The Coming of the Daddy Wars

My favorite item from this week's Sunday papers was Lisa Belkin's Times Magazine piece on men's biological clocks. Belkin looks at new research showing that as men age beyond about 30, their chance of fathering a child with an autism-spectrum disorder or schizophrenia increases. Simultaneously, men's overall fertility decreases after age 35. Put simply, in the words of NYU psychiatry researcher Dr. Dolores Malaspina: “It turns out the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father.”

If these preliminary findings are upheld over time, their cultural significance — especially for college-educated, type A, planner types — could be huge. It isn't surprising that it has taken science this long to seriously question men's biological role in producing healthy children; we are all conditioned to see women as the folks primarily responsible for kids, from conception through pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. Young women know they are facing menopause down the road, and have often been warned by mothers and other older women about the difficulties of conception. As a consequence, it isn't uncommon to talk to women in their twenties who are aware of the latest trends on prenatal testing or fertility, but whose male partners have never bothered to inform themselves on such issues, even though they fully intend on having children "someday." As Belkin writes:

The push and pull between timetables and dreams, between our bodies and our babies, is at the core of many women’s worldview, which also means it is at the core of relationships between the sexes. This tension feeds the stereotype of woman as eager to settle down and men as reluctant, and it’s the crux of why we see women as “old” and men as “distinguished.”

Imagine a world in which the stereotype of women rushing men to the altar, biological clocks on overdrive, simply disappeared, as men took full 50 percent ownership over the reproductive process. Or in which wealthy 50- year old divorced men ceased to be such catches for 30-year old women, because of weakened sperm. I wouldn't want to return to a society in which both men and women are pressured into settling down and having babies at an unduly young age. But I do like the idea of rejiggering our notions about the intersection of gender and aging. It isn't just women who have a lot to fit into their lives in terms of career, romance, and parenthood. Science is beginning to tell us that men are facing the same pressures.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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