The biological clock is ticking for men as well. Just in a different way, Ben Pobjie writes.
The biological clock, we are led to believe, is a female phenomenon.
With women’s fertility running out far earlier than men’s, and the difficulty of conceiving — and risk of complications — rising sharply for mothers over 40, we have always been told that women who wish to have children need to make hay while the sun shines.
On the other hand, so the conventional wisdom goes, men can basically do as they please their whole lives long.
It’s one of the perks of manhood that we remain packed with baby-making potential until we are old and decrepit, and the celebrity world has always been generous with providing us examples of this.
The almost obnoxiously virile Mick Jagger became a father for the eighth time at the age of 73, two and a half years after he became a great-grandfather.
That’s the kind of generational overlap that is more commonly associated with cats and dogs and other beings who reach sexual maturity at a couple of years old and never have to get up in the middle of the night to change nappies.
So we have no need, it’s said, to conceptualise a “biological clock”, or any kind of deadline to our reproduction.
But that assumes that the fact we CAN keep fathering kids into our dotage means that we WANT to.
Besides the fact that unlike Master Jagger, most of us don’t have partners half a century younger than us, and so our own unquenchable fertility isn’t the only biological consideration to be made.
There is the fact that unlike those cats and dogs, being a father is a matter somewhat more involved than just passing on genes.
When we produce another generation, we take on duties and responsibilities that are daunting at any age. At 60 or 70, they can potentially become downright unpalatable.
The idea of doing midnight feeds at 75 is disturbing. The idea of attending parent-teacher interviews at 90 is terrifying.
This is the extreme end of the scale, but the fact is every man, when he’s weighing up whether it’s time to start a family, has to think about everything that goes into raising children and whether at a more advanced age he will still be up for it.
To put it bluntly, do you believe your reluctance to settle down now is a more powerful instinct than your reluctance to get by on three hours of sleep per night will be in 15 years?
“The idea of doing midnight feeds at 75 is disturbing. The idea of attending parent-teacher interviews at 90 is terrifying.”
This need to ponder the dadding potential of your future self is a biological clock of a different kind — “when’s my energy going to run out” rather than “when will my eggs run out” — but the fact it’s easy to overlook doesn’t make it less real.
However, recent scientific research has uncovered the possibility that men may have more to worry about in the fundamental sense than previously thought.
A study by the Stanford University School of Medicine has found that babies born to older fathers are more likely to suffer health problems — and if that weren’t enough, their mothers are more likely to develop diabetes during pregnancy.
The study found that gestational diabetes is 28 per cent more likely in mothers whose partner is 45 years old or older, than in those whose partners are aged between 25 and 34.
Similarly, fathers aged 50 or older are 28 per cent more likely to see their newborn babies admitted to intensive care. Various birth risks increased as fathers got older.
This is no reason for panic among older fathers — or those who’ve left it a little late but are still planning on starting a family.
The researchers stressed that the increased risks didn’t equate to a high level of risk in absolute terms.
In addition, the study looked at health issues at birth, and may not translate to issues later in life.
The point is not to say that everything we thought we knew is wrong and disaster awaits every man over 40 who still thinks he’s got the right stuff in him.
Rather, it’s to say that we shouldn’t always be so complacent about the ease of becoming a father at whatever stage of life we feel like — either in biological terms or just in terms of lifestyle.
Things aren’t always as simple as we think, and a decision to delay fatherhood can throw up obstacles you may not have seen coming.
Wait too long and you might find the process more difficult than you assumed — both in the birth itself and in the exhausting business of caring for a new child, a task that demands energies not everyone can summon at will in their later years.
As it happens, my children arrived when I was 26 and 30. At the time I didn’t give much thought to whether this was ideal timing.
I was certainly glad I hadn’t had them younger, as I had a sober enough view of my own maturity to know I would’ve struggled mightily if the kids had come a few years earlier.
But at the time I probably would’ve been pretty sanguine if I’d had to wait a while.
Looking back I’m glad I became a father at the time I did. I don’t want to be raising tiny people when I’m 50. I just don’t think my knees could take it.
Some men, of course, are perfectly happy to be that older dad, and that’s fine. There’s no age limit on being a great father — I’m sure Mick Jagger does a fantastic job.
The lesson shouldn’t be that there’s a cut-off for fatherhood: it should be that in this, as in all aspects of parenting, it’s worth putting some thought in.
Women have long been thinking hard about the right time to have children: it’s only fair we do the same.
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