In my 51 years of life, I have accomplished exactly two noteworthy physical feats. In May 2009, I completed the Vermont City Marathon. Later that year, I became the father of twin girls. As I crossed the finish line on race day, I was excited to be joining two elite societies: that special club of people eager to tell you, unprompted, that they've run a marathon (never mind my time); and the fraternity of old dads.
By "old," I mean dads well past the average age of first-time fathers, which is 27.4, according to the U.S. data from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. On the day my kids were born, I was 45, a number that many studies of first-time fathers don't even include in their samples.
When my daughters were born, I knew that parenthood would be a wild and unpredictable ride. The twin thing, I learned from other parents of twins, would complicate the experience in exponentially joyful and challenging ways. So I did some additional homework on that topic. But the old-dad factor? If there was substantial information out there about starting fatherhood so late in life, I missed it. Luckily, I knew a few other elder dads. In them, I'd seen evidence of the possibilities — even benefits — of being so old I'm off the charts.
One of my closest old-dad kin is Erik Kaarla — and not just because we share a first name and Nordic lineage. He and I were born within a few weeks of each other. Kaarla, who lives in Colchester, is a professor at a couple of area colleges, including Champlain College, where I also teach. And he has 7-year-old twins. However, his hair hasn't turned the color of pencil lead, like mine has, so he's not often mistaken for his kids' grandfather.
Despite his youthful visage and proclivities — he teaches tennis, guitar and bass and also plays in a rock band called Third Shift — Kaarla knows that he stands out as an old dad. "When you enter the room and you're the oldest person, that's kind of new," he says, "like I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. I might be the go-to person." He also occasionally finds it odd to be hanging out with young moms at play dates and kids' events. You should be dancing in a club and staying up all night, he sometimes thinks, but instead, we're here talking about parenting.
Michael Wheeler, 64, a dad and granddad in Milton, has the unusual experience of having grandkids who are close in age to his kids from a second marriage — Emmy, 8, and Elliot, 4 1/2. He describes it as a "tricky" situation.
"In my mind, a grandparent's job is just to be nice and spoil their grandkids, but here they are playing with my own children," he says, recalling a multigenerational gathering over the winter holidays. "I'm not sure I handled it right at all ... The kids are sort of colluding and plotting together. So that was definitely interesting."
A benefit of being an older dad is the chance to improve his parenting the second time around, says Wheeler. South Burlington resident Allan Nicholls, 71, would agree. The filmmaker, actor, musician and teacher has two adult sons from his first marriage and a 12-year-old son, David, from his second to Kids VT contributor Nancy Stearns Bercaw. Nicholls' successful career in the entertainment business once required long stretches of time away from home. His fatherhood sequel is all about being more present in David's upbringing.
"I was an absentee father. I was 'Uncle Daddy.' I'd see them as much as I could, but I was away a lot," Nicholls says. "I think I really lucked out because I was in a position, later in my life, to just say, 'Hey, wait. I don't have to be a freelancer. Maybe I can get a job.' And I did ... I'm much more settled, by choice. I said, 'OK, I'm getting a second act. Let's see what I can do.'"
Wheeler also looks back on his first go at fatherhood and sees a work-life imbalance that he doesn't want to repeat. There's little chance of that today, since he's a stay-at-home dad. "With my first set of kids, my recollection is just doing it," Wheeler says of how he juggled parenthood with his career as a chemistry professor and researcher. "Now, to me, it feels more like a growth challenge on everybody's part — theirs and mine," he says. "I find laughter comes easier, and it's easier for me to shake things off, which I think makes family life more fun."
Kaarla and I are fatherhood newbies compared to Wheeler and Nicholls. But we seem to share a similar appreciation for how much better dads we are today than we would have been in our younger years.
In this, we're kindred spirits with Evzen Holas of Burlington, a 59-year-old father of two daughters — Emma Rose, 7, and Nelly, 4. "I was always kind of selfish. I didn't want to take care of anybody," Holas says of his younger self. "So, knowing that I would have a responsibility — that was scaring me. But once I had a kid, I was fine."
"Lots of my friends envy me," he adds. "They all realize that they would be way better fathers now than when they were young, and they kind of miss it."
Financial stability played a role in Holas' path to parenthood. He emigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic in 1988 and opted out of fatherhood — and, as a result, out of his first marriage. His ambivalence about becoming a father was complicated: Part of it involved his relationship with his first wife; part had to do with his extended family being in Europe; and another part had to do with money. After coming to the U.S., he made a successful living as an illustrator in the Boston area. But the instability of his freelance career made parenthood a road he wasn't ready to walk.
"I made enough for me, but not for kids," he says. "I didn't want to be one of those stressed fathers who's stressed about money." He shifted his professional focus to construction and, eventually, after moving to Burlington, launched his own tile-work enterprise, E.H. Tile. Once the pieces had fallen into place — including a second marriage to a woman with a solid teaching career — he opened up to the idea of becoming a dad.
Kaarla, Holas and I were able to delay parenting until we were ready — and let's not underestimate the power of love in that process. Even still, the transition to old fatherhood can be jarring for a seasoned bachelor set in his ways. Kaarla recalls a nurse in the maternity ward saying that younger parents, who may be more accustomed to a faster-paced lifestyle, might more easily roll with the chaos of kids. He thinks she was right.
"It changes things," he says. "You have to redo your bookshelves and things. 'Why are you taking my War and Peace and tearing it up?'"
The flip side of that, however, is that an older dad, who has had his fun and paid his heaviest dues in the working world, is often willing to settle in, without much grumbling, for what may turn out to be one long-ass game of Candy Land.
We can't ignore the fact that old dads have the luxury of time. That Holas, Kaarla and I could take our sweet time in becoming dads owes something to our biology. While the country's average age of first-time motherhood is slowly creeping past 26 years — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — women still face the reality of declining fertility in their 30s, especially after 35.
Culture at large operates under the assumption that men can father children as long as they're alive. This is because it's generally thought that men don't experience menopause — although it's a topic of current medical debate. It's also because men are designed to produce sperm continually. Yet recent studies suggest that as men age, their fertility also declines. Additionally, their children are at increased risk for various age-related complications — everything from miscarriage and low birth weight to autism, schizophrenia and a disposition toward certain cancers.
Some biological changes in older men may actually benefit parenthood. Naturally diminishing testosterone levels can make a man more patient. I imagine this coming in handy when my twin girls become teens.
This is not to say that being an old dad is a walk in the park. (If only it were a walk in the park and not an interminable game of freeze tag.) Even active dads like Kaarla admit that the physical feats of fatherhood can be tough. One time, while ambling with his eldest daughter up a shallow, secluded river, Holas came to the realization that if he were to get injured or have a heart attack, he and his kid would be in deep trouble. The experience inspired him to be more vigilant about his health. He took a doctor's advice about medication for high cholesterol, he says, and also made lifestyle changes.
Wheeler's not taking any chances either. "I do try to take good care of myself," he says. "If it's possible for life decisions to influence the quality and length of time that you have with your kids, then I'm all for that. I'm really obsessed with trying to stay active and fit."
The benefits of physical fitness are obvious to any parent who has ever had to carry a sleeping child, or two, up a flight of stairs. Elder dads like Wheeler and Nicholls speak with extra authority about the biggest stuffed elephant in the room: how much of our kids' lives we'll live to see.
"Statically speaking, my kids are going to end up being without a father sooner than most," Wheeler says. "But there's not a whole lot I can do about that, and I don't want to spend my energy worrying about that ... I want to be in the moment and do everything I can to make the moment the best."
The other old dads I know share that in-the-moment outlook — kids have a way of reinforcing that. But we all seem to have certain milestones in mind that we'd like to witness. "Will I see him have a kid?" Nicholls asks. "I don't know. Will I see him have a relationship? I don't know."
For Holas, the first big milestone is closer at hand. "I want to guide [my daughters] through that boy stuff," he says. "I want to make sure that they avoid boys like I was."
That ethos is all well and good, but certain rituals of aging in the U.S. keep the mortality topic on the table — right there next to the junk mail from AARP. For Nicholls, collecting Social Security was a grim reminder of his mortality, but it also meant he collects extra money because of his young son.
As much as he's making the most of his time with his sons and three grandchildren, Nicholls has also begun to organize his legacy in the form of publishing rights to the music he composed and recorded. His career includes tracks for films directed by the late Robert Altman, with whom Nicholls was a longtime collaborator. "I did some cool things, and I wrote some good music," he says. "And one thing I do know is music lasts. It's always there."
The poignancy in that sentiment is — much like the aches and pains inherent in being an old dad — impossible to miss. Our children are destined to outlive us; it's our greatest hope. We old dads may wonder how long we'll walk the path with our kids.
But I like to think we have something to share with them that younger dads don't. Perhaps it's wisdom, of a sort. Or what Kaarla calls "a bigger frame" of experience that includes important historical markers and a deep well of memories. Like Nicholls being an original cast member in the Broadway musical Hair. And the fact that Wheeler was in high school when men first walked on the moon. For my part, I saw the Ramones in concert before they became a self-parody. And have I mentioned that I once ran a marathon?
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