While most of my married peers with children are either coming to terms with “empty nest syndrome,” or well past it, I am the happy father of a six-year-old daughter.
I’m 62, which means I worry less about the empty nest and more about what I call “open casket syndrome.” I have never in my life been remotely as happy as I am right now. It’s the greatest period of my life that I never saw coming.
But the actuarial tables are out there. I will depart from my daughter’s life much earlier than her peers will lose their fathers. It informs my long-deferred life as a parent in both good and bad ways.
First, as older dads go, I am maybe more robust than many. Before fatherhood, I ran six miles a day with a long run on the weekends, and worked out with weights every other day.
Just as my now-wife and I began dating, I took up the very much age-inappropriate sport of hurling, a fast-moving running game that’s been played for centuries in Ireland.
As I became more experienced at hurling, if I spotted an older jock gone a bit to seed turning up at the pitch, I’d give him counsel: “Hurling’s not a game you play to get in shape. It’s a sport you get in shape to play. Come back when you’re fit.”
I’d give much the same advice to anyone becoming a parent past 50.
The double-edged sword
Becoming a parent when some of your peers are becoming grandparents is a double-edged sword.
You’ll be wiser and more patient than your younger self. Your paternal energies will not be competing with career anxieties and social needs.
But you’ll also have less endurance and be decades closer to the unknown hour of your death. Your friends and loved ones will kindly assure you that you’re a virtual Methuselah. And I dearly hope their optimism is borne out.
But, to quote Damon Runyon: “The race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the smart way to bet.”
You will die earlier in your child’s life than if you’d had kids at a more traditional age. That will seem like a bearable abstraction to you in the early going when you’re coming to terms with your lousy odds at procreating at all.
But, after you miraculously procreate against the odds, in the wee hours, rocking and singing your baby to sleep, it will descend on you like the ghost of Christmas Future how preciously short your time with this person will be.
For me, it was in her infancy, rocking her to sleep, a little fragile from sleep deprivation, and singing every song I could recall from memory. Having exhausted the Irish canon of The Clancy Brothers, I somehow landed on James Taylor’s lullaby, You Can Close Your Eyes.
I used to listen to Linda Ronstadt’s version on her Heart Like A Wheel album on my divorced father’s stereo. Apparently, I had committed it to memory. When I reached this stanza—
“So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it’s all right
I don’t know no love songs
And I can’t sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone.”
—it caught in my throat like a burr on a labradoodle, which we now have, by the way, and I quietly wept over my infant daughter, still rocking her in the darkness, never again to feel the lightness of being that informed my life before fatherhood.
That was the first epiphany. Here are four more.
Your child won’t keep you young
Despite what people like to hear themselves tell you, your child will not keep you young. That ship has sailed. You’re already not young and won’t ever be again.
But even if you don’t join a gym to keep yourself viable to the task, simply getting up and down off the floor more times in the first year of your child’s life than you have in the preceding two decades will unavoidably jack up your core, leg, and arm strength.
And the ability to get up off the floor using only your legs is said to be a predictor of longevity. I would also advise quitting any extreme sport, which I did in the case of hurling, to increase the odds you’ll have the knees to be a fun, physical dad.
What’s the rush?
Even though she isn’t keeping me young, my daughter is slowing down time. When we walk home from school, I enter her time scheme. We literally stop and smell the roses and anything else with an aroma. We splash in puddles and rescue newly-hatched snapping turtles from the bike path and ease their way to the lake.
We use her empty plastic milk bottle to capture tadpoles, which we will raise and later repatriate as grey tree frogs. I hold my breath as she hops deftly from rock to rock at the fairy rock spiral in the woods. What’s the rush? For me, it’s only to pack as much living together as possible.
You’re on your own
Prepare to go through this largely on your own. Your friends, those who’ve procreated, have already seen this movie. They wish you well and are happy for you. But go easy on the adorable anecdotes. They’ve forgotten more than you’ve been through.
The parents of your child’s peers, while polite, will regard you with some judgment. And, in fairness, they won’t see you as a peer because, well, you’re not. Yes, you’re parenting a child their child’s age. But you’re likely closer to their parents’ age than you are theirs.
When to answer the age question
This one I’m still sorting out myself: When to explain all this to my daughter?
Right now, she’s still figuring out people’s relative ages. But from talking to friends who had older parents, it sounds like it would be best if I broach the subject of my age before some peer makes a remark, or, worse, an insensitive adult remarks about my age.
I don’t have it all sorted out, but I think it’ll go along the lines of something like this: “Sweetheart, I understand why you might wish you had a younger daddy. I sometimes wish I’d become a father earlier in life. But then I remind myself that life is a package deal. If someone offered me a ride on a time machine so that I could go back and start a family in my 20s or 30s, I wouldn’t take the ticket.
Because none of those kids would be you. And I wouldn’t trade you for anything, not even for more time on this earth. My hope is that by the time I die, you’ll be well along to a life of your own.”
The great Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige, who at 42, became the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball, famously asked: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
Ultimately, it is in Paige’s spirit that I throw off my self pity and, instead, hurl myself, heart and soul, into parenting my daughter. In so many wonderful moments with her, I allow myself to forget my age, and just experience the unalloyed joy of being a father to this darling girl.