In the American movie My Cousin Vinny, Vinny Gambini, played by the wise guy Joe Pesci, hasn’t slept in five days. He’s scheduled to appear in court to defend his nephew in a death trial. On that morning, his girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito, played by the effervescent Marisa Tomei, spews fire over Vinny’s broken promises, their marriage and her ticking biological clock. As she stomps her stiletto heels on the pine floorboards, shouting out ‘tik tok, tik tok,’ Vinny breaks out into a rant of how everything is going wrong in his life, and on top of it the added pressure of a ticking biological clock.
Although popular, the stereotype of portraying women as having limited shelf-life fertility is wrong. Both men and women have fertility clocks that are ticking away.
Let’s start with the men first. In 2018, Dr Michael Eisenberg, Director of Male Reproductive Medicine at Stanford University, led a population study. He and his team analysed more than 40 million births in the United States between 2007 and 2016. The study found that advanced paternal age (forty-five years and older) affects the children and the mother. They noticed that advanced paternal age was associated with an increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight and low Apgar score, the five-point assessment of a baby’s health in the minutes after birth. The study also found that the odds of gestational diabetes in mothers were 34 per cent higher with the oldest partners (fifty-five years and older).
The study also showed that advanced paternal age put the children at an increased risk of conditions such as dwarfism, psychiatric disorders and autism. So, it’s no surprise that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends the following for sperm donors: ‘The donor should be of legal age but younger than forty years of age so that potential hazards related to aging are diminished.’ The data on advanced paternal age risk has been around for a while. Yet, awareness of the male biological clock and its impact on the mother and the child’s health is minimal even in developed countries.
Switching gears, women hit peak fertility in their early twenties. Once women reach thirty-five years, they are considered a high-risk pregnancy in many countries, including the United States. Osteoporosis, gestational diabetes and reduced skin elasticity are some risks associated with pregnancy in advanced maternal age. There are many screenings prescribed for a high-risk pregnancy including tests like Amniocentesis. Most of these tests are inconvenient and some are even painful. Not to mention the stress that comes with getting the tests done. For women, giving birth in their twenties is in tune with the fertility rhythm of their bodies. Another benefit of giving birth to the first child in her twenties is that it makes planning for a second one easier.
Over the years, I have met some couples, who tried to conceive when they were younger in their peak fertility years. But things didn’t work out for some reason, and they ended up having children later who are all in good health. I also know of couples who delayed having children. They had children later in life who are also doing well. So, planning a child is not about beating the statistical odds. It’s about avoiding taking chances with something so important. There is merit in cooperating with the natural rhythms of the body. As a couple you should sit down and talk through your plans for raising a family. One key consideration in your discussion should be your biological clock and making sure that you use the window wisely. I pray that your circumstances support you and your partner in making these decisions.
Offering reproductive advice is a charged topic. It touches women’s reproductive rights, social policy for childcare and religious beliefs, and no matter which line one treads someone will be unhappy. What I have written here, is what I told my children and loved ones. If my words caused you any hurt, I hope you can take it as advice from a well-wisher.
Also read: Is infertility rising in India? Probably, but doctors can’t be sure due to lack of good data
Energy, Fun and Finances
Besides biological rhythms, the other reason to have children sooner is the energy it takes to raise them. Children like to run around, play ball, ride bikes, paint pictures, have pillow fights and wage snowball wars. When parents are younger, their energy levels are higher. They can keep up with children’s demands and manage their careers, social life and everything else that needs attention. When physical energy is waning the body struggles to keep up.
The energy advantage becomes clearer later in life when children become teenagers. For example, a mother who gives birth in the late thirties will have to deal with her own physiological and psychological changes related to menopause while supporting a teenager whose body is also changing. Both are on the edge, and it’s a recipe for emotional showdowns. The same goes for the father who may be dealing with his midlife crisis and now has to support a young person dealing with uncertainties that come with youth. It can be challenging.
Having children while parents are younger has some auxiliary benefits too. When you are younger it’s easier to find jobs. So, if you decide to move closer to family or take a break from work, it’s easier to get back in.
This excerpt from ‘The Wisdom Bridge’ by Kamlesh D. Patel has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.