For Many, the 'I Do' Is Occurring Later in Life

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio—At a family reunion, two cousins talked about why, in their early 30s, neither of them is married yet. “I have no desire to marry,” mused the first. “And I have no one to marry,” countered the other.

In an age when illegitimate child-bearing creeps lower and lower, the age of married parenting continues to climb. According to U.S. Bureau of Census figures, the median age at first marriage was about 20 years in the 1950s, and about 25 years now. Headlines tell of Tony Randall becoming a father for the first time in his 70s, and a woman long past menopause becoming pregnant by artificial means. Parenting later in life, it seems, is “in.”

Later marriage was part of the eugenic utopia envisioned by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. This raises the question of whether the trend toward later marriage and later parenting represents the successful “Sangerization” of U.S. society.

To some extent, yes, but to some extent, no, said Janet E. Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Dallas. Smith, who has written and lectured extensively on the social and moral impact of artificial birth control, observed, “There are lots of complicated reasons that people get married later.”

Young adults living in a contraceptive culture are sometimes conditioned to value achievement to the exclusion of all else, Smith insisted. They “feel no desire to marry,” she noted. “There's something wrong with a culture that doesn't know that parenthood is something valuable to aim for.”

Another factor often cited for late marriages is the complexity of a society that requires higher education for many people. In years gone by, a high school degree sufficed for entry into the work-place, and not everyone had that. Now, many jobs require qualifications that go far beyond a bachelor's degree.

Even after graduate-level work is completed, paying off student loans can present a practical impediment to marriage for years. For young adults delaying marriage and struggling with chastity, contraception becomes a powerful temptation. When such people do get married later on, the aftereffects of contraceptives and abortions, plus the effect of the woman's advanced age itself, can present fertility problems.

Courtship Is Tougher

Not everyone, of course, delays marriage and parenting for Sangerian motives. Many simply cannot find a suitable spouse. Ageneration ago, parish picnics, community functions and parental supervision created situations in which young men and women could meet, get to know one another, and move toward marriage in a healthy and natural way. Now, social lives may gravitate toward bars and Internet chat rooms.

“We have destroyed courtship in this culture,” Smith maintained. “For young people who want to remain chaste [while looking for a spouse], our culture doesn't tell them what to do.”

One such person who remained chaste before her later-in-life marriage is Janet Thompson of Scottsdale, Ariz., who married her husband, Marc, when she was 34.

“I had a deep desire to be married, but there was no opportunity for many years,” Thompson recalled. “I realized that it wasn't God's will to fulfill the desire in my heart at that time. I didn't know if that desire would ever be filled. So I sought the Lord's will in other areas, including higher education and apostolic opportunities. From these I was greatly enriched and prepared for the marriage the Lord had prepared for me.

“The only drawback is that the student loans from following the Lord's will have forced us to delay starting our family, which we are most anxious to begin.” Thompson cited natural family planning as a marriage-builder during this time.

The geographical isolation experienced by so many families today is also a contributing factor. Years ago, when the parents, grandparents and cousins were clustered in the same town or neighborhood, there was more support for family life and more direct experience of it. Today, instead, it is common to find “30-year-old fathers in parenting classes, holding a baby for the first time,” Smith remarked.

Growing Up Slower?

Later parenting has a generally deleterious effect on society, Smith maintained. Not only is society deprived of the many children who would otherwise have been conceived and raised, she said, “we as a culture are deprived of adult input. If you have children younger, you grow up faster. Parents are concerned about school systems, communities, colleges and spending issues.” Fewer parents, then, translates into less general concern.

Not all older parents are parenting for the first time, of course. Gerry and Joan McKeegan of Bloomingdale, Ohio, had their first child at ages 28 and 26, respectively, and their eighth exactly 20 years later.

“We do see a difference between parenting at a younger age and parenting when you're older,” Joan observed. “With the older kids, we were more physically active. We took them boating and skiing. Now, we let the grown kids do these kinds of things with the growing ones.”

While older parents are limited in some ways, she said he believes they are more effective in others: “I think that we are able to provide a smoother home life for the younger children, because most of the emotional ups and downs of family life have by now been resolved. We're also more attentive to our children's spiritual needs than we were before.”

The double-edged sword of later parenting is experienced by another category of “later parents” as well — grandparents who are being recruited in droves to take over the parenting responsibilities of their grown children dealing with drug addiction, divorce or other personal problems. The difficulty of raising grandchildren poses its own problems.

“He knows we are his grandparents, but he calls us ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’” said one couple raising their grandson while his abandoned mother spends decades in rehab. “It wasn't so bad when he was smaller. We could take him to the park and play with him. Now that he is in high school, we just can't keep up. Every year he has more energy, and we have less! We'd like to go to all his games and things like supportive parents should, but for us, it's just impossible.”

The trend toward later parenting can also be seen within the context of “delayed vocations” as a whole. Even people entering religious life these days are doing so later and later. Maximilian Kolbe, early this century, entered the Franciscan order at age 14, a not uncommon age to make a life commitment at the time. Now, men are becoming priests in their 30s, 40s, even 60s.

Whatever the motive for late marriages, the Catholic Church strongly upholds the value of fruitfulness in a marriage.

In the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI echoed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council when he wrote: “Finally, this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. ‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents' welfare’” (No. 8).

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.