oriented if they want to have children later in life?
Studies actually show that children born to older mothers have better outcomes, that older mothers tend to have higher education and smaller families than their younger peers, and happiness increases after childbirth for older mothers.
“There are important sociodemographic pathways associated with postponement of childbearing which might compensate or even more than compensate for the biological disadvantages associated with reproductive aging,” a review of the literature found. (Studies on older dads are few and far between, though a recent one found that older fathers beget “geekier” kids.)
So, not only can women have children later, but children, mothers and families as a whole often benefit precisely because they chose to wait. It’s time for society to start applauding older moms rather than berating them — but simply ignoring their age as is done with men would be a good start.