New Republic science editor Judith Shulevitz caused something of a firestorm with her cover story “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society” in which she argues that all the folks like herself who started having kids in their late thirties and early forties are messing up the country in myriad ways.
Shulevitz focuses on some of the negative aspects of later parenting–especially the troubles with conceiving and that older couples end up having fewer children as a result of waiting until their careers are established. She wonders whether there isn’t a too-high price to be paid for rising rates of birth defects among kids of older parents, the negative impact on the prosperity of the nation as a whole when there are fewer babies being born, and the fact that older parents are going to end up dying before their offspring are fully matured. Shulevitz even suggests that fertility specialists ought to be upfront about the risks of treatment and the negative side of becoming a parent in your late thirties and forties. She recommends, ultimately, that “procreating earlier” should be a goal. But the most shocking aspect of Shulevitz’s piece is that fact that she’s challenging the accepted liberal notion that following your bliss before having babies is the ideal.
To look at recent television depictions of infertility and dramatic representations of couples who’ve waited to have children only reinforces Shulevitz’s argument that, nearly in every case, we aren’t dealing with any consequences to ourselves or to society at large for having delayed having children. While TV sitcoms and drama have mined the topic of later-stage parenting for stories of infertility, there’s little to no recognition that prioritizing personal fulfillment over family could be the problem.
Like Shulevitz’s piece, numerous recent television shows have shown the trials and tribulations of actually getting pregnant when the characters in TV-land are finally ready.
Friends dealt with infertility depicting Monica and Chandler as adopting after discovering that fertility treatments wouldn’t be effective. So while the couple’s inability to conceive naturally was mined for laughs, the writers chose to solve the problem with a quick and (relatively easy) adoption.
Infertility has been discussed more recently on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother. And as one blogger who writes about her and her husband’s struggle with infertility wrote, she’s happy the subject is being brought up, “but these shows portray infertility in typical ‘Hollywood’ fashion,” writes Metholic. “The infertile couple is devastated by their infertility, but overcome it in a world where money is not an issue with some hilarious slapstick inserted along the way.”
She gives low marks to How I Met Your Mother, because as characters Marshall and Lilly struggle to conceive, “Marshall fears he may be the cause of their infertility and goes to a specialist where he is reassured that his in fact ‘super fertile’. While I like that this show discussed the even more taboo subject of male infertility it ultimately caved to societal norms that say men are ALWAYS fertile.”
The same blogger had much more positive things to say about Grey’s Anatomy. “I also really liked that recently it showed the possible dangerous side effects of fertility drugs when Meredith started to lose her vision due to a fertility drug she was on. Fertility drugs and fertility treatments have often been portrayed in the media as ‘quick fixes’ just pop a pill or do an “easy” IVF cycle and you get a kid, or two!”
Shulevitz would agree that a more realistic depiction of the trials of having kids later in life might go a long way toward starting to change the culture that is causing such problems. And indeed, I could find at least one quite good dramatization of the bad side of delaying parenting, from Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice, when main character Addison discovers that after years of delaying motherhood in favor of her high-powered career, she’s unable to carry a baby to term. “I’m finally ready to have a baby and I can’t, that is so exactly what my life is,” she laments.