It’s the eyes I think of first. Limitlessly open, almost vacant, deep as a well – because, at 18 months, the world hasn’t yet filled them up. They seek you out in the dim electric glow of the small hours, halfway through a grumpy, toy-strewn afternoon, or in the calm after the storm of a tantrum, and lock on to yours as accurately as any laser-guided missile: come on Dad, amuse me. Do it all again. And that’s when I feel my age. Which is 50.
There are more and more of us. There were 26,934 children born to fathers aged between 40 and 44 in 1995 in the UK; by 2005, that figure had climbed to 40,179. For my group, the 45-to-49ers, the total rose from 8,826 to 11,100 in the same decade. The number of children born to fathers over 50 is also climbing, but at a slower rate.
Recent medical studies suggest that even contemplating fatherhood at this advanced age is a kind of genetic brinkmanship. Research at the University of Barcelona (as well as, perhaps, common sense) says that older fathers are more likely to produce foetuses with the chromosomal anomalies which lead to miscarriage or birth defects. Israeli researchers have postulated that children born to fathers over 40 are six times more likely to develop autism compared to those under 30, while fathers aged 50 or over are three times more likely to father children who develop schizophrenia than men under 25. The risk of childhood leukaemia also rises steeply as parents age, according to the Oxford Childhood Cancer Research Group, though the researchers found it hard to say whether this is attributable to those in charge of the x or the y chromosome.
In blissful ignorance of all of that, though, you have gone ahead and obeyed your evolutionary imperative, adding to the human burden on an already chronically overloaded planet. I needn’t go into the reasons why you have done this, since they will almost certainly have dominated your emotional life for some time; unplanned pregnancies among the 40s and 50s are rare and many come at the end of a long struggle with infertility – also due to age. (And perhaps self-perpetuating: the daughters of older mothers suffer more infertility problems than the daughters of the fit and youthful.) Then what?
The first nine months are not overly taxing, since the baby is largely immobile, is light enough to be easily portable and mostly eats and sleeps, albeit at inconvenient moments. After that, though, the pressure builds relentlessly and the physical flaws of the older father – that bad back, that all-too-wrenchable shoulder, the inability to fall back to sleep once woken – are found out as surely as sins on Judgment Day. You should have trained for this; the triathlon would have been a good start. Your cherished mental space begins to fill up with the rising tide of filial need, while the little rituals which help the ageing to remain sane amid the slow wreckage of the years are, one by one, shot down like ducks at a fairground gallery. Woe betide any older father who works from home, as the minor emergencies and interruptions proliferate; that now-mythical office has never beckoned more beguilingly.
Then, of course, come the longer perspectives. You will still need to be grinding out a salary at 70: adieu Swan Hellenic Cruises, bluebell walks with the Ramblers or that OU degree in Arabic. You remember, with a start, how sorry you felt for that boy called Black at school because he had such an old, haggard Dad turning up to collect him. You remember how anxious you were, at 13, that your own mum or dad might suddenly die – and they were only in their 30s. You remember how queasy you felt at kissing great-aunts and great-uncles, and the musty scent of their clothes and their homes. You realise that all your new mid-life enthusiasms could, from an early teenage perspective, be conveniently bunched under a single word: “dork”. Soon your nights are even more sleepless.
Oddly enough, though, much of the testimony of children born to older parents is comforting. That, at any rate, was the conclusion of father-and-son team Martin and David Carnoy in their 1995 study “Fathers of a Certain Age”. Among the benefits listed by the Carnoys are the relative financial stability of older fathers and the fact that their workplace ambitions had largely been tempered by late middle-age; older fathers, vitally, tended to be more involved with their children than younger fathers. Charlotte James, a 29-year-old PR executive whose father was 53 when she was born, confirms much of the Carnoys’ research. “I honestly wouldn’t change my Dad for anything and by that I mean the whole package. I was never embarrassed about having an older father when I was at school, though the fact that he didn’t look his age maybe helped. I was lucky to have both my parents at home with me most of the time – when I was growing up he was never grumpy because of a bad day at the office. When I was studying things like the second world war it was just amazing that Dad was there and flew a Seafire plane, no less. I simply thought that Dad knew everything that had ever happened in history – he acted like my walking encyclopedia.” She does miss never having met her paternal grandparents and, though her father is still fit and well, realises that this could change at any time. “I try to enjoy the present and not take anyone’s life for granted. It’s surely more about the quality of time you spend with people you love than the quantity of the years.”
I hope my son eventually feels the same way, though there is at least anecdotal evidence that boys can be less indulgent with older fathers than girls. Dad’s job, meanwhile, is to remain as mentally and physically flexible as possible – and to remember (at least in my case) how pointless life used sometimes to feel without an imperative beyond the self. Right now that imperative needs lunch.
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