Baby fever: That strange phenomenon when out of nowhere, a seemingly normal, functioning woman suddenly gets hooked on the baby juice as if some sleeper cell of womanhood has activated against her will. Next thing you know, she’s sniffing baby heads, smuggling tiny baby shoes into her purse, making googly eyes at strollers and bombarding you with pictures of your future spawn, courtesy of generators drawn from your two faces combined.
Men? If anything, they’re reluctant fathers. The idea of men getting baby fever seems about as natural as expecting them to scream with excitement over a shoe sale. If they even have a biological clock that ticks, they obviously can’t hear it. Right?
Not exactly. “Some men have baby fever,” says Paul Turek, a surgeon and physician who specializes in male fertility at the Turek Clinic in Beverly Hills and San Francisco. “Well, it’s not a fever, it’s more like a low-grade temperature.”
“It’s not very many, but it’s absolutely charming when you see it,” he continues. “A guy comes in and wants a reversal of a vasectomy because he wants another kid. And the woman says, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And he says, ‘I really want to.’”
Turek says there is no age limit to male baby fever either. In other words, unlike the way we perceive baby fever in women — i.e., as an alarm clock warning them to procreate or get off the pot before their ovaries dry up — for men, it’s driven by other desires. “I’ve seen guys with baby fever in their 80s,” he explains. “Single men, no children, very wealthy. They come in and say, ‘I just realized I want children. Now.’ I tell them, ‘Dude, that may be an issue,’” Turek says. “Then they quickly bank sperm, and they’re looking for a woman.”
Elsewhere, when men describe baby fever, it’s in a couple of ways: 1) Maybe they always wanted kids; or 2) maybe they held a baby or saw someone with a baby, and they just melted. But in both cases, they still don’t think of it as a fever pitch, nor does it align in any way with what we might think of as an “ideal” time to reproduce biologically, when we’re young enough to produce healthy children and chase them around for years. “It’s cultural,” Turek says. “It’s mainly ‘Where is my legacy?’ They usually realize they’ve got money, homes, career, material things. But they don’t have a legacy. They’re kind of scared.”
It may be cultural for women, too. In 2011, researchers Gary and Sandra Brase at Kansas State University decided to find out if baby fever was real, so they asked participants to rank the intensity and gender associations they had with the phenomenon. They discovered it was present for women and men, but certainly not everyone, and certainly not at some reproductively ideal time, either.
Though they acknowledged a kind of cultural shadow hanging over the study — women are far more conditioned to want babies, and likely will want them more as a result of that — the strongest predictor of having baby fever in men and women was simply being exposed to babies in a positive way. If they’d had negative baby interactions, that was weighed against the positive in a kind of mental calculation of the trade-off.
But that wasn’t the most interesting finding. That distinction goes to the fact that men are more likely to crave more children as they get older, while women crave fewer. Brase, does point out, however, “There are two important things to note with that: Women start with a higher desire for babies initially, and as people get older, they also are more likely to actually have children, and that also effects desire for babies. Overall, women with no children have a higher desire for children then men with no children, but this difference disappears for men and women who do have children.”
“Our best guess at this point,” Brase adds, “is that baby fever is an emotional response that can be thought of as a signal that the circumstances are good for having a child — in terms of the relevant factors over evolutionary history. Circumstances may or may not be right for a person to have a baby in their modern situation, though. We think that may be where a lot of the consternation comes from when people experience baby fever.”
Therein lies the rub: If baby fever is an emotional experience telling us this is a good circumstance for having a child, that circumstance may not align with your personal goals — career, lack of a partner, age, etc. In that case, women and men may both want babies at times that don’t make sense in terms of their ability to actually conceive them or care for them. The only difference is, there’s still the harsh reality of biology to contend with: Women have a firmer, sooner deadline. But 80 year olds burning up with baby fever notwithstanding, don’t men have one eventually, too?
New research has posited that men do have a biological clock, and it’s sooner than they think. Men should procreate or get off the pot somewhere between age 35 and 45, or else they risk their baby’s health and the baby’s mother’s health during pregnancy. Just as women have long been told (to great controversy) that risks increase for the child and mother’s health in pregnancy after she hits age 35 — considered advanced maternal age — Gloria Bachmann, director of the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers reviewed 40 years of studies about paternal age and concludes that men have an advanced paternal age, too.
Men who father children after this age (even when the female partner is as young as 25) have a higher risk of a host of issues, including decreased fertility, gestational diabetes for the mother during pregnancy, preterm birth, lower birth weight, still birth, low Apgar scores, cleft palate, seizures, congenital heart defects and schizophrenia.
This is interesting given the age for first-time parenthood is creeping up. On average, women first bear a child at 20 or 21 in what you might call flyover states, but it’s closer to 31 or 32 on the coasts. The average age of fatherhood is 30.9, which has gone up in recent years from 27. But older fathers and mothers are increasingly more common. Currently, about 9 percent of the fathers to children born each year are 40 or older (for 40,000 of those babies, dad is over 50). Mothers over 40? In spite of all those celebrity stories about first-time older mothers, it’s just 3 percent.
Bachmann makes clear in the study’s release statements that some of these are correlations that “need more research,” and that many of these links aren’t understood. However, just like women, who are routinely warned, educated and counseled about an optimal window for reproducing, so should men be told the same information. In practice that means that men, too, should consider, just as women are increasingly freezing their eggs, banking their sperm before age 35, or at the latest, 45, if they think they might want children at some point.
Viewed in that light, Bachmann’s research seems like good news. It’s not just women who should be sweating reproductive age. We both risk potential complications the longer we wait. Maybe if we bombard men with messages about breeding age and ticking clocks and narrowing windows, they’d not just understand, finally, how we feel, but start sharing in the fretting as well.
All that said, Turek explains that the idea that men should feel more hemmed in by the 35 to 45 decade is really an intellectual argument that potentially “scares men” and “puts a value judgment on their lives.” Women may hit a biological wall with menopause, but men don’t hit that equivalent for much later. So even if we all have a clock that ticks, men’s clocks certainly don’t tick as loudly, and the alarm doesn’t sound until much later. Ultimately then, they can still do something women can’t: Hit snooze.
“The human male is always ready, so to speak, from a fertility point-of-view,” Turek says. “As you age, around 60, there are more miscarriages, more birth defects. But sperm counts don’t go down. Men are usually pretty good to go until they hit manopause. That’s around age 70. Then they just turn off. They stop completely. Until then, though, you’re good to go.” (FWIW: Mick Jagger recently had his eighth child at age 73.)
“Men don’t have a biological clock like women — it’s more like a sun dial or an hourglass,” Turek continues. “It’s slower, not as rapid, not as precise. It’s very subtle. It can’t be measured in minutes. It’s more about sexual issues, it’s not necessarily about reproduction. It’s erections, hormones, ejaculation and sex drive. So when we talk about the male biological clock, we’re talking about partial androgen deficiencies, a reduction in sex drive and erections because of the lowering of hormones. The clock in women is about menopause.”
What’s clear is that the experience of baby fever is different in men and women, likely due mostly to cultural messages, and only somewhat off an impending sense of a closing window of biological opportunity. Women don’t all experience it. It’s not, as we often see it portrayed, as so inevitable, so innate to the female experience. It’s unfortunate that we’ve received these messages so strongly, in such a steady drumbeat, that when women don’t catch baby fever, they actually start to think their clock is broken, and that by extension, they might be broken, too.
Likewise, we’ve ignored the ways in which men come to fatherhood on a different schedule. And we’ve also ignored their role in fertility and babymaking, only to now jump ahead with what may quickly look like scaremongering.
That’s ironic. Because as we finally undo years of finger-wagging at women about their rapidly narrowing windows for children, we seem poised to begin hectoring men about fathering up or else.
Turek wouldn’t go that far, because he says that the information and awareness of potential male fertility issues is a good thing, and being scared might be what it takes for men to consider fertility and health sooner. In in his practice, most of the men he sees are coming to him with a partner after they’ve unsuccessfully gone through expensive and painful IVF experiences, meaning the couple, like many couples, instantly assumed any fertility issues were hers without him ever getting checked out.
In the U.S., Turek says, “About 20 percent of men get seen for a physical, medical history, a semen analysis and blood work, before the partners go to IVF. That’s America. In Canada? It’s 100 percent. I could see the man in one visit and it’s cheaper, instead of evaluating a woman’s fertility first, which is multiple tests and a thousand bucks.”
“So I like the awareness,” Turek continues. “Men are underserved. Infertility in men is a biomarker of other things — cancer, more diseases, life expectancy is different. So this is a way to get men to take care of themselves earlier than we have been. Being infertile might mean you’re not healthy, and there are things you can do to become healthier, like lose weight, exercise more, eat better, and that will maybe add five or ten years to your life.”
That’s if they can get men in the door for the testing. “Immortality gets you in at 45,” Turek says, speaking of the age at which most men finally seek out medical care after a seemingly healthy run with no impetus to get checkups or screenings prior to that. “Infertility gets you in at 25. So we see a man at 25 for fertility issues, and we can say, ‘You need your prostate checked more often, you’re testicles for testes cancer, because you’re at higher risk.’ We can get them some preventative care.”
As for men banking sperm, he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing, either, he just wants them to understand they aren’t facing identical risk the way women are when they choose to freeze eggs, which he considers a more appropriate choice given that biological wall — even though in both cases, there’s no guarantee it will later yield a healthy or viable fertilized egg. “I don’t want to scare men,” he says. “But I do want them to think about when it’s an okay time to have kids. And I want them to know, you could be part of the problem.”
That still leaves us with a different question, though. Baby fever could strike any of us at any time. Whatever our bodies used to tell us — when lifespans were much shorter, and breeding began much earlier — may still be present in remnants today that don’t align at all with practical modern considerations. After all, men and women have different windows for fertility, and modern medicine can only help us tweak so much. Studies about broad populations and outcomes only mean so much once it comes down to individuals. And even that knowledge only comes into play once we decide what’s “ideal” for reproduction for us.
“The question of ‘ideal’ reproductive age can be tricky,” Brase writes over email. “Ideal for what? Physiologically, both men and women are at peak fertility somewhere around late teens/early 20s, but economically that’s almost certainly not an ideal time to have children. Psychologically, the ideal time would probably be based on when you’re ready to become a parent.”
And that, he says, just like the emotions of baby fever, varies from person to person.