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Late-life fatherhood

An AJC editor discovers the hijinks, horrors — and joys — of becoming a first-time dad at age 54.

It was a moment of near-total joy on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

My young son and I were at one of those big-box tile stores. I was pushing him along on a metal cart, probably violating a half-dozen store rules. Andrew, age 3 at the time, was giggling to high-heaven, shouting commands — “Faster, faster! No, slow down, slow down!” — as we approached the checkout aisle.

“How wonderful to be out on the weekend having such a great time,” said the middle-aged woman behind the counter.

Then she cheerfully tossed in this grenade of an afterthought: “With your grandson.”

The word ricocheted around my head.

“He’s not my grandson. He’s my son,” I corrected her.

She looked at me, the gray hair, the wrinkles around my eyes, the world-weary slouch, and then at my son’s bright eyes and rosy cheeks.

“Well ... well I guess that’s OK, too,” she said.

Well, I guess so, too.

A rarefied fraternity
When I was 54, an age when reasonable men begin to contemplate spending more time on the golf course, I became a father for the first time — an aging neophyte stumbling around in a foreign world of diapers, unfathomable fatigue and tongue-twisting books about a Siamese kitten named Skippyjon Jones.

It wasn’t supposed to work out like this.

Most of my contemporaries’ children were college graduates by the time my son came howling into the universe one sunny afternoon in September 2008. A few were grandparents.

But older dads like me are out there. And we are out there in increasing numbers, according to Brady Hamilton, a statistician at National Center for Health Statistics.

Still, we are only a small portion of the overall daddy picture in this country. In 2010, eight out of 1,000 new fathers were between the ages of 45 and 49; three out of 1,000 were 50-54.

Most men still do it the old-fashioned way, fathering children in their 20s and 30s.

But even in the 20 to 40 age group, fathers are getting older, said Hamilton, who became a first-time dad himself at 46.

The average age of fatherhood in 2010 was between 30 and 34, Hamilton said. “Thirty years ago, the peak was for the 25- to 29-year-olds.”

There have always been famous older dads: Comedian Steve Martin became a first-time father at 67. Clint Eastwood became a dad at 66. I’m not sure how the rich and famous raise their offspring, but I would bet a good bit of high-priced nanny-time is involved.

Most older dads I know are ordinary guys like me. They fight traffic to get to jobs to earn paychecks to pay the mortgage while struggling to squirrel away a few dollars for the unimaginable college costs their late-in-life children will encounter. They double-down on their life insurance. They try to stay in shape. They drink a lot of coffee, chased by the occasional Red Bull. They hope for the best.

Those who study such things have a name for becoming a dad after 40: “Late onset fatherhood.” It has a nasty ring to it for something I consider an unconditional celebration of life.

When that bemused clerk at the tile store was trying to figure out whether I was a dad or a grandpa, this is what her look really told me she was thinking: “How in the world does this kind of thing happen?”

‘Your life is over’
Well, here’s the short version.

I was married for a brief time in my 20s. Didn’t work out. No kids.

Many years later I got married again, this time to a career woman who had delayed having kids until her late 30s. We bought a house in a neighborhood with good sidewalks and decent schools. We traveled, slept late on weekends and ate at a lot of trendy restaurants. We had a pretty decent life by any measure of the idea.

Then one day, a few years after the I-dos, she comes dancing down the hallway repeating this world-changing phrase: “It’s positive.”

And, looking up from a football game on TV, I say: “What’s positive?”

She says, “The home pregnancy test.”

And I say, “Those things are usually wrong.”

And she says, “No, YOU are usually wrong. THEY are usually right.”

It’s not exactly like it was planned with a capital “P.” A famous rock musician once said that life is something that happens while you’re making other plans. A follow-up visit to our physician confirmed that my wife and the home pregnancy test — and the famous musician — were indeed correct. A new life had come into our lives. We were terrified. We were ecstatic.

Jen and I waited the requisite time to tell friends and co-workers, who suddenly turned into fonts of wisdom on the new-dad baby front.

Here are three things I recall them saying:

1. “You will never not worry again.”

2. “This will be the most meaningful event in your life, but also the most challenging.”

3. “Your life is over.”

The first two nuggets came from thoughtful women friends with young children of their own. The last was lobbed by a male colleague, who had become the father of twins at 47. He was the last in a line of co-workers who came by my desk to celebrate the news.

“Congratulations man,” said my fellow scribe, grinning ear-to-ear. He feigned a cautionary look around the newsroom. He moved in close, then whispered: “By the way dude, (he paused here for full impact) your life is over. OVER!”

He chuckled to himself as he walked off.

And he, too, was correct. My old life, a life of unfettered time, self-centered pursuits and a reasonable amount of disposable income was soon to vanish. That relatively carefree existence was about to slam head-on with late-stage daddyhood. The universe suddenly shuddered in ways I am still trying to grasp.

To begin with, my wife and I knew nothing about babies. Nothing, as in Not A Thing. My only sibling was a brother 10 years older than me. My wife was the only child of a U.S. Army Air Cavalry pilot. She spent most of her early years near military bases in Europe.

At a Piedmont Hospital birthing class, the nurses handed us a tiny infant’s diaper that Jen and I were supposed to put on a doll. We looked at it like chimps who had just stumbled upon an iPhone 5.

“Which side is the front?” I asked her quietly.

“Not a clue,” my wife shrugged.

We figured things out pretty quickly once Andrew arrived. We learned that being older didn’t necessarily make us any wiser on the baby-raising front. We were doing what first-time parents had done through the ages — worrying about every whimper, fumbling at every turn, feeling equally blessed and bewildered, and eventually getting it right.

The most difficult daddy part of having a baby was not what I’d imagined. Changing diapers was a breeze. I enjoyed giving my son his nightly bath. The occasional midnight crying jag that required rocking him back to sleep failed to faze me.

It was all some exotic adventure at my stage of the game, an awe-inspiring trip I had not planned on taking. New discoveries jumped out around every bend. I loved fatherhood, I giddily told I anyone who’d listen. One Thanksgiving when someone asked what I was most thankful for, I didn’t even have to think about it: “My son’s laughter.”

But there’s also the other side. The decision to replicate yourself late in the game has plenty of downsides. If life were a football game — and sadly, guys like me often think it is — old fathers would always be facing third down and long yardage.

The 24-7 ceaselessness of it all gets to me. Wears me down like water on a rock, slowly but with a grinding certainty.

I read somewhere that older fathers are more nurturing; we are more likely to get down on the floor and play with our young children. But we also have more trouble getting up off the floor.

There have been nights — many nights — when 8 p.m. rolls around and I am more than ready for bed. This is about the same time that my son decides he wants to build a fleet of vehicles out of the blindingly small Lego bricks my wife’s parents gave him for Christmas. (Just look at the “construction manual,” he tells me when I get stumped).

There is an undeniable contradiction me and my older-dad pals face: Our children’s energy levels keep going up, while ours keeps going down. They are headed for the prime of their lives at the very moment we have taken the exit ramp onto the long decline.

Time may fall back an hour for the grownups each fall — a morning my wife and I used to cherish for the extra hour of sleep. But no one bothered to tell our son when he was 2. The adjusted clock read 6 a.m. but he celebrated his old 7 a.m. “gettin’ up time” by sprinting through the house making his favorite sound in the whole world — a firetruck with all its sirens ablare.

And I have come to say things that I never imagined would come from my lips. And even weird variations of those weird things. “Don’t wipe peanut butter on the couch” quickly becomes “Don’t wipe peanut butter in your hair,” which morphs into the desperate plea: “Puleeeze don’t wipe peanut butter on the cat.”

Then you look up one day and the baby who was smearing “sketti” noodles across his face is suddenly celebrating his fourth birthday and mastering the English language.
We had this conversation a few months back:

Andrew: “Dad, do firemen wear short pants?

Me: “No son. They wear long pants.”

Andrew: “Why?”

Me: “So they won’t get their legs burned.”
Andrew: “When they go back to the station to eat hot dogs and potato chips, do they wear short pants?

Me: “They do at the station.”

Andrew: “Are they still firemen when they’re back at the station eating hot dogs and potato chips?”

Me: “They are.”

Andrew: “Well, that means firemen wear short pants, Dad.”

I look over, and there’s a grin spreading across his face when he springs the trap, and I know right then that the teen years are going to be interesting.

Time is ticking
Older dads also know this: They will not get as much time on this planet with their children as most of us had with our dads.

I came into the world when my dad was 31. My father died when he was 79, more than a decade ago. We had 48 years together to sort out the whole father-son thing. He listened to George Jones, I listened to Bob Dylan. He had a flat-top, I wore long hair. But we both loved SEC football and fishing and gardening and, most days, each other.

Dads like mine were different from fathers like me. My generation could delay growing up. His could not. My father never graduated high school. He went to work with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps when he was just 17, sending his paychecks back home to Alabama to help support his family during the Great Depression. Young men of his generation fought World War II at about the age the most difficult decision faced by men my age was our college majors.

They were “good guys with gravitas,” I wrote to a friend recently when her father died. They weren’t the outwardly nurturing come-here-and-gimme-a-hug fathers like dads today. My dad was Moses coming down from the mountain with the rule book.

I will always remember him as strong and self-sacrificing and generous and kind. He operated heavy equipment for a living, room-sized bulldozers, towering cranes, massive draglines. He was a tough, no-nonsense guy, filled with contradictions. He didn’t say much. His knuckles were scarred from years of outdoor work, but I once saw him and a co-worker spend two days taking apart a hulking Caterpillar D-12 bulldozer to rescue a mother cat who had crawled inside to deliver her kittens.

When I graduated college, he followed me out to my car as I was about to leave home for good to take a job in the newspaper business.

“You know if this newspaper thing don’t work out right, you can always come back home for a while,” he said. Dads like him didn’t say a lot. But they always had your back.

Father-son memories like that come back to me more often now that I have a son. Kids do that to you. They also make you think about the inevitable cycle of life. As an older dad, I know I will not have as many years with my son as I did with my dad. The math gets dicey at this point. I plan to be there at his college graduation, as far as plans go. But I don’t spend much time thinking about the whole mortality thing. I try to live in the moment with my son. That’s where kids spend most of their time, I’ve discovered. It’s all you’re really guaranteed anyway, no matter your age.

I think about my own father often this time of the year, when I plant my garden. I’m glad we had so many years together. I wish my son, who crosses his legs just like my father when he watches TV, had arrived in time to meet him. I think they would have made each other laugh.

My son certainly makes me and my wife laugh. If you subtract our absurdly spoiled cat, Tugger the Terrible, we are all delighted he came along at this late stage of my life. If he someday asks me about the first few years of fatherhood, I will tell him this: It was a party. Sometimes a tiring party. Sometimes a party I wanted to leave. But generally a time of immense celebration; far more laughter than tears.

I will also tell him it is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And the best.

Next Week: A physician’s son attempts to restore his father’s reputation.

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