in The New Republic:
…I also spent those 50-minute sessions wondering: What if my son’s individual experience, meaningless from a statistical point of view, hinted at a collective problem? As my children grew and, happily, thrived (I managed to have my daughter by natural means), I kept meeting children of friends and acquaintances, all roughly my age, who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, sensory-integration disorder. Curious as to whether there were more developmental disabilities than there used to be, I looked it up and found that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, learning 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. 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. …
A REMARKABLE FEATURE of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph, in part because it’s the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it. Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they’re not wrong about that. So each time an age limit is breached or a new ART procedure is announced, it’s met with celebration. Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children.
As a result, the twenties have turned into a lull in the life cycle, when many young men and women educate themselves and embark on careers or journeys of self-discovery, or whatever it is one does when not surrounded by diapers and toys. This is by no means a bad thing, for children or for adults. Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.
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.