When a 60-year-old man becomes a father, what do people say?
Old fathers are not criticized. Far from it. The reaction is more likely to be a knowing wink than a frown of disapproval. He’s still in the game, we think. It’s a badge of manhood: No blanks for that boy.
While recent studies have raised some questions about the quality of middle-aged sperm, few have challenged the appropriateness of older men having children with their younger wives.
Of course, no one expects the 60-year-old man to actually raise the child. That’s what the young wife is for. He’s the purse; she’s the nurse. His life expectancy may not carry him to the child’s high-school graduation, but at least one parent is likely to be there.
But what if the woman is the 60-year-old and the man is her husband of 38 years, no spring chicken himself?
“I hope I’m a role model,” Frieda Birnbaum said last week, after giving birth to twins, making her the oldest new mother in America.
Neither does Ms. Birnbaum’s 29-year-old daughter, who thinks her mother should be going to the gym and taking time for herself, not breastfeeding and changing diapers. Is she jealous? Or just realistic about who will have to bring up these children if her parents can’t?
The Birnbaums say they decided to travel to a fertility center in South Africa that specializes in impregnating older women because they wanted a sibling for their youngest boy, who is 6. But far from resolving anything, that just raises the question of what Ms. Birnbaum was doing having a child at 54, long after our bodies are meant to be bearing children.
Legally speaking, Ms. Birnbaum has the same right to make reproductive decisions as she did when her older children were born. Invitro fertilization is rightly regarded by almost everyone as a medical triumph when it allows younger women who have difficulty conceiving to become pregnant and give birth. A state law prohibiting women over a certain age from having access to assisted reproduction technologies would almost surely be viewed as an unconstitutional invasion of the same right to privacy that the Court recognized in the contraception and abortion cases decided more than three decades ago.
But that doesn’t mean doctors and clinics shouldn’t set their own rules, as many of them do, or that women should blithely follow Ms. Birnbaum’s example. It isn’t just because the health risks to the mother are greater with age. Many women decide to take risks to become pregnant, notwithstanding conditions from diabetes to cancer to depression that may make pregnancy more dangerous. Mostly, we applaud them when they do. But there is a difference between assisting Mother Nature and overruling her.
I had my kids late – in my late 30s. The days they were born were the happiest days of my life. I would be the last to deny another woman that joy. But to every thing there is a season, and wherever you draw the line, 60 is on the wrong side of it.
Ms. Birnbaum wants to be a role model for her own skeptical daughter, “so that when she gets older she can make her own decisions based on who she is, rather than what society dictates.” With all due respect, the last thing our daughters need are more models of women who can’t accept the realities of aging, or make peace with them. Men may not know better, but that’s no excuse for us to follow in their tracks. Aging with dignity is the challenge of our times, not figuring out how to permanently silence our biological clocks.
©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.