Happy birthday to me. Yes, I’ve only gone and got older again. I’m not telling you how old but I’m well into that awful phase we call ‘middle age’. I tick all the boxes.
I’m definitely a dad. TICK
I grumble about the weather and train delays. TICK
I make an “Ahh” happy sound when I sit down. TICK
And a “Nnrgh” sound of effort when I stand up. TICK
I’m going grey. TICK FUCKETY TICK
And as I stared at my grey hair (which I am definitely NOT dyeing), on the eve of my one year closer to death day, I started wondering if I was soon going to look more like a grandad than a dad.
So I decided to ask Billy, with three whole years experience of the world, how old I looked. I was wondering when I’d ask him but he made the choice for me.
“DADDY WAAAKE UP!! HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY!!”
*Oh good I’m awake and it’s my birthday and it’s 6am and my son is hitting my head*
“How old are you daddy?”
*I don’t answer because my brain is waking up*
“I SAAAID. HOW. OOOLD. ARE. YOU?”
“Oh very old. I feel very old right now. How old do you think I am?”
He gives this a lot of thought, more than on what he’d have for tea. At least ten seconds.
This is the biggest number he knows. If you ask how much anything is in his pretend shop it’s always twenty pounds. So when I told him my age he looked at me the same way as when he asked me how far it was to The Moon and I didn’t make it up (fyi it’s 238,900 miles). He simply couldn’t comprehend it.
“No that’s silly,” he said. “Where’s my present daddy?”
He really hasn’t got the hang of other people’s birthdays either.
Am I Too Old To Be A Dad?
What I really mean is am I too old to be a dad of a one and a three year old? As opposed to teenagers or grown-up offspring.
Or perhaps what I really really mean is should I have been changing nappies a decade or more ago and now be embarrassing my grown-up boys by trying to get them to take me to gigs?
In the UK the average age of all dads at the time of their child’s birth is 33 and, like mums, this age has been increasing slowly but steadily. Through the 1970s when I was born it was 29, rising to 32 by the early 2000s.
My dad was 31 when I was born so he was slightly older than average at the time. He always simply seemed like a ‘dad’ to me. When you’re young anyone older than a teenager is in the category of grown-up, and Dad has always been fit with a full head of hair. So I didn’t really notice him ageing until he was around 60 and I’m glad to say he is still enjoying good health into his 70s.
By waiting until I was in my 40s to have children I was older than most modern first time dads. Will my boys notice this as they grow up? Will they be conscious of having an older dad? Will parents at the school gate think I’m the grandparent come to collect them (as I’ll be in my 50s at this point)?
Oddly I am repeating history a little, as my mum’s parents were in their 40s when she was born. This was considered unusual at the time (1945) and looking at the few photos of my grandad when my mum was little I think he looks a lot older than me, despite being a similar age.
Of course, I don’t believe I’m middle-aged. Does anyone really feel their age? These days in our culture of perpetual youth no one seems to admit or accept they’re ageing but I honestly feel like I’m in my early 30s. I don’t understand the older face that looks back at me from the mirror as I shave my salt and pepper stubble..
My taste in music, films, books, and so on is the same and I still like a big night out now and then. I have learned a lot but I still keep expecting to feel like a ‘proper grown up’ and it hasn’t happened despite being married (conventional), owning a VW Golf (sensible), buying a house (also in my 40s), and having two children.
There are moments where I catch myself doing something my younger self would have royally taken the piss out of. Recently I was leafing through the Which? magazine when I saw a review of duvets and said “Ooh! Duvets!” in a genuinely excited tone.
I realised how sad that sounded but then Mrs B reminded me that right now we’re both always tired so it’s OK to get excited at anything related to sleep.
The main thing I worry about is that our boys will have barely become adults when they’ll have to start thinking about me as someone who may need looking after.
Whereas I’ve been able to enjoy my younger adult years without ageing parents needing my help.
It’s up to me to try and stay healthy of course but I probably won’t be hurrying them out of the door when they turn 18; I think finding ourselves in an ’empty nest’ in our 60s could feel extra empty.
Can Being An Older Parent Be An Advantage?
On a brighter note, I am more patient with the boys, more accepting of the tiredness and the tedium, and less frustrated at the loss of my own freedom than I would have been in my 30s or 20s.
We’re also in a much better place with our careers and finances than in our younger years. That doesn’t mean we aren’t feeling the burden of childcare costs and all the stuff having children means spending money on.
But when I think of us living in a succession of rented flats through our 20s and 30s, when there were issues like mould in the bedroom and the rent kept going up and we had to move every year, I am very glad that we didn’t have the added worry of raising a family.
Whenever I wonder out loud if we should have done this sooner Mrs B always reminds me that I actually claimed not to want children when I was younger, or at least was ambivalent about it.
Even when we were expecting our first I was worrying about how I’d feel, whether I would resent the wailing bundle of shared genes that was about to transform our pretty cushy lives.
This was because I am essentially quite a selfish person. I don’t mean I’m not a nice person. In fact, I go out of my way to help other people. But I do like my own company, I like peace and quiet. And as I’ve got older I like these things more.
So I was as surprised as any of my friends were when Billy and Frankie arrived and I was transformed into a gooey mess who actually wanted to spend MORE time with them and missed them when I went to work.
I’m still not that keen on other people’s children however, no offence but I think like many parents having your own kids doesn’t mean you suddenly think kids per se are joyous creatures to be around.
My point is that I find myself at an age where I’ve unexpectedly decided that our boys are what life is about at this moment and I am happy and fortunate to have the chance to be a big part of their early years.
Is There A Right Age To Have Children?
Well, of course there’s no ‘right age’ to become a parent. It can depend on so many factors they are unlikely to all be aligned; being in a loving relationship (if you want one), personal wellbeing, finances, having somewhere secure to live, your career, and so on.
Some people have no choice, it isn’t planned and they do their best. Some people have children at what they think is the right time and then their lives fall apart. You don’t know what is going to happen. All anyone can do is to give their children the love and care they need.
But is there an ideal age to start a family?
Men have it easy when it comes to this life-changing decision. We’re generally left to make it in peace in our own time. Someone might casually ask if you want kids and you can shrug if you don’t want to answer and that’s that. You never get really put on the spot and interrogated.
Women on the other hand face a constant barrage of cajoling about starting a family. A bit of gentle nudging in their mid-20s then rises to post it notes on the fridge and ‘chats’ at family gatherings as they pass 30, followed by a local campaign organised by their parents, ‘well-meaning’ friends, and their GP, standing outside their house with placards if they pass 35.
Geriatric parents. Yes, that’s us. Delightful term isn’t it? Which you will hear constantly if you dare to start a family over 35 let alone 40. I do understand the concern, getting pregnant does become harder with age but as more women conceive over the age of 35 the statistics are laying a question mark at the door of this idea of a ‘cliff edge’ when it comes to fertility in your mid-30s.
Men used to think they were immune to these worries and that’s probably influenced a lot of us to leave it later but wait! There’s now evidence that the chance of having a baby falls as a man’s age rises because the ageing process affects the quality of your tiny DNA tadpoles.
Once we started trying to have children I soon realised how difficult and stressful it can be and there were many times I had a go at myself for not trying when we were younger. Fortunately it all worked out in the end but I do feel like our babies were the equivalent of Indiana Jones’ hat…
Leaving the cogent biological argument aside are there other pros and cons to each decade of parenthood?
- 20s: On the plus side this is going to be the easiest time ever to make tiny humans. This is the age when even contraception sometimes isn’t enough to stop mother nature bringing the boys (or girls) to the yard. You’ve got double helpings of energy. I used all mine to frequently go ‘out out’ three nights in a row; I can see how that energy would have helped with baby-induced sleep deprivation. On the other hand your 20s are the time when you’e left education and spend a lot of time lying awake staring the ceiling wondering how to keep up the charade that you’re an adult now because you passed an arbitrary age limit. Your job, home, sense of self-worth, confidence in your ability not to fuck it all up, are all at their most fragile (or maybe that was just me).
- 30s: Currently the most popular age to start a family in the UK. You’ve had plenty of years of fun and are happy to give your free time up. Your career may be at a good point to take a break without missing out too much on opportunities for advancement, you may even have your own place. And if you’re having children with someone else that relationship is built on lessons learned and a strong sense of what works for you both. Finally, you’ve still got bags of energy, your body is still (just) in peak condition, and when they’re grown up you’ll still be relatively young.
- 40s: I’ve pretty much covered this and as I’ve chosen this decade I should be claiming it’s the best one to become a parent. But with the benefit of hindsight, if I had the chance again I think I’d go for 35 as the ideal age to enter nappy-land. It is certainly harder to have children in your 40s and there are more likely to be complications.
- 50s: I can’t yet say what being a 50-something parent is like but I really don’t think I’d want to be changing nappies and not getting any sleep at this age. The vast majority of women who conceive over 50 will be using IVF and men’s fertility and the chance of DNA mutations in their sperm decrease and increase respectively in this decade. All my worries about how old I’ll be when my boys are grown up would be amplified if I’d been five to ten years older. The plus could be that you may have semi-retired or paid off your mortgage by this point in life, so it could be a good time to throw yourself one hundred per cent into being a parent.
- 60s & over: Personally I can’t see how having children at this age can be good for them as, despite increasing life expectancy, they have a high chance of not having you around for their whole childhood. There will always be outliers on the parent graph. Mick Jagger had his eighth child at the age of 73, but how many people in their 70s do you know who still tour in a rock band? Exactly.
In the end it doesn’t really matter what age you have children as long as you give them all the love and care they need. I’m beyond happy that I’ve had the chance to be a dad and I feel very lucky to have two beautiful, funny, clever, charming (and yes, infuriating) boys who I’m only just getting to know. I hope they never think of me as old, at least until I’m 80, and I hope they keep me young at heart and open to new ideas and experiences as we go on our adventure through life together.
Some useful advice on making the decision to start a family:
- Financial tips from The Money Charity
- Health advice from the Family Planning Association
- Tips on balancing a career with family via The Guardian
Categories: Big Issues