Monday, September 9, 2013

Older Parents - This article appeared in Maclean's magazine, April 5, 2004

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I'm Dad, Not Granddad

As a father over 50, I worry that I have so little time left with my kids

AS I WAS GOING through the checkout at our local supermarket with my daughters, aged 4 and 8, a friendly young cashier grinned at them and said, "Wow, it must be fun going shopping with Grandpa!" The girls stopped bantering with each other and looked up at me. "Well, I could be their grandfather," I offered. "I am old enough. But I took up this sport very late in life. I'm their father." The cashier beamed at me and said, "Really? I would have never guessed!"

At 60, I am mistaken for a grandfather every few months. But am I really that much of an anomaly? David Letterman recently became a first-time father at 56. And probably even more men over 50 have young kids from remarrying after being widowed or divorced. Paul McCartney, 61, who has a five-month-old daughter with his second wife, and CNN host Larry King, 70, who has two sons aged 5 and 3 with wife No. 7, come to mind. But while there's anecdotal evidence that the incidence of late fatherhood is increasing, there are few statistics. Given the peripheral role fathers play in reproduction, this dearth should perhaps be no surprise. But it would be comforting to know how many others are over 50 when embarking on this existential crisis called fathering. Or would it?

During my bachelor years, none of my male friends talked about ever wanting to become fathers. Fatherhood, unplanned or otherwise, was something to be dreaded. Few, at least in the tribes I travelled with, even mentioned their own fathers. Women, even those who eventually decide they don't want kids, seem to approach motherhood quite differently. My wife, Trudi, knew by the time she was 12 that she wanted to be a mom at some point when she grew up.

After dating for two years and living together for one, we were married when she was 33 and I was 49. It was the first time for both of us. We talked about having children; or rather she stated her position and I mumbled in cautious agreement, privately hoping that luck or waning fertility would save me. Two years later, we had our first child, a girl. Another girl came along four years later, when I was 55. I used to tell a bad joke about a man facing a greater chance of being kidnapped by terrorists than becoming a father over 50. But that was then.

Now, the euphoria of new parenthood has been replaced by an aura of impending crisis. I want more time with my kids and I do not know how to get it. Not just time to play games. Time to live together. Time to see them grow to full independence and find their own way in life. This is not about pity; it is about consequences.

So I parse the Deadly Arithmetic. Assuming the stars smile favourably on us, I will be 76 and Trudi 60 by the time our youngest turns 21. So I work out every day, do my yoga, quaff green tea, gulp down vitamins, drink a little red wine, eat tofu, munch raw veggies and avoid trans fats, as if these actions improved my eternal credit rating with the Royal Bank of the Gods.

When I contemplate all my neurotic health practices, I realize that there is much for me in T.S. Eliot's words, These fragments I have shored against my ruins. In the end, my ruins will crumble. But can I hold off my own Waste Land long enough to get my kids launched safely into adult life?

Like the rest of my generation, when I was young the passage of time was to be ignored. Consequences denied. I lived as if I was immortal. Now I am a very mortal father. Last year, I lost two old friends, both of them fathers in their 50s, to aggressive cancers. One was a marathon runner. He complained of fatigue, checked himself into the hospital and died three weeks later, leaving behind two adult sons. I used to cope with death better when it was something only other people had to confront. Now I hide the Deadly Arithmetic from my girls. A few months ago, my four-year-old looked up at me and solemnly asked, "Will you always take care of me and be my daddy?" I lied.

There may be an immense loneliness to facing old age without children. I don't know. Now that my daughters are here I cannot imagine their absence. Being their father is my most important job in life; the things I do for money, even the things I do for my own fulfillment, are sidelines.

But sometimes I wonder what life would be like without them. Would my life be elegantly serene? The endless drudgery would certainly disappear. I sometimes crave more personal time and resent their intrusions. My heart does not seem big enough to hold my love for them and my unfinished agendas for the rest of my years.

There is so much I need to do to prepare them for life, and so little time left. Good parenting demands a supreme level of unselfishness; on many days I just don't have it. Yet when I come home, the girls jump into my lap. Resentments vanish. I hold them. For a moment, I stop calculating the Deadly Arithmetic.

Bill Templeman lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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