Was I nervous about becoming a dad for the first time at age 40? You bet. But I was hardly the only guy intimidated by taking on what was by far the biggest responsibility of my life ― nothing else came close.
“When faced with first-time fatherhood at 49, I didn’t know whether to celebrate with Champagne or hemlock,” author Len Filppu quips in “Prime Time Dads: 45 Reasons to Embrace Midlife Fatherhood” (Bright Lights Press). He wrote the book to sing the praises of being an older dad once it became reality for him and he decided on Champagne. Filppu is now 63 and the father of two.
Filppu, a former press secretary for the Jimmy Carter administration, is a funny guy with a hilarious book that has serious intentions. He makes the point, with a lighthearted approach, that we creaky older dads actually can make great fathers because we’ve sown our oats, gotten our egos fed, have enough maturity to be an equal partner in the care of a squirmy little bundle of joy that is, by nature, often unfathomable and always challenging.
Len Filppu (top left), author of “Prime Time Dads,” poses for a portrait with his wife Lucy Filppu, son Arthur and daughter Dori. (Chicago Tribune / MCT)
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, birth rates per 1,000 men rose in 2012 from 2011 for men ages 35 to 49: up 2 percent for men ages 35 to 39 and 40 to 44, and 4 percent for men ages 45 to 49. Rates remained unchanged for men 50 and older. Rates declined for men under age 30.
Ten years ago, birth rates for men ages 35 to 39 were more than 7 percent lower and for ages 40-44, 4 percent lower.
To fully explain this trend would take a book, but a major reason is like mother, like father. According to the aforementioned 2012 study, birth rates increased for women ages 35 to 44 and held steady for ages 45 to 49.
Other reasons for embracing parenthood later in life are more subjective, involving concepts such as maturity and wisdom, which translate into a willing acceptance of today’s more diverse fatherhood roles, along with financial security and a desire to leave a living legacy once other life goals ― often career-related ― have been achieved.
For after achieving professional success, some men realize they still haven’t climbed the Mount Everest of accomplishment: raising children, the proverbial “hardest job in the world.” Men, it turns out, also have a biological clock.
“Life stretches out in the 40s,” says Kristi Walsh, a marriage and family therapist based in Ventura, California. “Some of the basic tasks of solidifying an identity and place in the world have occurred, and one’s energy circles back around to home and family. Dragons have been slain, and lands have been conquered. By 40, there is less to prove.”
And there’s time to enjoy a different kind of reward. Kids remind us to live in the moment and embrace the responsibilities that add up to joy and selflessness.
“It’s turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” Filppu says. “I had wondered if I would have the stamina, if I’d miss doing what I wanted when I wanted. Would I sit on bleachers at Little League games dozing and drooling like Homer Simpson’s dad, while mumbling songs from Woodstock?”
Filppu admits now that he stereotyped himself, wielding an ageist bias toward himself. And none of his fears materialized.
Older fathers say that what they might lack in pure physical stamina, which can be partially offset at the gym and with attention to nutrition, is balanced with a “large toolbox of experience, skills and psychological attributes,” as Filppu puts it, that helps their parenting hit the bull’s-eye more often than not.
Indeed, much on this theme has been written as it applies to first-time later-in-life moms. For men, not so much ― though, like the literature on older first-time mothers, there are a lot of articles citing the health risks that come with having children later in life.
“With age and maturity, we can also relate to the world from a place of greater authentic selfhood, rather than compliance or opposition (to parents),” Walsh says. “I’m the 55-year-old mother of a 12-year-old adopted son. My husband is 63. Our love for our son compels us to do our best to stay healthy.
“Where energy might be slimming down, we bring to the world of parenting a wisdom born out of sheer time living life. We don’t sweat the small stuff, because we know it usually works out fine. We can look at ourselves and accept our imperfections rather than trying to pretend we don’t have any.”
Atlanta divorce attorney Randall Kessler, 51, sees the silver lining of recapturing youth. “Having a child at my age lets me become a child again,” he says. “Playing (outside), learning the capitals of states and countries again, playing math games and creating our own birthday cards are all fun. I hadn’t played Twister in 20 years.”
Shawn Parsons, 46, an exhibits planner from the Washington area, says he and his wife were emotionally drained by three previous miscarriages, yet they pushed through to success the fourth time. After another six miscarriages, they have had two more kids. His friends told him after the second child that he would be using a walker at high school graduation.
By Richard Asa
(MCT Information Services)