Older men make less fuss and have more of themselves to give

Fatherhood: Roger Dobson reports on a rising trend for over-40s to have children and Neal Ascherson adds his personal reflections
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The Independent Online
My Grandfather, a doctor, had an uncomfortable saying: "Two elderly parents plus one small child equals three fools."

I like to think that this does not apply to me. Even if I am elderly (I am 64), my wife is not, and anyhow we have two young children rather than an only child. I am not even sure that my grandfather's aphorism is right. An older father is not bound to make a fool of himself and his child. On the contrary, if it goes well this can be rather a wise and easy-going relationship.

But a general warning comes first. Those contemplating late fatherhood may think that it is a bit like grandfatherhood. That is the worst of mistakes. A father is a father, even when he is 73 and his son or daughter is three. The roles are diametrically different. A good grandfather plays a gently subversive part, mitigating the rigours imposed by parents and providing a tolerant space in which favours have no strings.

Equally important, grandfathering is an intermittent pleasure, a recurrent special occasion. Being a father may be a pleasure too, but it is also a permanent duty involving huge expectations.

The only judges of a good father, old or young, are the children, and their final verdict must wait until they are grown up. But some of the advantages and disadvantages of being an older father are plain enough. I will list some of the downside points first.

The fundamental problem is biology. The children of an older father are probably going to find themselves fatherless at a relatively early age. Knowing this, it is up to a father to give his children as much as he can as soon as he can. There is no time to waste.

With this go the physical drawbacks. Looking after very small children is an occupation largely conducted on the hunkers, which is rough on bad backs and stiff joints. When children are a little older, they demand a tough father who can catch a small body launching itself suddenly down from a height, play football in the yard and be only mildly annoyed by a whack on the shinbone from a cricket bat.

We all decay at different rates. There are some fairly antique fathers who can perform on football pitches or bicycles almost as well as when they were in their forties. Most fathers over 50, however, find such tasks hard going. Children are wonderfully forgiving about these defects, but there is always a residue of disappointment.

A more insidious problem is that the mind grows less flexible. Most elderly or middle-aged men come to feel that they are somehow entitled to peace, quiet, a minimum of respect. Children do not take this view. Parents are there to be interrupted. Routines are there to be subverted. Moments when a parent appears to be enjoying some activity which requires the exclusion of children are there to be invaded.

This is the normal friction of all young families. But an older father - or mother, come to that - can become very resentful. It is not just that being suddenly pushed from behind, once a delightful shock which prompted clowning, now seems like a grave insult. It is the growing awareness that one's life ahead has become visibly limited, that this older parent will never in fact attain the state of post-children peace in which he or she can do "all those things I always meant to do". It's a thought which can lead to panic and melancholy.

I have been married twice, and I was young when my first children were born. Comparing the two families, I can see the big plus of late fatherhood, which is - put bluntly - that you fuss less.

A young father and mother think that their very personalities are up for judgement. To fail to comfort a persistently crying small girl is to fail irrevocably as a human being. This injects anxiety, sometimes amounting to an almost desperate intensity, into the relationship with children, who are often quick to pick up and share the insecurity of the parent.

But this passes away, with the years. The older father has usually learnt who he is and what he is worth. Day-to-day successes or failures in bringing up children may touch, but do not threaten, that self-valuation any more.

It is easy to say that such a father simply cares less, but that is not true. He worries less about himself - and that means that he is free to be more aware of his children as they really are, and not just as projections of his own personality. In that way, more of him is available to children than some younger men can afford to offer. Older fathers, though harder to open up, have more to give.