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Home and family
7 August 2012

Middle-aged parents and the other biological clock

Here’s a question for you:

John Tyler (1790-1862) was the tenth President of the United States of America. If you’ve never heard of him, then don’t worry – his is not considered to be a distinguished presidency. What, however, is the truly remarkable fact about two of his grandsons?

The answer is that, as of publication, they’re still alive! Almost unbelievably, these two gentlemen – now of mature years – had a grandfather born at the start of the last decade of the 18th century. Obviously, both President Tyler and his son, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, had what might be called an active retirement, but – yes – the maths do work out.

The point of this tale is that there’s nothing new about having children in middle-age or even (in the case of men) old-age. However, what is new is the extent to which the age at which people first start having children is going up.

Writing in the Washington Post, Nona Willis Aronowitz – who was born when her mother was 42 and her father 51 – sets out the facts: 

  • "Having kids at my parents’ ages still isn’t the norm, but the age of first-time mothers continues to climb. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that the pregnancy rate for women in their early 20s declined noticeably from 2000 to 2008, while the pregnancy rate for women older than 30 crept up. In the past 50 years, the average age of first-time parents has jumped from 21 to 25, and it’s even older for college-educated women."  

Similar trends have been seen in other countries, including Britain, but why should this be? Ms Aronowitz blames the economy: 

  • "For [my generation], delaying parenthood is mostly about money. The economic shift in the past couple of decades, accelerated by the recession, have led to 20 percent of young people putting off marriage and children because of their finances… Kids like me who grew up middle class want the same for their children. We want to wait to have kids until we get a "real job." Problem is, we could be waiting for a long time." 

Another factor, surely, is the affordability of family homes – especially in Britain, where the average age of a first-time buyer is now pushing forty.

Lifestyle choices also have a part to play: 

  • "I’m one of those 20-somethings biding my time… We like to sleep in, go on last-minute vacations, and pull all-nighters working on projects we care about. We’d rather spend the money we do have on dates, not diapers." 

Speaking on behalf of her age group, Ms Aronowitz asks, "why shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially secure and emotionally mature to have children?" However, drawing upon her own experience, she has an answer: 

  • "…that logic falls apart when I’m scrubbing a bloody handprint off my father’s kitchen wall because he lost his balance in the middle of the night and fell down so hard that his brow broke the tile. It rings hollow when I uselessly think about the extra decade I might have had to hang out with my mother if she had given birth to me when she was younger. While my friends’ parents are still nagging them, doing their laundry on holidays and helping them fill out health-care forms, I’m doing those things for my dad. When my friends ask their moms for advice, I can only speculate what mine would have said." 

Fertility is not the only biological clock that parents need to think about.


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