The Role Roundtable: Fertility Anxiety And Relationships

The Role Roundtable is a collaboration between Role/Reboot and the Good Men Project.

Nicole: Women have a relatively limited fertility window and men don’t. This seems to create a tricky imbalance for many men and women. Do you think men have any responsibility to work with the timeframe of their female peers?

Hugo: To be fair, men have a fertility window too, though it’s less well-known and less obvious. The research connecting older fathers to everything from autism to an increased risk of miscarriage is pretty well-established. We can still father healthy biological children into our dotage, but we’re kidding ourselves if we imagine that our sperm hasn’t been degraded with the rest of us.

This is one reason why younger women should be just a bit wary of having kids with much older men. Not only is there an increased risk of birth defects, the brutal truth is that we’re not going to be around as long.

As for a responsibility to work with the timeframe of female peers, the real issue is that we have a responsibility to grow up before we hit mid-life. And if there’s one thing that defines masculine adulthood, it’s a willingness to stop imagining that one has unlimited amounts of time. Our female peers don’t have all that time because of biology; for their sake as well as our own, we should work with their timetable.

Nicole: So what do you make of men in their 40s or older who decide they want biological children and are only interested in younger partners (usually under 35), even though these same men were not ready for children in their 20s and early- to mid-30s?

Hugo: It’s a free country, as they say. I’m not going to wag a censorious finger at a 50-year-old man who wants to be biological father. But at the same time, I’d remind the dude that he’s not entitled to a younger woman’s womb. The fact that he took so long to figure out what he wants doesn’t mean the world owes him a baby. His fertility is compromised too, and that’s the hard warning I’d give to his much younger female partners.

Nicole: I’m not sure you’re addressing the hardest part of my question, though. Sure, older guys aren’t “entitled” to a younger women’s womb, and no, the world doesn’t “owe” them a baby. But the reality is there is a tricky imbalance created when heterosexual men can decide they want a child when they’re older and then simply find someone younger to procreate with, while women in the same boat (who want to have biological children naturally) are basically out of luck. I know lots of men in their late 30s or early 40s who say they “eventually want (biological) children.” It’s an attitude women of the same age obviously don’t have the luxury of having. But the reality for these men is that they can basically afford to move at whatever pace they want.

Interestingly, mothers of newborns today are older than ever before. That may not have much impact on men’s lives, but it’s had a pretty profound impact for women in terms of complications and challenges with fertility (and increased use of things like IVF).

That’s the imbalance I’m trying to get at. What can we do about that?

Hugo: We need to encourage people to make decisions about what they want earlier in life. With men, in particular, we need to encourage them to see that they will be better and more effective human beings if they don’t dawdle on their growing process. That doesn’t mean that every man is meant to be a father. It means that he ought to feel a psychological pressure to become an adult before midlife.

And teaching men about the real impact of “aging sperm” is not a small issue. All the research points to a real decline in quality of swimmers after 40 (if not earlier); men do well to realize that they have a biological clock too. We’re more like women in this regard than we realize. Education is the answer here.

Nicole: Did you feel pressure to have a child by a certain age? Did you ever think or worry about your fertility at all?

Hugo: Yes, and yes. When I was 17 and in high school, I got my girlfriend pregnant. She had an abortion; I went through it with her as best I could. She conceived the one time we had sex without any kind of contraception, and I concluded (not yet being entirely clear on how the whole thing worked) that that was to be expected every time you had unprotected intercourse. But then came many, many reckless years of promiscuity and (I’m ashamed to say) many more incidents of unprotected sex. And as far as I know, I didn’t get anyone pregnant again.

My third wife (Eira is my fourth) and I tried to conceive a child over a decade ago. We tried for six months, but no luck. I began to wonder if what had happened in high school had been a “lucky” one-off. I wondered if the drugs I’d done had made me sterile. I could have gone to a doctor and been checked, but despite being a gender studies professor and a sex educator, I was reluctant to find out—scared to learn that I was only “shooting blanks.”

But I also come from a family where older fathers are the norm. My Dad started a second family in his mid-forties. I had an uncle who had the first of two daughters when he was 57. So I was always reassured I still had time.

When Heloise was born, I was almost 42. My biggest worry was (and is) that being a middle-aged Dad to a kid would mean that I had less energy. I’m a pretty vigorous forty-something, but I won’t kid myself and say I had the mojo I had 20 years ago. On the other hand, I have a thousand times more patience than I did when I was young. I’m a much better father for having waited.

Do you want children, Nicole? Did you think you’d already have them by this age? Despite the obvious worries about fertility, do you think that there are major advantages to being an “older” first-time mom?

Nicole: Yes, I do want kids. Of course, as I’ve gotten older and watched my friends have children I’ve become more familiar with all the things parents give up (sleep, alone time, plentiful social time, expendable income, and, you know, ever being able to put your needs first!). But despite all that, I’ve always had a strong nurturing instinct and been very drawn to the idea of family. To me, that picture has always included raising children.

I didn’t have an exact age in mind of when I thought I’d have children by, but I suppose I assumed I’d have one by now, at 33. Of course, 10 years ago, I would have also assumed that I’d be married by this age, and though I have a great partner, I haven’t gone down that path yet, either. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also realized that many of the prerequisites I naively believed had to be in place to start a family are not actually necessary. It’s been liberating to question some of these assumptions and realize that many of our ideas about what makes a family are kind of bogus.

I think there are definitely some advantages to being an “older” first time mom. First and foremost, I think it helps to have your own shit together, and really have a certain level of adult maturity. I can’t even imagine being psychologically “ready” when my body was probably at its reproductive prime. Also, I think people who have kids very young often feel like they missed out and didn’t get enough “me” time. I feel blessed that I had enough wild years to know what I’ll be giving up with kids, and at this point, I can live with those trade-offs.

Hugo: How do you think the fear of running out of time impacts women’s sexual and relationship choices?

Nicole: That’s a tough one, because it seems to impact different women in different ways. I think it’s fair to say that any woman who thinks she may want kids and finds herself well into her 30s—and without a serious partner—spends some time at least considering her options. Many women make an explicit choice not to let biology dictate their romantic relationships in any way, and while that is admirable and brave, I think it’s difficult, psychologically, to draw a hard line that way. Then, there are some women for whom fertility anxiety clearly influences their choice in a mate or at the very least, influences the pace of their relationships. I suppose on the plus side, fear of running out of time makes commitment-minded, family-oriented men more desirable to many women, but the downside is that many women also put incredible pressure on themselves to figure out their romantic futures faster than is really possible, or healthy.

If you want cultural indicators of this phenomenon, just look at two of the most popular Atlantic magazine features in the past few years. “Marry Him,” by Lori Gottlieb, a single woman in her 40s who had a child alone (using a sperm donor), advised women not to go it alone (in terms of parenting), but to “settle” for Mr. Good Enough. Kate Bolick’s “All the Single Ladies” became a swan song to staying single (rather than “settling”) and heralded the end of “traditional” marriage as the ideal. Though fertility anxiety is not the focus of Bolick’s thoughtful article, it seems to me it’s an issue that looms large in both articles, since one thing that’s almost always at stake behind the declining-marriage narrative is the fate of reproductively minded single women.

Don’t you think its our cultural responsibility to do a better job discussing women’s biological reality and what the alternatives are—whether that means more adoption, medical advances for older women, support for single women having children alone, etc.? If so, what’s the role for men, beyond recognizing their own biological reality (as you mentioned before)? How can we make men better allies for women in this regard?

Hugo: Again, I think breaking men’s illusion that they have an infinite amount of time is the key. Encouraging men to understand their own fertility as well as women’s is key. Men need to have conversations earlier about what it means to become a father, why they want to become fathers, and so forth. To the extent that there is a men’s crisis in our country today (and I think most of the rhetoric of crisis is rooted in anti-feminist hogwash), it’s a crisis of delayed adulthood. That doesn’t mean that adults must reproduce in order to be good adults. But both men and women have to start making plans earlier for what they want—and men, in particular, who are ignorant by and large of the consequences of waiting too long, need to be encouraged to accelerate their own decision-making process.

Nicole Rodgers is the president and founder of Role/Reboot. Follow Role/Reboot on Twitter @RoleReboot and like Role/Reboot on Facebook.

Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Photo credit rshannonsmith/Flickr

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