Why Don’t We Ever Talk About Older Fathers?

Americans aren’t having babies anymore, and we’re not alone. Few countries in the Western world are reaching replacement rate, and when they come close it’s thanks to immigrant populations having more than the 2.1 children necessary for the population to remain steady, let alone grow. The situation in countries like Japan is so dire, social scientists wonder if we may be witnessing the slow decline of an entire civilization.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on how few women are having babies, and that for those who do, it is at an older age. The average size of the American family is shrinking, and the average age of first time mothers is rising. NPR was one of many outlets reporting on new federal data released on motherhood in the United States:

Fifteen years ago, the mean age of a woman when she first gave birth was 24.9 years old. In 2014, that age had risen to 26.3.

“It doesn’t sound like a big change,” says T.J. Mathews, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics and an author of the report published online Thursday. But, he says, the small shift underscores some important trends.

The main force pulling the average age to the older end of the spectrum is a decrease in the number of teen moms, the researchers say.

On the other hand, first-time moms who are over 35 also have a higher-than-average risk of pregnancy complications, and their numbers are growing in the U.S. Since 2000, the proportion of first-time births to women older than 30 and 35 each increased by a few percentage points. These older mothers contributed to the rise in the average age of first-time moms, the researchers say, but the decline in births to teen moms was more influential.

But it’s not just women stepping into motherhood later; it’s men as well. As the New York Times reported last month:

Researchers at Stanford University reviewed data on 168,867,480 live births from 1972 to 2015, making statistical adjustments for missing paternal records. The average age of the father of a newborn in the United States, the investigators found, has risen to 30.9 from 27.4 in 1972.

And yet, unlike the many lengthy stories that have been published over the years that explore the many social and cultural implications of older women becoming mothers, the news about the increasing ages of fathers merited only a few paragraphs – a mere blip in the Health section of the paper. It’s not as if the father’s age has no impact on children. The Times acknowledged the potential pitfalls of older fatherhood in terms of their child’s health, noting, “Older paternal age has been associated with higher rates of miscarriage, birth defects, some cancers, schizophrenia and autism. Some experts have suggested that older sperm is more likely to have mutations that lead to disease.”

What was most interesting about the news item, however, was just how un-newsworthy Times editors must have found it to be.

Thanks to the millions of words written on the ever-increasing age of the American mother (and German mother and Japanese mother, etc.), it’s no surprise that the average age of fathers is increasing as well. What is notable is that while the age of mothers is apparently deserving of coverage, discussion and dissection, the age of fathers is apparently not. Why not?

How might the age of a father impact the life of their child? It’s a complicated question that is about far more than just health risks for the child.

Last year I wrote about the critical role roughhousing with a father can have in the early development of a child. It not only shapes their brain, but also impacts their physical and emotional growth as well. The critical importance of the presence of a father in the home is well-documented by research, but the kind of interactions kids have with their dads when present matters as well. A father age twenty-five and a father age forty-five are two different animals, and while the latter may be able to provide better financial support, the importance of their ability to physically take on the task of fatherhood is worthy of discussion as well. In order to do that, our society first needs to acknowledge that the rising age of fathers is just as noteworthy a phenomenon as that of mothers.

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