Is This how the U.S. Loves its Children?

            As we point out in our book, Enough of Us, Americans extoll the making of children as a great creative act.  Commercials show mothers hugging the cutest kids with the rosiest complexions. Pregnancy is presented in articles and movies as a path to true happiness. As in much that is American, the light and cheery external look of things belies what happens inside countless family homes for so many children: the darkness of child abuse goes on in shocking numbers.

Leg fracture resulting from child abuse

Fractured tibia in infant. Photo: National Institutes of Health.

            Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Ph.D., wrote an opinion piece based on his doctoral research at Harvard, in the July 14th issue of The New York Times in which he begs to differ with reports that child abuse and neglect decreased during the our recent Great Recession. In “How Googling Unmasks Child Abuse,” Stephens-Davidowitz explains that by looking at “an analysis of anonymous, aggregate Google searches,” from 2006 to 2009, he learned that mistreatment of children did not in fact drop during the recession. The categories he examined were:

  •           Child fatality rates – Increased during the financial downturn in states hardest hit by the recession
  • “My dad hit me”  key words – Most likely from recent abuse victims old enough to use Google
  • Common classes of Google queries like “child neglect” and “child abuse” – Relevant searches from those who saw something that worried them, so they asked Google about “signs” or “effects” of child abuse.

          Stephens-Davidowitz claims that the number of these Google queries is so large that the “overall rates are telling,” in that they are enormously “larger than in any survey or poll.”

          “I used a novel technique for studying such child maltreatment: an analysis of anonymous, aggregate Google searches … Online, often unobserved, we tend to be very honest.” He examined searches that he analyzed as being likely to have been made by recent victims of abuse.

          So, why were fewer cases of child abuse and neglect reported during the Great Recession? One answer Stephens-Davidowitz gives is that social program budgets were severely slashed in many states.  That had a domino effect that led to overworked mandated reporters such as doctors, nurses and teachers being less likely to adhere to the reporting process. Likewise, staffs at child protective services agencies were stretched thin and worked shorter hours, which affected their abilities and inclinations to report cases.

          In tough budgetary times, it seems the programs that protect children are some of the first to be set back financially, which leads to staff cutbacks.  This is a major way the United States fails its children, especially when they most need government protections. Many factors contribute to this lack of love. To name a few:

  • According to the article, even in so-called normal times, primary care doctors “admit in surveys that they do not report 27 percent of suspicious incidents.”
  • According to the Department of Health and Human Services, most victims are maltreated by their mothers.
  • Children in low socioeconomic families and children in households where both parents are unemployed are at high risk for abuse or neglect.  
  • Neglectful families tend to have more children and/or a chaotic lifestyle where, say, a mother and her children live on and off with others.

          America needs the help of social services agencies that are well funded and staffed to the max.  In 2011, approximately 681,000 children were abused. True societal love for children requires that would-be single parents and parents who are chronically unemployed be educated about the option to avoid, or stop, making kids, in spite of the fact that many get tax credits for each child they produce. If we fail to fund these kinds of programs, let’s admit to our societal, cultural, and political lack of love for children. There are too many young people living in terrible circumstances.  And there are Enough of Us in general.

 

A Baby Shortage? Here we go again with that fertility argument – Part II

In our prior column we began our response to Jonathan Last’s essay, “America’s Baby Bust,” in the Wall Street Journal Review section. He laments the current and soon-to-be-“worsening” baby shortage that will leave our economy in bad shape. After all, without a growing population, who will pay the bills for the ever-increasing number of senior citizens?

     Briefly, here is our response:

     Those seniors without kids, or with fewer of them, will be better able to afford to support themselves (see last week’s column);

  • If increasing the population of little ones is a good thing, why are we so stressed about being able to care for the current spate of baby boomers?
  • Increasing the size of our consumerist society means more pollution, trash, demand for energy, climate change and its ramifications, demand for renewable resources, water shortages, etc.
  • Increased population means expanding roads, public transportation, water supply and disposal systems, and myriad other public works needs. As things stand right now we cannot even afford to maintain America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Fertile land can become desert

As a result of climate change, loss of rainfall leads to desertification in some areas

      Thanks to immigration, US population has been growing at a fairly healthy clip. But immigration can be a double-edged sword. It provides a resource to pay for the needs of aging Americans by bringing a new generation of taxpayers into the country, but it also means that shrinking fertility is merely being replaced by another form of population growth. The United States could simply become an overflow receptacle for developing countries’ excessive populations, which would perpetuate the same drawbacks as having our numbers increase from within.

     Jonathan Last’s take on this is, “it’s unlikely to last. Historically, countries with fertility rates below replacement level start to face their own labor shortages, and they send fewer people abroad. In Latin America, the rates of fertility decline are even more extreme than in the U.S.” What does that tell us? In his essay, he lays out various plans, including tax incentives, to get folks to keep contraception out of the bedroom. This, he contends, will help motivate Americans to have the children they already desire.

     For their first 18 years and beyond, children tend to be burdens on society. In the current economic crisis large numbers of recent college grads can’t find work and must remain living with their parents. Folks with advanced degrees are working as unskilled labor in an effort to pay their bills. Many jobs are being shipped overseas or transferred to robots. And we don’t know what the odds are that many of those lost jobs will be replaced by employment openings that require domestic labor.

     It seems that society pays little attention to the burdens young people can place on their predecessors. These burdens are especially true for adults of any age who do not have their own children but must nevertheless share the expense involved in bringing up a new gneration..

     There are no simple answers to the issues raised by increased populations, or smaller ones, both domestically and worldwide. But thinking only in current economic terms without consideration of environmental and sustainability concerns is not a healthy approach. And prognosticating is a tricky business. But sooner or later we will have to decide that there are more than Enough of Us. And if we wait until much later, the generations that Jonathan Last wants so desperately to increase may have hell to pay for their parents’ profligacy.

 

 

The Latest Trend in Risks to Newborns – Part II

Last week, in Part I, we began this discussion of Judith Shulevitz’s The New Republic article, “The Grayest Generation,” in which she lamented the societal and biological risks of older parenting.

 

Men over 50 are three times more likely than men under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.

Fertility doctors do a lot of things to sperm and eggs that have not been rigorously tested, including keeping them in culture media teeming with chemicals that may or may not scramble an embryo’s development.

Commonly used, “Clomid . . . came out particularly badly in a recent New England Journal of Medicine study that rang alarm bells about ART [assisted reproductive technology] and birth defects,” reports Shulevitz. “ICSI (intracytoplasmic) sperm injection shows up in the studies as having higher rates of birth defects than any other popular fertility procedure.”

A child with trisomy-18

Trisomy-18 child. Photo: Emilyscookiemix.com

While she recognizes that women do not want to cut their careers short for the sake of having kids, Judith points out that if they don’t have children, they’re denying themselves s full life.

But older parents have emotional disadvantages. “Procrastinators” become members of the “sandwich generation,” caught between toddlers tugging on one hand and elder parents sharing the latest updates on their ailments. Elderly grandparents provide less support than their younger counterparts.

What haunts her about her own kids is the gamble of dying before they’re ready to set out on their own.

And these problems could proliferate if  “aging parents are, in fact, producing a growing subpopulation of children with neurological or other disorders who will require a lifetime of care. Schizophrenia, for instance, usually sets in during a child’s late teens or early twenties. [British psychiatrist] Avi Reichenberg sums up the problem bluntly. ‘Who is going to take care of that child?’ he asked, ‘Some seventy-five-year-old demented father?’”

The birthrate has dropped by a significant 45 percent around the world since 1975. By 2010, the average number of births per woman had decreased from 4.7 to 2.6.

While Shulevitz is making compelling arguments about older parenting, ones with which we agree, the goals of her arguments are where we part company. She makes the case that society needs to reform itself so that parents become parents at earlier stages of life. That way there will be fewer disabled children, more individuals to care for older generations, and enough workers to replace the aging people who will be better able to adapt to new technologies. She concedes that fewer people means less demand for food, water, land and energy.

Let’s start with the latter first. As we have written on several occasions, when societies move into the middle classes, their per capita consumption of food, water, land and energy skyrocket. Bigger homes, conspicuous consumption, wasted water, cars, heating and air conditioning; you get the picture.

It seems to us that there are three choices for the career-focused. Have your career or your kids. If you want them both, do as many others have done, and burn the candle at both ends earlier in adulthood. But making kids in order to provide preceding generations with a support system is selfish, reckless, and the world’s ultimate Ponzi scheme. We have to stop at some point. Are the projections of 10 billion-plus devourers of natural resources, clean air, and water by the end of this century not enough to scare the bejeezus out of us?

 

The Latest Trend in Risks to Newborns – Part I

The average age of first-time mothers has increased by four years over the past half century, according to science editor Judith Shulevitz in the December 20, 2012 issue of The New Republic. Many professional urban couples are postponing making babies until their 30s and early 40s. The downside is, as Shulevitz herself has experienced, recent rises in developmental disorders.

            Some examples: The average new mother from Massachusetts is 28; in Mississippi it is 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother is 29.1; African American 23.1. A college-educated woman has a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older.

           Shulevitz decries late-in-life reproduction, due to the amplified risks to the child and because delayed childbearing will result in a shortage of younger people to support, and replace, their progenitors. While we agree with the former, we dissent from the latter because of its societal self-serving motives. 

Judith Shulevitz

Photo: jtsa.edu

           Judith and her husband weren’t ready for parenthood until she was in her mid-30s and her husband was “forty-something.”  The doctor started her on a regimen of ovulation-stimulating hormones. The most popular fertility drug is clomiphene citrate, marketed as Clomid, or Serophene.

            If the Clomid didn’t work, she might move on to: IVF (in vitro fertilization), ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), or even ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer). The Clomid and IVF worked.

            “My baby boy seemed perfect. When he was three, though, the pediatrician told me that he had a fine-motor delay.”  He needed occupational therapy for his mild case of “sensory-integration disorder.”

            She soon found what she describes as, “a subculture of a subculture: that of mothers who spend hours a week getting services for developmentally challenged children. It seemed to me that an unusually large proportion of these women were older.”

            Subsequently, the couple had a “natural” daughter. But Judith found herself meeting women of approximately her age with kids who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, and sensory-integration disorder.

            As we have previously discussed on this blog, and in our book, Enough of Us, according to the Centers for Disease Control, learning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays are on the rise.  Between 1997 and 2008 there has been about a 17 percent increase in these disabilities. According to Shulevitz, one in six American children had a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier.

            Scientific evidence indicates that aging bodies of potential parents should elicit more cautious behavior than they apparently do. Would-be parents consistently underestimate how sharp the fertility drop-off can be for women after age 35. Inversely, the chances that children will carry a chromosomal abnormality, such as a trisomy—which includes Patau and Edwards syndromes—increase.  Patau syndrome gives children cleft palates, mental retardation, and an 80 percent likelihood of dying in their first year. Edwards syndrome, features oddly shaped heads, clenched hands, and slow growth. Half of all Edwards syndrome babies die in the first week of life. In previous posts we have given the examples of the unfortunate offspring of politicians Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin.

            The risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy rises from 2–3 percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when a woman is in her forties. When born to an older mother: spontaneous abortion, premature birth, being a twin or triplet, cerebral palsy, and low birth weight—leading to chronic health problems later in children’s lives—increase.

            Researchers suspect a link between the 78 percent rise in autism over the last decade and the rise of parental age. One theory “is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb airborne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and herbicides.”

We will continue this discussion next week in Part II of this post.

 

 

 

 

 

Grandparents by the Millions Have to Do it all Over Again

Typically, most parents with grown children fervently hope (and oft times pray) for grandchildren – so much so, that prospective grandparents sometimes pressure their own offspring to bear a little darling or three. But given the present situation in which grandparents are stuck with childrearing a second time around, the adage “Be careful what you wish for,” is worth heeding.

            According to the 2010 US Census, about 7 million grandparents have grandchildren younger than 18 living with them.  Of the 7 million:

  • 2.7 million grandparents are responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under age 18;
  • 580,000 grandparents who are responsible for grandchildren under age 18, have incomes below poverty level; 2.2 million have incomes just at or above poverty level.;
  • 1.9 million married (or separated) grandparents care for their grandchildren
  • 670,000 grandparents who are caregivers for their grandchildren have a disability

Photo courtesy grandparentscafe.com

Photo courtesy grandparentscafe.com

Millions of grandparents provide a home that saves their grandchildren’s lives both emotionally and physically. It’s a good thing these kinfolk are involved and willing to spread their love. However, the price they pay is a big one. They are not always prepared for their new role. They must frequently make the shift from grandma and grandpa to mom and dad, which isn’t natural or easy. Usually they have to deal with the emotional and health issues that accompany their grandchild, not to mention learning to navigate the educational, legal, social and health care systems.  It’s no wonder that a grandparent who rears his or her grandkid experiences more symptoms of depression than grandparents who are in the traditional role of enjoying their grandchildren sans raising them.

Besides the financial burdens of being a caregiver for grandchildren, grandparent marriages can suffer due to the jolt of a suddenly changed lifestyle.  In her article, “Kinship care and marriage: Raising grandchildren can create marriage difficulties!” Beth Q. Beck, former director of the Children’s Service Society of Utah, lists plenty of reasons for disagreement in kinship care marriages. Two big ones are:

  • Differences over whether grandma and grandpa agree that kinship care must be provided at all;
  • Nourishing the marriage falls by the wayside because the grandchildren require so much time and energy.

Ms. Beck describes a recent study at the University of Chicago, in which 12 of the 39 grandmothers who participated reported that the negative impact of raising grandchildren on their marriage was significant. Only three said that caring for their grandchildren strengthened their relationships with their husbands.

In an interview with a New Jersey social worker, Fox Business columnist Casey Dowd tried to shed more light on the increase in “grandfamilies” over the last decade. Social worker Janis Marler told Dowd that according to 2010 Census findings, a philosophical shift in the child welfare system has added value to placing children with relatives rather than in foster homes. A 2008 law signed by President Bush, encouraged this change. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act mandates that child protective service agencies provide notice to grandparents and relatives within 30 days of a child’s removal from parental custody.

So, dear grandparents, beware of what you wish for!  Think about the possible consequences of pressuring your progeny to create more humans when we already have Enough of Us. The ultimate burden may well fall on your shoulders.

Hurricane Sandy Shows Floodgates Needed—Population Floodgates

            John Seager is the president of Population Connection (you may have known it by its former name, Zero Population Growth), a nonprofit that seeks to mitigate, through family planning, the problems inherent in overpopulation . We are long-time members of the organization.

John’s update on global human impacts is an eye-opener. We reproduce his insights with the permission of Population Connection. Its web site is www.populationconnection.org.

Population Connection President Jon Seager

Population Connection President Jon Seager

  As people along the East Coast struggle to recover from super storm Sandy, there has been serious talk of building giant floodgates to protect parts of New York City from the next such event.

 Giant floodgates might be part of a long-term solution, but we need to find others that address the looming consequences of climate change, and recognize that family planning is part of the mix.

 As weather threats have grown, so has our world population. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year the United States suffered a record 14 weather events, each costing at least $1 billion in damage. And every year, more than 80 million people join our human family. That’s like adding another New Jersey every six weeks.

 Rapid population growth and fossil fuel emissions are two leading characteristics of our modern age. Since 1800, world population has grown sevenfold, while per capita CO2 emissions have increased 150 times. Put the two together, and you have about 1,100 times as much in terms of emissions.

 It’s taken about 200 years of carbon emissions to create our current climate crisis. Barring miraculous technological breakthroughs, it’s going to take centuries to set things right again.

 At first glance, it is hard to see how population growth in less developed nations is linked to climate change. After all, people who live in places with the lowest carbon emissions tend to have the largest families. Residents of the African nation of Chad have about six children each, yet their annual per capita carbon emissions are less than 1 percent of those of the average American. It would be unfair to blame climate change on people in less developed nations who seek the same creature comforts many of us take for granted.

 But we can’t escape this fact: A 2005 London School of Economics study concluded that, if each of us living in a highly developed country reduced our carbon footprint by 40 percent over 40 years, all of that would be cancelled by our present population growth rates alone. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that emissions will rise dramatically if and when billions of people are able to escape from poverty.

 What sort of future do we picture for people in the poorest places on earth, where most people live on less than two dollars a day and where people lack access to clean water and basic sanitation? Many now-impoverished people in Africa and elsewhere would like to have – as many in the developed world do – central air conditioning. And cars. And air travel to other continents. All of these luxuries will increase per capita emissions.

 Rather than assume long-term poverty for billions of our fellow human beings, we must cut our own emissions even as emissions of the poorest people increase to a level that yields a decent quality of life. To insure that the reduction of emissions in the developed countries is not cancelled by increases from the developing world, we must slow the growth rate of our human family.

Today, more than 222 million women in developing nations would like to limit their family size, yet they are unable to do so because of a host of obstacles. Lack of information about modern contraception and cost are important factors. But the most serious barriers are often more subtle and complex. They include misinformation about side effects of birth control methods, including the false notion that they lead to sterility. In many societies, women – especially young brides – have no power over their own lives. Husbands, clerics and even mothers-in-law occupy the positions of authority. Failure to procreate can have violent consequences for women, some of whom are barely into their teens.

 If the United States were to invest one additional dollar per American per year in awareness-raising and education campaigns, we could help break down these barriers in partnership with other nations. Added to our current investment in international family planning, this would amount to one billion dollars per year.

 Meeting the challenge of climate change is likely to take dedicated efforts over many generations. We also need a plan that will help lift out of poverty people in the developing world. Family planning should be a key part of that plan.

 

 

Poor Parents May Encourage Failure in Their Children

                Should low income families have children? Many would say it’s unfair, even un-American, to preclude would-be parents from having kids before they climb a socio-economic ladder to the middle class. Should those who yearn for children be penalized because they might never earn a decent wage? There is no easy answer. But we, as a society, need to consider several issues.

            In a column entitled “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy,” in the December 9, 2012 New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes about anti-poverty programs in the Appalachian hill country of Kentucky that, ironically, work against children. If a child who qualifies for a monthly $698 Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) because of an intellectual disability, attends literacy classes and learns to read, the youngster’s family will no longer collect that check. As a result, some poverty-level parents obviously don’t “go for broke.” Instead, they pull their kids away from their only hope for a successful future – the reading program. 

            Because of illiteracy, many kids from poor families remain unproductive as they reach adulthood. Instead of joining the military, which offers an opportunity for some young adults to escape the poverty of rural America, they stick around in “them thar’ hills” and depend on food stamps and disability payments. 

Appalachian cabin. Photo – SUNY Geneseo

           Kristof points out that about forty years ago, SSI was designed to aid children with mental retardation and/or severe physical difficulties. As time went by, the diagnosis that qualified young people for SSI became “fuzzier,” and less related to specific disorders. The resulting problem is that 8 percent of all low-income children in America now receive SSI payments. This amounts to $9 billion-plus and creates quite a burden on taxpayers.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof

The real shocker is that low-income families with questionable scruples have a stake in their children failing at school. Consequently, many of these kids become failures in life. They transition from the SSI dole they receive until age eighteen to collecting adult SSI benefits, and they become  stuck in a cycle of poverty. Due to their parents desperation to keep the SSI cash cow “milk” flowing, 1.2 million children across this country have essentially “learned” to fail.

            Adding insult to injury, because SSI is means tested – meaning benefits depend on family income – some parents avoid marriage in order to qualify for higher benefits. Yet, single-parent families produce five-fold as many kids growing up in poverty as do two-parent families.

            A mother of two who lives in the hill country told Kristof, that “her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant.” He says,“That’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April.” Is it fair that she’s voluntarily bringing two more children into the world when their chance for failure might well trump their meager chance for success? Everyone must decide for themselves in this free country of ours. But there is much our society can do to stem this behavior to the benefit of all.

            We believe that government programs should be more proactive in discouraging poverty-stricken  young adults from making kids in the first place. Consider this:

  • Children from low-income families tend to do more poorly on tests, have lower graduation rates, and are less likely to attend or graduate from college than their middle-class counterparts. 
  • Poverty affects a child’s brain. When comparing the brains of children ages 9 -10, from both low- and high-income families, the prefrontal cortexes showed that the “poorer” brain was akin to that of a person who had suffered a stroke. Poverty also affects a child’s IQ and behavior.
  • Children who live in a low-income family usually suffer from malnutrition. In this case malnutrition means not eating enough healthy foods, or eating too many unhealthy foods. Parents stretch their precious dollars by buying cheaper, processed groceries. The results are obesity, vitamin defiency, and myriad health problems for the kids.

Let’s boil this down to a simple mathematical formula: poverty + illiteracy + single parenthood = stupidity. We agree with Nick Kristof – some of SSI funding should be diverted to programs like Save the Children, which work in areas where kids aren’t going to school and where parents are unable to read to their children. But we also believe that schools should be teaching our formula to kids before they’re old enough to get pregnant.

Not Having Kids Equals Degenerate Behavior? You Probably Won’t Believe

  Imagine deciding to take a gamble, but if you lose, that is if the bet goes wrong, an innocent party has to pay. In addition, just placing the bet is almost guaranteed to impact the planet negatively. Well, in his column, “More Babies, Please,” in the December 2, 2012 New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat (pronounced DOW-thut) exposits that by virtue of not making such bets American society is on the road to decadence.

Douthat is worried about America’s declining birthrate. “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level,” he proposes, “ a symptom of late-modern exhaustion – a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich

Ross Douthat, photo- New York Times

societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be.”

This is flip-flop reasoning. And it most certainly is not “conservative” thinking. Douthat’s reasoning would make the Ponzi scheme of population growth the savior of the US economy and quality of life. He feels that because our nation has had a higher fertility rate than France, Japan, China and Brazil it is a superior economic powerhouse.

He takes no notice that our planet is going to an ecological hell in a handbasket, fueled by a population soaring toward 9 billion-plus in this century. Wealthy countries like the United States are the worst offenders because of their profligate consumption of materials and energy.

He makes the case that today’s babies will grow up to be tomorrow’s workers, entrepreneurs and taxpayers. But with fewer people, we would not need as many entrepreneurs and workers. Douthat is concerned about the worker-to-retiree ratio. He is worried about who will pay taxes in the years ahead. Let’s project this into the distant future. Will we need more babies or immigrants to feed the insatiable retiree hunger, ad infinitum? This is the essence of a Ponzi scheme. The global community of humanity will need to stop growing before we doom our own survival. If not now, when?

Human beings are currently consuming renewable resources like lumber and water at unsustainable rates. Mankind is depleting fossil fuels that will be unavailable for future generations without knowing whether today’s babies will have the know-how to develop non-fossil alternatives for airplanes, ships and a variety of other concentrated energy demands. With climate change wreaking havoc on weather patterns we cannot – at least for now—reliably predict water supplies and shortages.

If we limit our thinking to shortsighted issues like US economic competitiveness and producing future generations for the financial benefit of current retirees, we are doomed to fail. Ideally what would benefit Americans, along with everyone else, is enlightened political leadership that is willing to look the elephant in the room in the eye and ask, “What are we going to do about this thing – this enormous, ever-growing, ever more-consuming mass of humanity that is cannibalizing its own home?”

Certainly there are enough of us. In actuality, there are way too many of us. But let’s go back to that bet that an innocent party has to pay for. We are referring to the very act of procreating. It’s a gamble. One percent of American adults live incarcerated and six times that many spend time behind bars in the course of a lifetime. One percent have disorders on the autism spectrum. Add in mental illnesses, childhood and adult diseases, the expectation that one-third of Americans will have diabetes, and dysfunctional families raising unhappy kids. In other words, parents roll the dice and if the resultant baby comes up craps, it’s the kid who is the primary loser of the bet. We wonder how Douthat can have the chutzpah to call America’s decreasing fertility rate “decadent.” The decision to not reproduce is anything but selfish.

 

Disabled Children, Dedicated Parents, and the Uncertainties of Temperament

We are about to expound upon issues raised in the new book, Far From the Tree—Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. Unfortunately, we have not read the book (because we have been closeted away trying to make the final, or shall we say the final, final, final edits of our own book, Enough of Us.) We understand that this is the epitome of chutzpah, but let us explain.

Author Julie Myerson reviewed Solomon’s tome in the November 25, 2012 New York Times Book Review. We feel it suffices to rely upon Myerson’s review because it is so supportive of Solomon’s work – it ends with the phrase “this wise and beautiful book.”  As reported in Myerson’s review, Solomon’s work provides object lessons for potential parents who might be in denial about the possible exigencies of reproducing.

Solomon argues that “there is no such thing as reproduction.” There is only production, meaning parents produce new individuals who may bear traits quite different from those of their progenitors. Often, as we have pointed out many times in our current ebook and on this site, those differences entail very difficult lives for both offspring and their parents. Myerson begins her review, “How does it feel to be the mother of a teenage dwarf who’s desperate to start dating? What if you love the daughter you conceived when you were raped but can’t bear to be touched by her? And, as the father of a happy, yet profoundly deaf son who’s forgotten how it feels to hear, how do you deal with your memories of the times you played music together?”

Solomon, a psychiatry lecturer at Cornell University, spent 10 years researching his book, and interviewing 300 families with disabled children. He likewise delves into his own depression earlier in life, stemming at least in part from coping with his homosexuality.

Myerson writes in referring to Solomon’s work, “…despite the fact that we never know quite what — or whom — we’ll produce, it’s one of the least bitter truths of human existence that, regardless of what pain and anguish they put us through, we never ever regret our children. ‘It is not suffering that is precious,’ he notes when recalling the depths of his depression, ‘but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it.’”

In researching our own book we have found quite contradictory instances. An extreme example is Lionel Dahmer, father of madman and serial torturer-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. Lionel’s book, A Father’s Story, expresses profound regret.And the younger Dahmer showed no childhood signs of his potential for hyperpsychotic behavior, so his parents had no idea how “far from the tree” their son had actually fallen.

Solomon enumerates just one disability that elicits no rewards – schizophrenia. “’The suffering of schizophrenics and their families,’ he writes, ‘seemed unending and singularly fruitless.’”

As Julie Myerson describes Solomon’s work, he makes the argument that in spite of the amount of sorrow, grief, anxiety, and the like, “most of the families Solomon describes are grateful for experiences they would have sacrificed everything to avoid.”

This reminds us of the classic horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which large pods from space land on Earth. The pods foam open and issue forth replicated versions of nearby humans.  Then, when the people fall asleep, the replicated bodies absorb their respective consciences, leaving the humans emotionless, uncaring, and unsympathetic to any situation

Kevin McCarthy about to torch a pod in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – Allied Artists, 1956

that would normally have elicited emotions that make us human. Those in fear of the pods would go to any extent to prevent their emotionality from being stolen. But for those whose sympathetic emotions the pods drained away, their new personalities are so ideal to them that they now proselytize the conversion of their souls and join their fellow emotionless acolytes in victimizing their neighbors.

In other words, Solomon’s conclusions about never regretting one’s children may beg the question. Not many people would desire a child with severe disabilities. We guess that most folks, if they knew that pregnancy would deliver them a child with a pronounced debility, would opt not to get pregnant, or to have an abortion, if the latter was not objectionable to their values. But, like the victims of the pods, once the child is born, they would, perhaps instinctually, embrace and love the child. After all, he or she would be their child.

The case we are making is this. Producing a disabled child is not some far-fetched unlikely occurrence. Mental and physical illnesses and disabilities occur all the time. Think of how many such instances you know of. Add to that the children who grow up to be drug addicts, criminals, ne’er-do-wells and losers in general. That should give anyone pause who isn’t ready to cope with the potential dramatic difficulties of raising a child, Solomon’s research and “pearlessence” notwithstanding.

 

Men Can Parent Older than Women. Ain’t that Grand? Maybe Not!

Photo: CommunitiesForAutism.org

There is no news in the knowledge that men remain fertile almost indefinitely. And in this blog, as well as our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we discuss the jeopardies for babies of older mothers.

Now, research is indicating that being an older dad has its substantial risks as well. It turns out that because men generate new gametes (cells that unite with other cells to produce the fertilized egg—oh, what the hell—sperm) for each fertilization, the chances of the sperm having gene mutations increase as the years pass.

You may know that in the United States one of every 88 newborns is inflicted with one of the disabilities on the autism spectrum. That number has been rising dramatically over the past few decades. While it’s true that some of that increase is due to improved diagnostic capabilities —Cheryl’s own brother being an example of that—there are other contingencies that need to be considered.

Researchers in Iceland analyzed the genetic makeup of 78 families in which offspring had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or autism. It was random mutations in the DNA of the fathers’ sperm that were the primary source.

Women develop their eggs very early in life, so there is not a significant ongoing opportunity for mutations. But since men are constantly producing new sperm, the opportunities for mutation present at each occurrence of genetic copying that is part of the sperm production process.

The study found that a 20-year-old father typically produces 25 mutations in his child’s genetic makeup. By the age of 40, that average rises to 65. The Icelandic geneticist who conducted the study tells the Los Angeles Times that the trend toward later fatherhood is “very likely to have made meaningful contributions to increased diagnoses of autism in our society.” The University of Iceland researcher, Kari Stefansson, attributes between 15 and 30 percent of all incidents of autism to genetic mutations from older dads.

Even so, the risk of a man in his 40s producing a child with genetic disorders remains a relatively low one in 50. That liability grows with the father’s increasing age.

The questions remain, is gambling on the wellbeing of a newborn—or the adult it is to become—ethically responsible? At what odds is the gamble worthwhile? And isn’t it an increasingly problematic ethical question if the father takes that gamble to ever-higher levels by inducing pregnancy as he ages?