My grandmother gave birth to my father when she was 19-years old, and I've been especially lucky, well into adulthood, to have a close relationship with healthy, young-at-heart, active grandparents. Yesterday they sent my boyfriend and me John F. Kennedy chocolate gelt for Channukah, which was pretty cool. But my grandparents, who are wonderfully creative and intellectually curious people, never went to college; between them, they worked in retail, at banks, in medical offices, and doing childcare, though they could have thrived as artists, as teachers, or in many other professions. My grandfather is an expert photographer and is passionate about history, and my grandmother paints and cooks beautifully, in addition to being one of the warmest people most of her family and friends have ever met. When our clan gathered at my aunt's house for Thanksgiving this year, I thought a lot about the shape of my grandparents' lives. Their three kids all went to college and graduate school, and waited until their mid or late-thrities to reproduce. Today the joy of three children and four grandchildren is overwhelming, and my grandparents may someday meet their great-grandchildren, as well. Yet they have never been rich, or been their own boss, or achieved the financial stability they would have liked. I'll have far fewer years with my descendents than they have had with theirs, but I'll also have an intellectually challenging career, more money, and fancier vacations, too. Life is full of trade-offs.
So I was really moved by Judith Shulevitz's New Republic cover story on the health and social effects of delaying parenthood. Now that it looks like advanced paternal age is correlated with autism spectrum disorders and certain mental illnesses in children, men might finally join women in the anxiety Olympics over how to fit education, career, the search for true love, and reproduction into the ever-shrinking window of opportunity before one's 35th birthday. As Shulevitz states, we'll "have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right." Correct. Similarly, it's refreshing to read about the potentially problematic breeding practices not of young, unwed single moms, but of some of the affluent, hyper-educated married couples who delay childrearing into their forties or even beyond, and who will be well into senior citizenship by the time their children are fully "launched" into the adult world.
But. The risk is that by focusing on the genetic and epigenetic ways in which disabled, differently-abled, or simply complex children come into the world, we blame parents for their kids' disabilities, or begin to see conditions like autism and schitzophrenia as the "fault" of parents who could have made a different set of choices. In part, this is already happening with Down syndrome. The risk for Down syndrome goes up significantly when an expectant mother reaches 35, but 80 percent of children born with Down syndrome are delivered by women younger than 35. Because these mothers are not in the highest-risk group, they are often counseled to forgo more invasive and riskier Down syndrome tests. When I reported on Down syndrome screening in 2010, I talked to several mothers who had been pained by strangers' assumptions that because they had a child with Down syndrome, they had somehow failed to undergo basic prenatal medical care. The truth is that although 90 percent of parents who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis choose to abort, there are no failsafe tests, and most parents are surprised when a child is diagnosed with Down syndrome or any other disability. Other parents actively choose to carry atypical pregnancies to term, for religious or other personal reasons.
Prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other disabilities will become more sophisiticated and safer. Someday there may be a prenatal screening for autism. But there will always be differently-abled children, like Shulevitz's son, and I know she would agree that once they are with us in the world, we ought to focus more on how to best meet their needs than on the supposed reproductive failures of their parents. (The same goes for poor children, by the way, born to single moms.) Better genetic science may mean more social pressure on both men and women to reproduce in their twenties and early thirties, but I hope it never means we lose our compassion for the disabled children of older parents, or for the adults who wait for romantic or financial stability before having children.