Is There an Ideal Age to Become a Father?

Hamilton Cain analyzes salaries and fertility rates to figure out the best time to start a family.

There was a time—at the dawn of the decade, before our children—when my wife and I walked upright like liberated apes, chins jutted out, confident. Back in the day when New York seemed an expensive playground, tailored for a young married couple thrilled with each other’s company, the antics of both cats, the whirl of each week. Jobs a-coming-and-a-going, but who gives a damn, there’ll always be one; credit card woes flaring up sporadically, like sunspots, but not enough to burn us. And the phone ringing constantly—friends with spontaneous invitations. Brunch at the Grange; martinis at the Temple Bar. Are you in? Are you in?

But the Golden Age invariably drew to a close. Each month my wife grew more impatient, more attuned to the drone of the clock in her head. Those matinees at Lincoln Center, leisurely dinners at our favorite Italian restaurant in Chelsea: the luster had tarnished somehow. For a while—two years, maybe three—I avoided the stilted conversations, her accusatory stares. But around my 37th birthday an internal switch abruptly flipped.

Thirty-seven: it seemed like the perfect age to start a family. But just how on target—or off—was I?

♦◊♦

When and wherever men gather, casually or in formal settings, you can hear the anxious pique in their voices: do I have what it takes to be a good father? Fumbling for an answer to that daunting question, many men look to their wallets. The best thing I can do for my kids? Pay the bills!

Men tend to fixate on the role of provider, with income the primary metric to evaluate success. The trends lines justify this thinking. In the middle of the last decade, before the current economic turmoil, male participation in the American workforce peaked between the ages of 25 to 35, at a rate of 93.2 percent. Incomes ranged widely, however.

In 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35- to 44-year-olds earned a median income of $65,839, while men in the 25- to 35-year-old bracket earned $48,749. On the other end of the spectrum, those below the age of 24 made less than $28,246. The big breadwinners were heads of households between the ages of 45 and 54, who pulled in an annual median pay of over $70,000.

Testosterone levels decline slowly from the age of 30—roughly at the rate of one percent per year—impacting how fast and straight a man’s sperm swim.

But right around age 55, a man’s earning power starts to decrease, and something important happens for many fathers: it’s time to send his offspring of to college. That’s probably too late. Ideally, the youngest child would graduate from college when dad hits the age of 54 (assuming a standard age of 21 for most college graduates)—when the old man still has plenty of earning power. That being the case, a man would need to sire his final child around the age of 33. If he plans to have more than one child, he needs to start well before his thirty-third birthday—say, before the age of thirty. While you may struggle financially a little while the kids are young, you’ll be making money when the biggest economic impact hits you.

♦◊♦

That said, waiting even longer to become a father does offer one distinct advantage. A recent survey, done by Lloyds TSB, found that fathers in their 40s and 50s are three times as likely to participate actively in their child’s rearing than their younger counterparts. A similar pattern is underway on this side of the Atlantic. In the mid-1990s, Stanford economist and education professor, Martin Carnoy, co-authored a landmark study on older fatherhood, along with his son, David, research that eventually morphed into a book, Fathers of a Certain Age. The elder Carnoy had re-married after a divorce from David’s mother, and he and his new wife adopted an infant daughter, transforming him emotionally while his grown-up son struggled with more ambivalence about his father’s second family.

The Carnoys found that older fathers were more established in their careers and had more time to devote to nurturing their children. As Martin Carnoy noted at the time, older fathers “have fought the workplace wars and are much less sanguine about the rewards of long work days. Almost everyone we interviewed was spending a lot more time with their children than they did as 30-year-old fathers trying to climb career ladders. Family plays a much more important everyday role in older fathers’ lives.”

For the past decade, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has researched the question whether or not older men make better fathers. Since the release of its initial report in 2000, the NICHD has drawn direct connections between men with strong self esteem and their ability to tend to their children—the stronger a man’s image of himself, the better a father he proves to be. Not surprisingly, self esteem tracks the degree of stability in a man’s life. Again, men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are generally on firmer footing in their careers, often own their own homes, and therefore can commit to the intricacies and tasks of childcare with a patience and attention to detail rarely found in their 20- and 30-something brethren.

So should men delay fatherhood as they focus on their careers? Should they strive with that single purpose in mind, inching up the corporate ladder, squirreling away a down payment on a brick Colonial in Scarsdale, putting aside end-of-the-year bonuses for private school? In 2004, the National Center for Health Statistics observed that roughly 24 in 1,000 men become fathers between the ages of forty and forty-four, an 18 percent jump in less than a decade. Surely there’s no harm in waiting until, say, your forties to start a family, right?

Wrong. Career, meet biology.

Next: At Which Age Are You Most Fertile?

Pages: 1 2

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About Hamilton Cain

A finalist for a 2006 National Magazine Award, Hamilton Cain is the author of the forthcoming This Boy's Faith, which Crown/Random House will publish in April. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Comments

  1. Great article and excellent summary of this complex topic. Thank you.

    I wonder if the “better parent” box will gradually become younger as more young men now have better role models in their own fathers, and in the culture generally (not least of which in the GMP!). Also, as more women are capable of being co-breadwinners, this may help couples reduce financial risk and become more financially stable earlier in life, as well as create boundaries on work that ennable both parents to have time and energy for good parenting.

    I suspect men who are capable of forming equal partnership with women have what it takes to be good parents as the healthy ego strength, emotional availability, communication skills necessary for that would make them good parents as well.

    • PS – Isn’t the best judge of our parenting our children after they are grown? Then, after they have autonomy, they sometimes feel freer to say whether what we have done for them is good. And sometimes they have some world experience as well.

      This is one of the challenges of parenting – a difficult job and you don’t really know how you did until it’s over.

    • “… more young men now have better role models in their own fathers, and in the culture generally …”

      Young men have virtually no positive role models in our culture. When men are culturally visible at all, it is as objects of defamation and disdain.

      * Exhibit one is the orgy of murderers, rapists, and other violent men that feed the insatiable western appetite for man-hatred.
      * Exhibit two is a litany of buffoons, losers, drunkards, and idiots providing comic relief and allowing everyone to feel better in comparison.

      The modern “positive role model” has one inescapable requirement: no penis.

      • How is that men like Hamilton Cain are able to become fathers then, if they have no penises? Immaculate conception? :)

  2. I generally recommend to my younger friends that they become fathers before 30. I discovered too late that you don’t really want puberty and menopause living in the same house. :)

  3. Julie Z. Rosenberg says:

    Beautifully said, Hamilton. Especially the last line. Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I was 33. Worked out well.

  5. People will make it work, no matter what age they are, if they really want kids. Not everyone meets their partner at 25.

    But it’s good to open conversations about male fertility and breaking the stereotypes that often follow that. It’s not just a female question of age vs. children, clearly it’s also a good question for men to ask themselves too.

  6. Good analysis here for those planning on having children. One little gripe though: you mean IF a man is planning on being a father. There’s also the childfree option, and for some people it’s great at any age!

  7. There is hardly any good reason for a man to become a father at all.

    In case of divorce/separation he is subject to pay and to pay and likely never see his children…

    • Hey, do us all a favor and go get a vasectomy dude… you shouldn’t be breeding.

      • Why not? I did so already, and my 2 daughters are already 30+, university-educated.
        And I take care also for a fostergirl.

        But I am not living in a feminist Western country and my wife is Asian, married since over 35 years, never divorced.

        And what about you? Are you married, do you have children?

        No problem for me personally, I found my way out of the Western feminist rip-off, but I think about all these poor fathers, who were cheated and left by their wives, and often it turns even out they are not even the biological fathers and still they pay child-support and even alimony.

        There is indeed no reason nowadays for Western men to consider to become a father – there is nothing to gain out of it.

        If you know any advantage for a man to marry and to become a father under these present legal Western feminist-friendly situation let me know.

        • Yohan, what advice do you/have you given your 30+ daughters about marriage and men? Are they already married? Are they the only good women left?

          It’s a low precentage of men that turn out to be raising children that aren’t biologically theirs. It happens and it’s unfair to both the fathers and the children, but it’s not the most typical event.

          But you aren’t going to help any man by telling them they don’t get anything out of fatherhood and it’s all “western” feminist fault and to not get married because there is a chance to get hurt or screwed over. That’s pretty much anything in life. As soon as you walk outside your home, you have the chance to get screwed over and hurt. You could get mugged, you could get hit by a car yada yada yada..Doesn’t mean we stop walking outside the front door.

          We take risks and chances because love and family are big deals to most people. Women also sacrifice for relationships. Do we advocate that women stop having relationships with men in the process because they just as much as men, have the possibility to be cheated and hurt? Or are you one of those guys that believe men’s hurt runs deeper, is more important so you don’t spend much time thinking about the things women give up or the chances they take in being hurt by a man?

  8. @Erin

    All what I can say again and again is about if you know any reason why a man should marry and have children in Western countries, let me know. – I think, it’s too risky.

    Better stay single, as Western laws are not supportive to you as a man/husband/father and not even to your child if it is a boy.

    The question about the ideal age to become a father – I was 26 for the first, and 29 for the second child, same age as my foreign wife.

    Just my opinion, it’s best you are a rather young father, it’s not fun to be out of job in your 50s or 60s and you still have children who are not adults yet and are fully depending on your support.

    Now we are near to 60, our children are 30+ and we looking for our retirement.
    I still take care financially for an Asian fostergirl since many years without any legal obligation however.

    In my own native EU-country, deeply feminist orientated, I would be still single. I think, I did the right choice, moving on to overseas and never came back.

    That’s called MGTOW, men going their own way.

    I don’t say to men don’t get married, don’t have children – what I say to them is BEFORE you marry and BEFORE you become a father, study about the existing laws in your country. Learn about the risk what all might happen to you if you sign a marriage contract and if you have children.

    I know to say this all is MRA-stuff, deeply misogynistic, as women do not want you to know – until it’s too late.

    • Yohan, I’m more then glad you went your own way and found love. That’s really fabulous!

      But foreign countries aren’t all living in some utopia gender world where men and women get nothing but respect from their partners and everyone is perfect and happy. You’re relationships sounds very nice. But guess what? My very American parents had a very similiar one until my father passed away over a year ago. Loving relationsihps in America aren’t myths.

      It’s not deeply misogynistic to talk about issues men face in the court system. They certainly do face issues that should be discussed. But even you got to admit it comes off blame filled to say “women do not want you to know” things or say there is no value in relationships when it comes to Western women. You don’t even live here and it sounds like you haven’t for some time. You act like the only potential to get hurt or screwed over is for men. That’s injust and misrepersentiive.

      It’s smart to know the laws that governor your country. But that’s not what you previously advocated. You stated that you didn’t see any gain for men in Western relationships. So you see no gain in men building relationships with one partner and raising families and all the things that come with that package. You seem to think that only women do men wrong. That men have no hand in treating women poorly?

      Relationships are risks for both sides. Good thing there are plenty of Western men that respect and value their Western female counterparts and go on to have healthy happy relationships with them that bare children. Foreign countries don’t have a stamp on healthy relatoinships alone. I don’t buy into the grass is greener in Foreign lands policy that some MRA’s seem to think.

      Again, I ask, what advice did you give these two daughters of yours about men and marriage? And what kind of conversations do you have with the current fostergirl that’s living with you if any?

  9. A well written article that I can readily I identify with. At 36 I became a stepfather to a 10 and 14 years old. At 36 I was better prepared for the responsibilities and emotional demands of stepfatherhood. At 40 I became a biological dad to Nathaniel. In my 20’s I was too selfish and self-centered to be an effective parent. My son today is a emotional healthy, confident and intelligent 11 year old I feel in large part of my prepared as an older parent. I recognize the important of spending quality time with my son and have alot less loose ends than I had when I was in my twenties. Dads over 40 rule.

    Gerardo

  10. zjsimon says:

    After 21. If the law cannot recognize you as responsible enough to use your liver how can it see you as fit to use your gonads?

  11. My karate sensei is going to be a first time dad at age 46…to twins! He, in his own words, is “scared sh-tless”….I told him I would help out with babysitting! He owns his own home and has plenty of assets, but his job is in sales and depends on commissions (or some weird formula), so his financial picture is not as secure as he would like….But he is throwing the baby shower at some ritzy country club, so I assume his family would help out if he was in dire straits…I think he is freaking out over this in addition to his own health issues (when it rains, it pours!)…but I assume the biological clock’s loud ticking was booming in his beautiful 38 yo wife’s ears….

    I don’t think he is ready to be a dad…but then again, neither was my husband (and look at him now 12 years later!)….

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