When Rahsaan Williams was buying his last car four years ago, he asked a lot of questions at the dealership about whether each model he looked at was kid-friendly. How easily could a car seat be installed? Were the seat belts adjustable so they wouldn't choke a child once she was big enough to ride without a car seat?
"I think that they assumed there was a baby on the way," Williams, who works for the federal government, told me recently.
He doesn't have kids, but he does have a goddaughter, Anabel, with whom he spends a lot of time. (Hence all the car seat questions.) He also wants children of his own. At age 38, he thought he'd be a father by now, or at least heading in that direction with a wife or girlfriend. Instead, he finds himself single with a growing sense that time is running out to have a child with someone.
His eagerness to be a dad began as a low hum nearly a decade ago, when Anabel – whose mother is a close childhood friend – was a newborn, curled into a ball and asleep against his chest. It grew stronger about a year ago when he realised he wanted "to be part of taking care of a child. Or part of something bigger than just me."
Commentators have long pointed to the famous examples of elderly fatherhood – Charlie Chaplin fathered a child at age 73, Pablo Picasso at 68, Clint Eastwood at 66 – as evidence that men don't have biological clocks. Even the US president is part of the old-dads club: Donald Trump first became a father at age 31, and his fifth child, Barron, was born when Trump was 59.
When the term "biological clock" as it applies to fertility was coined in The Washington Post, it was applied exclusively to women. "This is where liberation ends," Richard Cohen wrote in a 1978 column. "There are some things [men] never had to worry about. Like the ticking of the biological clock." ("It's just a biological fact," Cohen said when I asked him about it last year. "I didn't invent it.")
But nearly 40 years after that column was published, men arguably have more reasons than ever before to pay attention to their own biological clocks. One factor is that couples are getting married later. (Most births still take place within marriage.) In 1960, the median age for a first marriage in the United States was 20 for women and 23 for men; today, it's 27 for women and 29 for men. And for the first time in US history, women in their thirties are now having more babies than younger women, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month. That shorter window of post-marriage fertility obviously affects their husbands' chances of having kids, too.
This is especially true in a workaholic, focus-on-your-career-in-your-20s place such as Washington, DC, where people marry even later. Plus, there is virtually no marriage age gap in Washington between women and men: according to 2015 US Census data, the median age for first marriage here is 30.6 for women and 30.7 for men. That suggests women's and men's biological clocks are – or should be – in very close sync.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
Travis Pittman, a 34-year-old lawyer who lives in Kensington, Maryland, whom I spoke to in March when his wife was pregnant, recognises that he was watching his wife's biological clock "for her, but definitely not talking about it out loud, because I didn't want her to feel like I was asking her to not go to grad school or something like that." (She's also in her early thirties. Their daughter was born in April.) "But I realised," he says, that "if we wait until she's in her late thirties or early forties, this is going to be a lot harder, potentially a lot more expensive."
Pittman has seen examples of what it's like to have kids as an older father: His dad remarried and had another son in his fifties. "My dad was like 70 at my little brother's high school graduation," Pittman says. "I kind of wanted to be in my fifties when my kid was graduating from high school."
Many of today's men want – and are expected – to be more involved than fathers were in the 1970s or 1980s. Which means they need to worry about keeping up with their kids if they become fathers too late. "It's not necessarily whether or not my sperm will be viable, it's whether I will be viable as a human, able to walk and play with that kid," says Nikhil Baviskar, a 30-year-old single health IT worker who wants to be a father someday.
As a teenager, Baviskar says, he once questioned his dad over waiting until his thirties to have kids: "I had a minor crisis when I was 16 and my dad turned 50. First off, 50 sounded extremely old when I was 16. At 16, I was like: Who is this old man, and why is he my dad? And then I got mad at him, asking: 'Why did you wait until you were 34 to have me? This isn't normal.' Which is hilarious, because I'm basically on my way to having a child at 34."
Men are not trained by the medical establishment, or by their bodies' rhythms, to be constantly thinking about fertility. Still, the recent focus on men's health in general may have increased their interest in their own reproductive health. Paul Shin, a urologist at Shady Grove Fertility, says he sees about one or two male patients a week who come to check their sperm count and motility – sometimes before there's even a partner in the picture, or before there's any sign of a problem.
"I see a lot of guys who come in who are recently married or who just want to know what their fertility numbers are, because this generation kind of gets it. They take their health care seriously. They look at fertility and family-building as it should be looked at – as a joint effort as opposed to on the shoulders of women only. That's a marked cultural shift that I've seen since I've been in practice," says Shin, who started out 13 years ago. "There's a lot more men that just want to know where they stand, because they understand that men can be the problem."
But even as men have plenty of reasons to listen to their biological clocks, they also have new reasons to forgo acknowledging it – to themselves or others. The culprit: the "Can I have it all?" complex that women have become all too familiar with.
"There is so much pressure on men to have achieved something, to have crossed a certain threshold in terms of finances or job security or the right house or all of these things before they're willing to say, 'We're ready for these fictional children'," says Stacey Notaras Murphy, a psychotherapist. ''That really shows up in couples therapy as 'I'm not interested in this', when they really are interested in kids." This is markedly different from earlier generations, who expected to struggle as they raised a family.
"Now, we just have this belief that we're supposed to have it all together," Notaras Murphy says. "The men I've worked with tend to have a pass-fail mentality: 'I'm either going to do this totally right or totally wrong'. "
That pass-fail mentality could be partially due to the fact that there are far more absent fathers than absent mothers. As Stephen Marche writes in The Unmade Bed: The MessyTruth About Men and Women in the 21st century: "Men want to be fathers more than ever before. They also fail at fatherhood more than ever before. The increased symbolic value of fatherhood has arrived in the middle of an accelerating crisis of fatherlessness. The number of American families without fathers grew from 10.3 percent in 1970 to 24.6 percent in 2013."
Meanwhile, for men who want kids but don't end up having them, the risks could be substantial. While there is little research on the desire for fatherhood, a 2013 study in Britain found that men and women had similar levels of yearning for children. However, when they remain child-free, the report concluded, men experience higher levels of anger, depression, sadness, jealousy and isolation than women do.
Williams has nieces and nephews, but it was his consistent relationship with Anabel, now 9, that made him realise the kind of joy having a child could bring to his life.
"You're spoiling her," Chhouky Ang, Anabel's mother, says to Williams on a recent Saturday morning as they meet for breakfast at a pancake house in Falls Church. As usual, Williams has come bearing gifts: a sketchbook, coloured pencils and a kids' sewing kit that Ang says will have to wait until their next visit. Anabel works on her newest masterpiece – a page full of animals, flowers and crayon-drawn emoji – as she waits for her Nutella crepe to arrive.
"Have you started on any of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I brought you?" Williams asks Anabel as breakfast is winding down.
"No," she answers. She didn't understand them, she says, what with the stories jumping all over the place.
"We'll go through one when I get back from vacation," he tells her.
"I have a play date with my best friend!" Anabel exclaims.
"Since you told me last night that I'm your best friend, that hurts me," Williams says, sticking his lips out in an exaggerated pout.
"I meant my best friend at my school," Anabel qualifies.
"You know this is going to get hung up in my office like the last one," Williams says, changing the subject to her drawing.
When Williams was Anabel's age, hanging out with Ang just a few blocks from the pancake house in the neighbourhood where they grew up, he probably didn't foresee this development in the story of his life. The Tinder plot twist means that there are endless possibilities to meet someone, and yet, with each swipe, his standards for a good partner inch ever higher. He can see a near future, perhaps five years or so from now, if he is still single, in which he adopts a child on his own. He doesn't want to wait forever, as if his dating life is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that never ends.
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