With a third kid on the way and a 1,100-square-foot, one-bathroom Brooklyn apartment, my husband and I talk a lot about when we’ll be able to afford a home to comfortably fit our family. I’m 35, he’s almost 40, and neither of us thinks we can even begin to contemplate shelling out for a mortgage or higher rent for another five years. In the fall of 2018, all of our kids will finally be in public school, and we will have the $5,000 we pay in child care every month back in our bank account. I will be 41, my husband will be 46, and perhaps then we can start to consider a second toilet.
Not all of that $5K will go toward a family home — to pay for preschool, we stopped contributing to our 401k years ago. So 2018 will also be the year we start paying into it again — not that we will ever be able to retire — and, hey, let’s put some away for college, shall we?
Yes, we are, by the standards of most Americans, rich. My husband and I both have steady jobs, make good salaries and are lucky enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world simply because we want to. As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote earlier this year, we can’t cry poor just because we don’t have a lot of money left after we’ve spent it all.
So I’m not complaining. But I’m wishing we had started popping out those kids, oh, five years earlier than we did, so that maybe, by 40, my bedroom and my sons’ bedroom wouldn’t be separated by a wall. Which is what I thought about when I first saw the cover of this month’s New Republic, featuring a photo of a graying couple and their toddler son and the very effective line: “We are having kids later than ever. We have no idea what we’re getting into.”
The excellent piece, by Judith Shulevitz, is generally about the “scary consequences” of older parenthood, and specifically about the greater likelihood of physical and mental disorders that children of older parents face. Shulevitz cites the study of older dads that got a ton of attention earlier this year, establishing that “the number of genetic mutations that can be acquired from a father increases by two every year of his life, and doubles every 16, so that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old to bequeath de novo mutations to his children.” She also writes about “age-related epigenetic mutations” — how environmental influences, such as age, can impact sperm DNA, and therefore traits in our offspring such as body size and mental capacity.
Sociologists have devoted many man-hours to demonstrating that older parents are richer, smarter and more loving, on the whole, than younger ones. And yet the tragic irony of epigenetics is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb air-borne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides and herbicides.
There’s also the question of how much we know (or don’t know) about the long-term effects of fertility treatments — treatments that Shulevitz herself underwent when finally trying to have her first baby at the age of 37. As one Columbia University professor puts it, “We keep pulling off these technological marvels without the sober tracking of data you’d want to see before these things become widespread all over the world.”
In between all of the excellent science reporting is that lingering line: We have no idea what we’re getting into. “A phrase I heard repeatedly during these conversations was ‘natural experiment,’ ” Shulevitz writes. “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.”
I think about this all the time. Of course, there are the scenarios no parent wants to contemplate, like the possibility that mine or my husband’s age will somehow contribute to one of our sons growing up to be autistic or severely depressive or schizophrenic. But the more mundane situations we can predict with some accuracy. And they are frightening enough: I will not be an empty nester until I’m at least 54. I will probably be taking care of my ailing parents while I’m still taking care of my growing kids. And I’ll probably be in my late 60s by the time my kids start having kids (if they have them) and well into my 70s by the time my grandkids are fun to talk to and all wearing underwear. Whereas most of my grandparents lived to see me graduate from college, get married and start my family, it’s quite possible I won’t see any of that from my kids’ kids.
Then there’s this: “What haunts me about my children,” writes Shulevitz, “is ... the actuarial risk I run of dying before they’re ready to face the world.”
This is not exactly how I’d like things to go. And I’m not sure why I set myself up for it. I got married at 26. We delayed having kids for five years just ... ’cause. I was, as the story goes, “focusing on my career.” And it was fun to be young and married without too many responsibilities. But we would have made friends who had babies because that’s what happens. And while I loved my young married years, it’s not as if they created any sort of happy-times reserve that I can tap into now, whenever I am feeling annoyed that I can’t just go out after work without booking a sitter two weeks in advance.
“A remarkable feature of the new older parenting,” Shulevitz writes, “is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph.” I’m not so sure. Also, remember how there was that one kid in your high school class whose parents were so old that it was weird and creepy? That’s all of us now. Oops.
Allison Benedikt is the managing editor of Slate’s Double X lifestyle section.