01/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The "Ticking Clock" and the Mommy/Daddy Double Standard

As a 34 year-old woman with no discernible desire to have children, I've had it up to here with this ticking clock nonsense. Oh I may change my mind about having kids, but I may not. And if I do, I am not going to suddenly decide that my life is meaningless if I don't get a kid RIGHT NOW. Please.

Part of what bugs me about the ticking clock narrative is that it suggests that only women need to be concerned about the age at which they reproduce. It seems that it is always women's bodies and behaviors that are problematized, while men's go unexamined. For example, Laury Oaks writes about how pregnant women's smoking is stigmatized, but no one ever seems to be concerned about her partner's smoking, even if she passively ingests cigarette smoke day in and day out. It turns out, many pregnant women can't get their partners to quit smoking around them because their partners are assholes. But no one ever calls those guys out for endangering the health and viability of a growing child. In fact, if anything, she get blamed for not "getting away from him." (I grant that Oaks' conclusions are slightly more measured.)

Anyway, a report on a set of studies just came out linking older paternal age to bad outcomes for kids. These studies show that boys with older fathers have lower IQs and higher rates of autism and social awkwardness. They've found a link, also, with older paternal age and the incidence of schizophrenia.

Depending on how high rates of the problems are to begin with, multiplying the likelihood that your children could be beset with these problems could translate into a huge or a tiny increase. This is a judgment call (not science) and the author made it:

...older men shouldn't change their minds about having children since the statistical risk is relatively minor. "The effects of a father's age on the health of his son are quite small, and many of the most dramatic effects in this study are driven by dads in their 50s," says Dr. Weiser. "The difference in risk between someone who is 35 or 45 is so small that it's irrelevant."

Irrelevant. Try to imagine this being said about a woman.

"Oh don't worry. There is good evidence that doing A will cause B in your unborn child. That would be a terrible shame. But the chances are so slim, go right ahead!"

There is good evidence that having a glass of wine now and again while pregnant is not going to hurt a child. But god forbid a woman have a single sip of champagne on New Year's Eve. She's a monster.

We need to recognize that there are risks and benefits to choices made by both mothers and fathers before, during, and after birth. This means two things. First, mothers should not be singled out and scolded (or even criminalized, as they sometimes are) for their behaviors while pregnant; all adults involved have influence over the well-being of that child, even when it's part of one woman's body. Second, though that responsibility is important, it doesn't mean that adults in charge of a child's life should take absolutely no risks. It means making measured choices based on evidence. The scientist in this case is probably right; men in their 40s should likely go ahead and have a kid if they want to. I only wish we had as pragmatic an approach to mothers' rights and responsibilities.