At first glance this may seem like an easy one to answer.  Women have the menopause,  men keep on firing out sperm until they expire.  They can just keep going on and on until they drop.  But when you look more closely at this issue,  it’s rather more complicated than that.

First of all, let’s take into account that in order to reproduce you need two partners.  If men don’t think they are in a hurry to reproduce and women do, you create a relationship disparity from the very beginning.  The kind of relationship disparity that can drive couples apart.  Relationship stability is a big part of choosing to reproduce.  Sorry to disappoint the hoards of male, woman bashing, Daily Mail readers out there,  but the top reason that most of the over 35 new mothers I know delayed their reproductive efforts was not ball bashing career mania but simply the fact that they had not yet met the right man to actually start a family with.  Our gender biased attitudes towards parenthood are making relationships harder and theoretically at least could be pushing the age of child bearing out even further by making it more challenging for men and women to find common ground and build a lasting bond based on shared goals.

Secondly,  women may experience the menopause but the fertility drop off after 35 is nowhere near as tremendous as the press would have us believe.  The commonly used statistics are out of date and more modern studies have revealed that, since women are in better health than once they were, the chances of a 35-40 year old woman conceiving within a year are 83% just 3% lower than the chances for a woman of 20-34.  I can attest to the fact that conceiving in your late 30s is not that hard.  The fact that women over forty are having more and more abortions is also testament to the fact that declining fertility is not as big a problem as we are lead to believe.  Women develop a cavalier attitude to contraception because they think they are past it when the truth is that they are anything but.  Also many of the statistics about declining fertility are based on the assumption that most women will have cease menstruating at 50.  My mother was in her middle fifties when she had a hysterectomy to remove massive fibroids,  she had assumed her symptoms were due to menopause, she was wrong.  She was nowhere near. Her mother didn’t stop bleeding until she was 63.  Not all women are identical.

Thirdly,  while much of the media focuses a great deal of attention on the increased chances of birth defects in the children of women over 35,  they seldom mention the increased chances of behavioural problems and mental disorders in the children of older men.  Statistics indicate that the children of older men are more likely to suffer with autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  Admittedly more study is needed to confirm these findings but despite growing anxiety over the, so-called, autism epidemic,  these figures don’t appear to be of any interest to anyone.  Men are not being advised to allow this to prejudice their decision making over parenthood and the positive of their increased financial and emotional stability is assumed to outweigh the effects of their degrading sperm.  It is interesting to note that similar benefits can be seen with older mothers and yet no one is out there arguing that our emotional maturity, financial stability and decreased likelihood of regarding motherhood as a ‘sacrifice’ in any way outweighs the possibility of our eggs having degraded.

The only conclusion I can reach is that society simply has a different attitude towards paternity than they do towards maternity.  I remember years ago reading an interview with Andie MacDowell in which she complained that when she was introduced at an awards ceremony she was introduced as being an actress, a model and a mother,  Denzel Washington was introduced next, it focused entirely on his career, his paternity was not mentioned at all and he had twice as many children as she did. Motherhood is thought to be something that defines womanhood,  while paternity is simply one facet of what it is to be a man and often not one that is regarded as being particularly relevant. While having children is considered optional for men,  it is not regarded as optional for women.  People assume that women who remain childless have not done so out of choice and that they must be disguising some secret pain.  A woman cannot be complete without having had a child.

This is, of course, ludicrous.   Both men and women can be broody and both men and women can be ambivalent about parenting.  We are all multi-dimensional people, with a range of different interests and defining characteristics.  Yes, I admit, that motherhood has a more profound effect on a woman,  she carries the child inside her for nine months and can bear the scars for life, how can it not?  But that, if anything,  should entitle her to significant, pressure free, choice about when and whether she chooses to take on this awesome responsibility.  If we are going to treat the age at which human beings choose to reproduce as a public health issue rather than a matter of personal choice, it needs to cut both ways.  Either women need to be let off the hook and given freedom to make their own guilt free choices,  or men need to be given the facts about their own fertility drop off and the risks associated with their ageing sperm.

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