Call me father, not the old man

Becoming a parent again in middle age has its appeal. But it's all so very different second time round.
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It had been a bad day for Giles Gordon. His children's nanny, who was due to leave her job in two weeks' time, had phoned to say she would not be coming to work any more because she had "personal matters to attend to". She had seemed rather surprised to be told she would not be paid for those last two weeks. But at least Maggie, Giles's wife, would be home a day early this week for their younger daughter Clare's fifth birthday party.

That it was Giles who dealt with this domestic crisis says much about the different experience of fatherhood he is having second time around. The first of his three older children was born in 1968, and, he says, "I didn't change a single nappy in my first marriage - none of us men did in those days. Even if both parents were working, everybody assumed that the mother was responsible for the children. Now I take the girls to school, and when Lucy, who's seven, asked me to come to her sports day, I said `Of course'."

Giles, the literary agent who represents Vikram Seth and Fay Weldon, works from the family home in Edinburgh, while his wife, Maggie McKernan, spends the first half of each week in London, where she is publishing director of Phoenix House. While this arrangement is not ideal - and was certainly not part of the plan when they moved north from London - it brings Giles close to his daughter, which is something he relishes. But even without Maggie's absences, Giles is more closely involved with his younger children than he was with his first brood.

The first time around he behaved in much the same way as his father and grandfather had. He paints himself as a grumpy and slightly distant paterfamilias, demanding quiet from his children in the evenings so he could read manuscripts. This may be forgiven, but it is clearly not forgotten. His 23-year-old daughter Harriet recently said, "Dad, you were terrible. You were always reading, and I never did anything with you." By the time Lucy was born things were ordered differently, and it is somehow fitting that Giles was there at the birth. "My mother and father were appalled," he remembers.

But there is more to it than the re-ordering of gender roles and expectations. Giles has a pet theory that career structure, nature - who knows, even God - have conspired to mess up the timing of our lives. We have children when we are at our busiest - socially active, establishing a career and marriage, and mortgaged to the eyeballs. In his case, he was an ambitious publishing executive who had to spend his evenings and weekends reading manuscripts. Under pressures like these something has to suffer, and it is usually our closest relationships.

There is a downside to being an older father which they don't like to dwell on: the sense of impending mortality. Giles, whose first wife died before all their children had left home, is certainly more aware of the need to spend time with his young daughters: "In your twenties it just doesn't occur to you that you won't be there. At my age, you can't make that assumption." That said, Giles neither looks nor behaves like most people's idea of a 58-year-old. "Oh yes, having young children keeps you fitter, more mentally alert and stops you being self-satisfied."

When Jimmy Wray, the Labour MP for Glasgow Baillieston, become a father again at the age of 60 earlier this month, he confronted the problem of age with bullish optimism. "I'm still healthy," he declared. "I thrive on hard work and hope to go on until I'm 90." Nor was he worried that fathers are expected to change nappies these days: "That's never bothered me, and anyway they're much easier now with disposables."

He has nothing but happy memories of bringing up his first three children, now aged from 23 to 30, and says he's not planning any changes for Francis, his new baby. "I had a lot of fun with them, brought them up in the country with horses. It was a wonderful experience, very different from my own upbringing in the Gorbals, the slums."

Julia Cole, press officer for Relate, highlighted some of the pitfalls of second-time fatherhood: "I don't want to be a prophet of doom, but second marriages are twice as likely to fall as first." And there are, she says, particular problems associated with an older men fathering a second family, sometimes having pressurised his new wife into motherhood. "Perhaps the father wants to time-travel backwards and reclaim his youth. This may be fine while the child is a baby, but by the time the child is a teenager the father may well be elderly and in need of care from his wife." Needless to say, communication between an adolescent and a man in his seventies can prove extremely difficult.

In addition, a new couple may rush into parenthood early because they are aware of the man's advancing age, or to celebrate their relationship - which are not the best reasons to have children. And if the break up of the first marriage was in any way connected to children, the same set of problems tend to resurface if they have not been addressed properly the first time around.

The issue of age certainly exercises Steve Hudson, who at 46 with a daughter of two-and-a-half sees himself at the upper limit for fatherhood. "If there is a downside this time, it is that I get more knackered. Kitty is wonderful, but the thought of another is alarming - in fact I'm going to have a vasectomy soon." Steve, an art director in the film industry, has two grown up children from his first marriage and step-daughters of 9 and 12. One unexpected pleasure from his second family came when one of his older daughters moved into the family home and became close to Kitty.

Although Steve regards himself as having been a hands-on father the first time, he agrees with Giles Gordon about the terrible pressures of having children when you are barely into your own adulthood. "When I look back I hardly recognise myself then - it seems a long time ago and I don't remember enjoying the children as much. I was 21. In the middle of a university degree. Now I'm more settled and can take the time to enjoy fatherhood more."

For Steve, the differences second time around are not practical but internal - his own greater maturity, new qualities of patience and commitment, and an urgent sense of responsibility. Although he is sure his older children survived their parents' divorce intact, he simply can't imagine breaking up the family again: "Children need their fathers all the time," he said. "My wife has a theory that it's not the quality time, it's the shit time that counts."