The XX Factor

The Mythical “Best Age To Have A Child”

Via Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog, ForbesWoman and the Bump have a survey out that asks if there’s a “’ perfect time’ for a working woman to have her first baby .” In her discussion of this survey, Belkin also talks about the new autism findings that show both parents’ ages at the time of conception have an effect: While older mothers are more likely to have autistic children, according to Belkin, “when the father was over 40 and the mother under 30, the increased risk was especially pronounced-59 percent greater than for younger men.”

Belkin asks her audience if there really is a best time to have children. There are definitely comments from smug parents who had babies in their 20s.”People wait too long to marry and have kids nowadays. If you are 22 or 23 or so, you are old enough to dive in; younger even if you are especially mature,” writes one commenter, who then adds, idiotically, “You can’t starve in this society-there’s always plenty of hamburger and chicken!” The problem with discussions like this is that they always devolve into judgment from both sides: Some say younger parents aren’t emotionally ready to have kids, others say older parents have fertility problems and their children have greater chances of birth defects.

Stasistically it is undeniable that the rates of autism, down syndrome, and other developmental disorders go up with older parents (not just mothers). But instead of blaming individual women for their “selfishness” and career ambitions (like NYT commenter Bruce who says, “Children dont need resources beyond the basics, raising a child is more important than any career, and we cant have it all…womens bodies in particular are designed to have children while in their 20’s up to early 30’s”), the more logical complaint is more far-reaching and truly obvious. There is no societal safety net for the majority of men and women who have children young before they have built up careers. What’s more, there is evidence that being a mother can be a roadblock to promotions . If there were better support in place for parents, then a question like, “Is there a perfect time for working women to have kids?” might elicit emotionally interesting responses. But under the current cultural circumstances, the perfect time isn’t about age-it’s about when you can support them without going broke.