The Price of Parenthood

What is the magic number?

The modern-day quest to discover the optimum age to have children can feel like a fool’s errand. Delaying parenthood into your 30s or 40s allows you to focus on your career but having children earlier reduces health/infertility risks, makes it easier to have several kids, and likely allows more time with them in the long term.

“I feel I speak for a lot of people when I say, I have no idea when the magic number is to have children,” said Nona Willis Aronowitz, a 28-year-old journalist. “People say 30, 31, 32, that’s a great age — that means you have to have a perfect career at that point to have a child or else people just kind of give up on that dream.”

Aronowitz joined Judith Shulevitz, science editor at The New Republic, and Aaron Traister, a stay-at-home father and contributor to Salon.com, to discuss today’s daunting family-planning decisions and potential ways to make them easier.

Shulevitz, who recently wrote an article in The New Republic about the health risks that can come with having children at an older age, noted that society is set up so it is most difficult to have children in your 20s and early 30s, when your body is most able.

So when people do have kids post-35, Shulevitz said they more often have infertility issues and must undergo complicated reproductive procedures in order to become pregnant. In addition, children born to older parents are at a higher risk of having developmental or mental challenges.

“The public health piece of it is— we are at risk of producing children who have more problems than the generation had before them,” Shulevitz said.

The health issues are real, but there are also societal costs imposed by delayed parenthood. Aronowitz’s mother was 42 and father 51 when she was born. She’s healthy, but lost her mother to cancer in 2006 and is now worrying about her 80-year-old father. Aronowitz, who wrote an article about having older parents in The Washington Post, also noted that her children may not have grandparents on her side.

Unlike Aronowitz’s parents, Traister, a writer and stay-at-home dad, had his first child at the statistically average age for men: 28.

“Most of my friends had kids in their mid 30-s; I was six years to a decade ahead of everyone,” he said.

When Traister realized his wife had greater earning potential than he did (as well as a job with health benefits) he decided to take a year off to take care of the new baby and has stayed home ever since.

The truth is, Aronowitz said, that while the family model may be changing — with more women becoming breadwinners and more fathers staying home— it doesn’t change the fact that America is still making it difficult for both parents to have fulfilling careers.

“We still don’t have a society where we can fulfill our desire to be productive members of society in a work context and have a family,” Shulevitz said. “We’re denying half the population of parents the right to have this fulfillment and maybe that’s a utopian goal, but I would like to see policies to make it possible.”

The U.S. could model practices after other countries that have implemented affordable child care and maternity/paternity leave policies, Shulevitz said.

In terms of transitioning back into the workforce once kids are in school, Traister said he believes it’s essential to ensure community colleges stay a viable option for parents or laid-off workers to find new career paths.

During the Q&A session, a 25-year-old in the audience told the panel that at this point in her life,  her professional goals outweigh a desire to have a kid some day. But after listening to the financial, health, and personal costs associated with having kids later, she wondered if the speakers would do things differently at 25.

Shulevitz, who had her son when she was 37, gave this advice:

“If the world were different, if we had a country that made it possible for you to pursue your career ambitions while raising a family and wasn’t so relentlessly anti-family, you might have a different set of expectations and you might have a different set of dreams,” Shulevitz said. “As it is now, no, don’t have kids, and I wouldn’t have at 25 either."