The Real Biological Clock Question Is Bigger Than “When to Have a Child?”

Love is the only path to immortality. And love has a name: Grandchildren. Everything else is just a footnote.

For the women and men under 40 who naively think that their big choices relate to college, career and when to start a family I have news: It’s the entire cycle of life that counts. What matters is what lasts. And my definition of “what lasts” is what still matters most to you after you turn 60 when you have lived.

How you end up is the point, not how you start out. It takes a while to know that most of what worried you– college, getting yet another academic qualification, your job etc., was nonsense sold to you by media, business and an educational establishment with vested interests in keeping you focused on the wrong things.

I just read yet another article — this time in the Atlantic — about the “right” time to have a child. Of course it was by an educated successful white woman with lots of academic qualifications. This woman is a psychologist explaining why everything worked out fine when she delayed having children until she was pushing 40. She’d been agonizing over what comes naturally to most women in most of the world but has been tough for white upper middle class American women to figure out of late: love, life and reproduction. She’s now the mother of three little kids. The oldest just started kindergarten. Her mom is 40-plus. If her kids follow their mother’s example she’ll be 70 when her children get their PhD s, 80 when they finally commit to someone (if ever), and maybe squint at a one and only grandchild from her bed at the local hospice — if she makes it to 90 or 100, if, that is, her children have their first child when she did.

Put it this way: forget the old family farms in Tuscany where grandparents cared for children while both parents worked, forget great grandparents altogether, forget generations knowing each other. Many educated well off Americans might as well be raising their long awaited child in outer space on isolated space stations. The upper middle class “way” of family life is a study in parenting alone. In other words love and family is now — like everything else — an individualistic experience, not part of a community of continuity. This means that parents must reinvent every wheel, as if the sum total of real experience and calm relaxed family life can’t be passed down but must be re-discovered by one confused over-educated, over ambitious parent at a time.

The Atlantic author’s point was that the media-driven panic pushed on women about their “clocks” is overstated. She’s right on the science but wrong on her conclusion that by delaying having a child until very late she’d still managed to lead a full life. Let me be blunt: as a 40-something  with young children she doesn’t have a clue yet about what a great life really is. Older parents with little children don’t know anything more about life or about parenting than young parents do. Experience is all that counts in life and a 40 year old dad or mom with a young child is still just a young parent– until they have been through the entire cycle of raising a child.

I’m 60 and don’t have clue either, about what I’ll know by 70 or 80. I know now that I don’t know anything about anything I haven’t personally experienced. But I do know this: I have three grown children and four grandchildren because my wife and I did it all wrong. We got pregnant as teens, then figured out our careers later.

I have news for the glib commentators on family life who write about “when” to have children when they themselves are still young parents (even if they are in their 40s) who know nothing because they haven’t lived it. They write as if the big question is all about having a child at all in a way that fits their educational and career ambitions. It isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Having kids as kids is tough! Having children “late” is fine. Having no children is fine. Remaining single is fine. Happy people with no families abound. Being straight or gay is fine. Being an atheist or religious is fine. There are many ways to have a good life. And this isn’t about morality but about fullness and happiness. But…

That said a few writers who think that their elite educations translate into life knowledge, like the author of the Atlantic piece, need to remember that they don’t have a clue about their futures until they get there.  In other words they don’t yet know what lasts and what counts. In fact their educations blind them to actual facts of life. This is especially true for people living in academic communities. They think they have options. They don’t. They are using all the wrong markers to measure “success.” Those markers were designed for them by corporate capitalist America, not by evolution and the truth of what being a human primate really is about.

Career isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s having grandchildren that matters. Then and only then does the actual cycle of life become clear.

Trouble is you can’t see that truth —  no matter how well educated you are or how successful — until you get there. By “there” I mean a point in life where you look back knowing what mattered and what didn’t. Then and only then can you come to know what starting a family was really about. For instance you come to see that having children early enough to be an active grandparent enjoying your grandchildren and contributing to their most profound sense of well being is the deepest joy of life you’ve experienced.

Yesterday I sat at my table with my daughter’s teenage son, my son’s two little ones, my wife and my daughter-in-law plus two grown sons. The teen grandchild was looking through a photo album my wife had put together for him of his life so far. The little kids (3 and 5) were sitting in the kitchen sink playing with water and eating grapes. Nothing special was happening– other than beauty,  love and peace.

Today I’ll be working on renovating my 5-year-old granddaughter’s bedroom. Her idea of a grandfather is of a caregiver who can  build things, keep pace with her and be there for her. My idea of joy is seeing unconditional trust and love in her eyes.

I’m so grateful for having been dumb enough to start the family cycle young enough to luck into something I was too stupid to avoid. Now I’ve discovered that lots of clever people have set a trap for themselves by being too clever by half. They have gotten so fixated on the start of life and the striving for nonsense — money, career and prestige — that they’ve forgotten to make smart choices to shape their later years and reap the real reward for having survived youth… while they are still young enough to enjoy every last drop of the best life offers.

We have been so fixated on a set of rules for life designed for us by people who see everything in terms of the economy that we are forgetting that the whole point is to create beauty, give love and to be at peace.


About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • Scott Arnold

    Kudos, an excellent post. I feel sorry for this woman who will be experiencing her child’s teen years when she is in her 50s. She is in for a rude awakening. Also, as anyone who has more than two children can attest, having an only child is nothing like having multiple children – the challenges (and blessings) grow exponentially with each child! As a father of five, I can tell you that each one is unique and you will never run out of new experiences.

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi Scott, thanks for the kind note. What strikes me is looking back on all the time I wasted striving for what this silly country of ours teaches us is “success” as I now know that a few good moments with a child or grandchild is felt so deeply whereas the chase for what the world offers these days is empty. Thanks again for commenting, Best, Frank

  • Ambaa

    I wanted SO badly to be a young mother, to have loads of grandkids, maybe even great grandkids. I tried with everything I had to marry young and have kids young. And God had other plans, apparently. I’m finally getting married at the age of 31 and starting to try to have children immediately. My dreams of being a young mother are dashed and I don’t have some fancy career to show for it either. I sacrificed everything else to put creating a family first and then I couldn’t even do that. Sometimes reality sucks.

    • frankschaeffer

      Ambaa, from the honesty and compassion in your note here I see you are a rare and wonderful person. Every good thing will be yours. As I said in my article there are many paths to happiness and only not being honest about where we are on that path spoils that. You are transparent, therefore doing well. Blessings.

      • Ambaa

        Thank you for such a kind response.

    • Samantha Bishop-Strand

      31 isn’t old, Ambaa! Sure, you’ll be closer to 50 than 40 when your kids graduate, but barring some unfortunate accident which can affect any of us, your kids will grow up knowing their grandparents, and they’ll know how badly they were wanted.

      • Ambaa

        That is true! And actually, my own parents were 32 when I was born, so I know it’s a fine situation. My mom’s mom was 40 when she was born (and she’s the middle of five kids)!

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I resemble that remark. 15 years into using Catholic NFP in reverse, we’re at one special needs child. I don’t know at this point if he’ll ever be independent, let alone have children of his own. I may yet die without grandchildren. I’m 42, my son is 10 (going on six, or maybe two- he still doesn’t know his alphabet, “reading” for him comes one painful word at a time, math makes no sense to his brain).

      If you are under 20 and reading this, PLEASE IGNORE EVERYTHING OUR SOCIETY TELLS YOU ABOUT SEX, get married, don’t use contraception, and have kids while you still have the energy to enjoy them.

  • GilbertDavis

    This makes me very sad. I was engaged three times and each potential spouse changed their mind for one reason or the other. You don’t have to be a woman to have wanted a family , children and grandchildren. My only joy and crown now are those I hope to see in Heaven because God used me to share the Gospel of the Grace of God. “..Even so , come , LORD Jesus..”

  • Krista

    I understand and agree with your criticism of someone writing as if they know everything about something they have never experienced. I also liked reading about taking a lifelong perspective, which is something I haven’t thought about.

    However, as a 27 yr old single woman with no children, I found some of your assumptions offensive.

    Since I had not found a spouse at age 18 and 22, what should I have done other than start a career? Sit on my parent’s couch and wait for Prince Charming? Secondly, for some families both parents need to work to avoid poverty. Although many mothers work when it is not an economic necessity, with 22% of US children in poverty many don’t have a choice. Thirdly, our culture makes women choose between a career and children. In other places in the world, women have 6 months, 9 months, even 12 months of maternity leave. In the US you are lucky to get 6 weeks of disability payments. Of course men can have both a career and children with no problem; are they greedy? In the US many health insurance plans do not cover pregnancy and childbirth and also many children do not have access to affordable health care. Of course add in miscarriages and infertility too. There are many reasons a woman may start a family later in life that have nothing to do with selfishness or greed at all.

    p.s. – my chosen career: Montessori teacher for children 0-6. Not exactly a high paying, well-respected, or highly prestigious career

    • Ambaa

      I rather wish I had started a real career. I waited for prince charming by taking boring data entry jobs and so now I have neither a good job nor a family to show for my efforts!

      My fiance is going into Montessori teaching! Good for you for finding a path that helps people so much!

    • Cat lover

      I agree with you, Krista. There was some contempt in thiis article. I had my first child at age 30 and my second at 40.

  • Samantha Bishop-Strand

    I’m glad you’ve found fullness and happiness in grandchildren. I hope your children who gave you such wonderful grandchildren didn’t feel pressured to do so just so you could feel fulfilled.

    I will never have children – I’ve never felt that maternal pull – and the insistence from so many people that the only path to happiness and meaning in life involves children is a narrow, and sometimes hurtful view of the world. My life is not meaningless or unfulfilled. It’s simply different than the lives of others which children and grandchildren.

    Enjoy being a grandparent! Spoil those kids rotten and love them like there is no tomorrow! But please don’t be so certain that your happiness and fulfillment is the only way to experience meaning in life.

  • Margaret Pritchard Houston


    Having children and grandchildren is not the only way to create something that lasts in this world. What about meaningful work? Creating art? Getting involved in charity that helps others? Simple kindness to other people, that leaves the world a more humane place?

    Jesus told his disciples to leave their families behind and follow him. He said that all who hear his word and follow him are more his family than his biological mother and brothers were. He left behind no children, no grandchildren – are you saying Jesus had no idea of the great cycle of life? That he left behind nothing that matters?

  • Joyce

    Self-congratulatory lecture from a smug old man. Thanks for being one more ache in the heart of the childless, Frank.