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Opinion Old enough to be your father: What it was like becoming a dad in my 50s

Stephen Henighan with his daughter and son on a trip in rural Cambridgeshire, England.

Stephen Henighan/Photo courtesy of the author

Stephen Henighan’s most recent book is Blue River and Red Earth.

It was Justin and Alexandre Trudeau who warned me I was too old to become a parent. In the late 2000s, I saw the Trudeau brothers interviewed on television about their father, Pierre Trudeau. They extolled the advantages of having been born to a father in his mid-50s, who was already established in life. They spoke of how much they had benefited from his wisdom and broad life experience. At the end of the interview, a discordant note crept in. “Now we’re in our 30s and we’re doing interesting things,” Alexandre said, “and he’s not here to see them.”

That’s it, I thought, watching the interview as a childless 45-year-old single man. That’s the best reason for me not to have children – a reason even more persuasive than my devotion to my writing, my impulsive travelling or my doubts about my psychological fitness for fatherhood. The strongest argument against fatherhood in middle age is that the father will not live to see or support his children’s adult activities. Case closed.

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Children had never been part of my dreams. The product of immigration and divorce, brought up with a strong mother, three sisters and the ambiguity of two father figures, I regarded North American manhood as an alien life form. Even the sensitive, intellectual men I respected had a core of gritty, rooted maleness that I could not locate in my own being. If that kind of masculinity was what it took to be a father, I didn’t have it. My relationships with women were emotional and intense, but often not sexualized, even when circumstances created an expectation that they might be; when they were sexualized, they were often long-distance relationships. As a writer, I devoted much of my time to imagining worlds that were not mine; but the world of a stable couple enduring the daily grind of child-rearing felt so foreign that I could not begin to imagine it.

Then, to the astonishment of nearly all who knew me, I celebrated my 50th birthday by getting married. My wife was 13½ years younger than me. Although we did not plan to have children, eventually they happened. At 52, I became the father of a son and, a month before my 56th birthday, of a daughter. Without having foreseen such a turn of events, I had adopted the Pierre Trudeau fatherhood plan.

I’m far from being alone. In 2017, a study published in the journal Human Reproduction revealed that almost one in a hundred American children is now born to a father over 50. The figures for other Western countries are similar. The overall age of parents has been rising for decades, with most men who make this choice now becoming fathers for the first time after 30. Yet the stigma against fathers over 40 persists. During our prenatal classes, my wife and I winced when the instructor delivered a tirade against the nefarious effects of “aging sperm” on the children of older fathers. Enjoining all men present to complete their fathering of children before the age of 35, at the risk of bringing sickly, deformed children into the world, she offended half the men in the room.

As an older father, you can spend a lot of time on the internet worrying about these claims. The science on the subject is far from settled. The rate of live births among children of men over 45 is lower than that for younger fathers. Children of older fathers have lower birth weights – yet my son was huge and my daughter of average weight. Beyond the verifiable facts of live-birth rate and birth weight, all bets are off. I’ve read that children of older fathers are more prone to autism, although the risk is still minimal; are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders in later life; are better adjusted and more realistic about mortality; have longer life expectancies; have shorter life expectancies; are more intelligent; less intelligent; and everything in between. In short, each case is different. The only certainty is that your children will have a father who is older than other kids’ dads, and that, as an older father, you are unlikely to learn much about what your children do in adulthood.

Some of the disadvantages of being an older parent are obvious; others dawn on you only over the long haul. I need more time to recover from a sleepless night spent tending to an ill toddler than a parent in his 30s. I have to take more care to stay in shape than younger dads if I want to put in a respectable showing playing soccer in the backyard. The more significant effects stem from the disrupted chronology of reproducing in your 50s. While my fiftysomething friends are looking forward to downsizing and simplifying their lives when their kids finish university, my thoughts are on upsizing: 10 years from now, when my children are teenagers, I’m going to need an extra bedroom. With thoughts such as these nipping at your heels, there is no sliding into an early old age. Assuming that I’m going to have to pay two sets of university tuition in my mid-70s, I’ve become more driven and ambitious in my career, both as a freelance writer and as an academic, over the past five years. Whether I’m on my way to reaping the bounty of an unexpected second wind or running myself into the ground, time will tell.

Older parents who are interviewed in the media invariably laud the benefits of having more patience than they did when they were young. These claims baffle me. The dominant realization of your 50s is that time is finite. Anything you wish to do in life should be done soon. Imagining that you can defer life’s pleasures to some idealized future time, when your children are grown, is not an option. When your children are grown, you will be dead – should you be lucky enough to live until they grow up.

This sense of time pressing down has made me impatient in ways that have both enlarged and terrorized my children’s lives. When I realized that if I was ever going to spend time in St. Petersburg, Russia, and walk down Nevsky Prospekt – like the characters in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky that I’d gobbled down as a teenager – I must do it now, my whole family went on the trip. On the other hand, if I’m immersed in imagining the next chapter of the novel I’m writing, and my children are being loud and silly, I shut them up in short order. Likewise, if a long solo trip to another country looks likely to help my career, I make it – even though my children don’t want me to go away. I know these aren’t ideal parenting practices, but, unlike 20 years ago, I’m aware that if the chapter or the trip doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen at all.

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Being older parents, and possibly also because we are immigrants – my wife is from Mexico City – makes us martinet-like disciplinarians by today’s helicopterish-yet-indulgent parenting standards. We don’t call our kids “buddy” and we demand that they address us with respect. We expect good table manners, enforce early bedtimes and maintain an almost total moratorium on television. At times, my wife despairs of how much harder we are on our kids than other parents are on theirs. Yet our discipline has advantages. When my son had to start taking a bus to school at the age of 4½, he simply climbed on board and went. His friends whimpered and asked to be driven to school and took most of the year to adjust to the bus.

My wife and I each wandered through the world pursuing our artistic dreams – mine in writing, hers in theatre – for years before our paths crossed. We each lived, at different times, in Spanish, French and English. Our extensive, shared experience of these three languages and their respective cultures, combined with our discipline as older parents, is enabling us to bring up our children with the confidence that it is natural to speak in any of these languages – and, by extension, any other language. Our children would have a less rigorous command of their multiple heritages, and arguably less open-mindedness toward the heritages of others, if their parents were younger.

As they grow up, my children become more aware of the great gulf of time that existed in their parents’ lives prior to the formation of our family. My son recently started learning the countries of the world and memorizing their flags. Each time he wrote out a country’s name or coloured its flag, he asked my wife and me if we had been there, whether individually or together, and, if so, how many times and under what circumstances. Little by little, he is trying to assimilate the fact that he entered the world closer to the end of our lives than the beginning. I’m nervous about how he and his sister will react once they realize we’ve deprived them of a “normal” life trajectory with their parents. Each time my daughter stares into my eyes with unalloyed love, I wonder whether a decade from now she will resent me for bringing her into the world only to abandon her while she is still young.

You can take refuge in lists of famous people who had older immigrant parents – my personal favourite is the famous Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, who was born when his Chinese immigrant father was 82 – and you can console yourself with thoughts of societies where aged, or dead, fathers were the norm. Isn’t it true that in Victorian England middle-class men often married in their mid-30s and died in their mid-50s, leaving behind the squads of orphans who populate Victorian fiction? And didn’t some of those orphans have happy endings? “A boy could do worse than lose his father,” the American novelist Richard Ford writes in Between Them: Remembering My Parents. Ford lost his father at 16, in 1960.

The world has changed since that time when society ensured that most white males – though certainly not other groups – could make their way regardless of whether they had parents. Today, when 28-year-olds live in their parents’ basements and 38-year-olds can’t get into the housing market without a down payment underwritten by Mum and Dad, it is more important than ever to have living parents in early adulthood. In this sense, my kids will be at a disadvantage. My own parents married young, divorced young and remarried quickly. Until the age of 58, I had four parents whose counsel, approbation and, occasionally, bank accounts I could rely on. This is a security my children will not have.

Contrary to my prenatal-class instructor’s claims, the biology of older dads is rarely a negative influence in their children’s lives. The most serious issue raised by “aging sperm” is, as Alexandre Trudeau said, not being around when your kids are doing interesting things. Every day, I crunch the numbers in my head: If I die at 70, they’ll be 18 and 15; if I make it to 80, they’ll be 28 and 25; if I can last to 85, they might both be over 30. Arithmetic is implacable: The clock starts running the moment your child is born. The reality, of course, is that all parents and children have a limited amount of time together. Older dads are here to remind the rest of the community of this poignant fact.

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