I’m an older first-time father. My daughter arrived a mere two months before my 50th birthday and my official invitation to join AARP. When my daughter turned six months, I realized I was more than 100 times older than her. Parenthood isn’t easy for anyone, but older parents face some distinct challenges.
The downsides of being an old parent are obvious. Dealing with a baby is physically demanding. Trying to diaper a squirming, resisting infant requires strength, finesse, and fine motor coordination. And nothing will make you feel older than trying to function on too little sleep over a prolonged period of time. Painful at any age, lack of sleep really hurts my 50-year-old body and mind.
But the positives outweigh the negatives. There’s a lot of truth to the cliché that children keep you young. Even though the effect is very brief, singing “Rubber Ducky” to a baby who is laughing hysterically will instantly take 45 years off your age. The typical 50-year-old man doesn’t get many opportunities to frolic amongst stuffed animals and squeaky toys, or at least not in a way that wouldn’t be an affront to public morals.
Another advantage to being an older first-time parent is that the conflict between having a baby and pursuing one’s dreams is easier to manage. I paid just enough attention during pre-natal classes to pick up on some new phrases (“mucus plug,” “nip-
ple confusion”) that I thought would make perfect names for the band I always wanted to start but never got around to. My mind instantly started playing out various scenarios in which my band, Nipple Confusion, would hit it big. My capacity for self-delusion is such that even into my 40s, I might have dwelled on this fantasy long enough to actually plug in my guitar and start practicing. The impulse would have fizzled out within six weeks or so due to lack of talent (still a barrier to success in some fields), but I might well have caught myself thinking on some level: “I could be a rock star, but the baby is killing my career.”
Into your 40s you can still think you could be a rock star because you can’t prove a negative. You could blame the failure of your Walter Mitty fantasies to materialize—and even your more prosaic professional actual job shortcomings—on having started a family. You’re still capable of self-delusion when you’re 50, but you can’t seriously entertain the thought, even in your darkest and most sullen moments, “I could have been Secretary of State but I gave too much time and energy to my family.”
If you don’t know your limitations by the time you’re 50, you at least know it would sound pathetic to claim family obligations are what compromised a late surge of greatness. So, instead of dusting off my guitar as soon as I got home from pre-natal class, I, like any sensible 50-year-old, took a nap. No Nipple Confusion for me.
Many people in the pre-natal classes gave me that blank look that means they’re trying very hard to be polite and remind themselves that all lifestyle choices are valid. Pushing a stroller around town, I catch a lot of head-turning and double takes of the sort I haven’t had since the time I accidentally wore a V-neck sweater backwards in high school. A lot of people see my beautiful daughter, they see me, and they’re trying to figure out if they recognize me from a recent episode of “Nancy Grace.”
But not all the reaction is negative. Some people see an older guy pushing around a stroller and they think, especially if I’m wearing big sunglasses, I must be rich and famous because those are the only guys (e.g. Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro) who get to make babies with beautiful, younger wives. A few years ago, someone told me I look like “Kyle MacLachlan gone to seed.” She meant it as a compliment and I took it as such even though I’m not sure how much seedier Kyle MacLachlan could look by this point. So I cling to the thought that I have a certain mystique as I stroller around town. Old fathers are the new black. I’m trending upward.
Or I was, until several months ago when the journal Nature published a study that concluded that a father’s age can have serious negative consequences for the health of the child. Honestly, if that article had come out a year before, it might well have given my wife and me pause. I’m happy to report, however, that my daughter is beautiful, smart, healthy, and perfect in every way so far, so Nature can suck it. In fact, I come from a long line of mostly old fathers. Custer was still standing when my maternal grandfather was born. True story.
While anyone would be proud to say they come from a rich family heritage of horny old men, the age difference isn’t ideal and it’s not what I would choose in the abstract. I do worry how she’ll feel about it as she grows older. Sometime after she starts school she’ll likely become increasingly self-conscious of how much older I am than her friends’ fathers. By the time she’s in high school, my age could become an acute source of embarrassment for her, especially when I call after her as she’s heading out the door with her friends that she has to be home by 11pm to change my diaper. But she’ll push my wheelchair across that bridge when we come to it.
At some point she may resent her mother and me for having waited too long to have children. Her mother and I, however, are the ones who should feel aggrieved—-she’s the one who kept us waiting.—Jack Rice