This is a guest post from Hugo Schwyzer about the benefits of being an older father which we thought would resonate so well with many of our readers. Thanks to Hugo, “the older father” who wrote this piece, and Role/Reboot for allowing us to re-publish it here. – L.S.
Our daughter Heloise was conceived right before I turned 41. Being “old school” about these things, my wife and I kept her pregnancy a secret until early in the second trimester, when we started telling family and friends. When I announced our happy news to some colleagues over lunch, one cocked his head and asked gently, “You know you should make sure to get extra screening, right? You’ve got to watch out for the risks with paternal age effect.”
Until that moment, I knew next to nothing about paternal age effect (PAE). I started Googling as soon as I got back to my office, and promptly got scared. “The genetic quality of sperm, as well as its volume and motility, all typically decrease with age,” Wikipedia announced. Advanced paternal age was linked in some studies to infertility, to an increased likelihood of miscarriage, and—perhaps most famously—to higher incidences of autism and bipolar disorder among offspring. My wife was already pregnant, so I figured we had the infertility thing licked this time around. But what about miscarriage and birth defects?
I called my wife’s obstetrician. Dr. Katz laughed. “You’re barely in your 40s, Hugo,” he said. “The average age of women in our practice is 39. I’d guess the average age of prospective dads is 45. Around here, we don’t worry about a ‘paternal age effect’ until a man is in his 60s. Stop reading that junk on the internet and relax.” I hung up, hugely relieved.
Dr. Katz’s practice is at Cedars-Sinai hospital just outside of Beverly Hills, in West Los Angeles, and just over a mile from our home. His large medical group doesn’t necessarily specialize in caring for “older” pregnant women (and reassuring their often even older partners). In this part of town, it’s standard to see parents on playgrounds who in other parts of the country might easily be mistaken for grandmas and grandpas. Seven of the nine other children in my three-year-old daughter’s pre-school class have dads older than me, and I’m pushing 45. My 37-year-old wife is the youngest of the moms. As far as we can tell, there is no sign of a negative “paternal age effect” anywhere in my daughter’s preschool.
But it’s not just in affluent areas like West Los Angeles and Manhattan that we’re seeing older first-time parents. As has been widely reported, birth rates in the United States have dropped sharply since the recession began in 2008, and are now at record lows. Even as the number of teen moms has never been lower, the number of women giving birth after age 40 has never been higher. Indeed, the birth rate is rising among women over 40, even as it falls for all the younger demographic brackets. Among heterosexual couples, married and unmarried, the male partner is statistically likelier to be the older one; this means the number of middle-aged first-time dads has risen substantially as well (some estimate by as much as 40% since 1980).
Because so many older fathers are also partnered with older mothers, it can be difficult to establish whether birth defects or disorders like autism are more closely tied to paternal or maternal age. A number of doctors have asked whether the much-noted rise in childhood autism rates is tied to a rise in the percentage of older fathers. Some studies indicate a link; others don’t. And whether advanced paternal age is only a problem when matched with advanced maternal age or whether it stands alone as a risk factor is also still somewhat unclear.
My wife and I are considering another child. I had that unborn baby in mind as I read the “paternal age effect” Wikipedia entry recently. The laundry list of studies suggesting at least a slightly increased risk for autism, Down’s Syndrome and bipolar disorder was frightening. But then I got to the end of the article. Under the heading “Social Associations,” I read: “Later age at parenthood…is associated with better parenting practices.” And I smiled.
I’m the president of the PTA for Heloise’s school. Our closest friends, not surprisingly, are the parents of her friends. My wife and I live in a community of fathers and mothers who became parents for the first time in middle age. At the endless rounds of meetings and birthday parties, we joke about our thinning hair and aching backs. We talk about how much more energy we’d have to chase after our little ones if we were only 20 or 30 years younger. Sometimes—not often—we talk about the worries we have that we might not be around to see our grandchildren grow up. We are, after all, the same age that many of our grandparents were when we were born.
But perhaps particularly with the other older dads, we talk often about how much better suited we are for parenting in our 40s and 50s. Sure, the backaches are worse. But the compensation for reduced mobility is an exponential increase in patience. I know some wonderful young dads, but among my group of graying and thickening preschool papas, we’re universally convinced that what delights us now would have driven us crazy when we were in our 20s or 30s. More certain of who we are, more comfortable in our own skin, we’re better equipped to soothe our own self-doubts for the sake of showing up for our kids.
In his most famous poem, Donald Justice writes: “Men at 40 learn to close softly/the doors to rooms they will not be coming back to.” For first-time fathers in their 40s, the slightly elevated risks of the “paternal age effect” are offset by our greater likelihood of financial stability, our increased reservoirs of equanimity, and, perhaps, a bit more hard-won wisdom. If we’ve done the job of growing up right, we’ve begun to shut some of those doors of workaholism, self-doubt, and indulgent self-absorption to which we were prone in our anxiety-ridden 20s. To put it simply, we’re young enough to kick the ball around and patient enough to do it (almost) as long as our kids want.
We’ll just need to take two Advil when we’re finally done.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.