So there I was, 49 years old, after a first failed marriage, with no children, and sure that parenting was a closed book for me. And then-- "Guess what you are getting for your 50th birthday"-- said the love of my life.
"By the look in your eyes, it is something really special," I replied.
"Yes, you are going to be a father."
I was thrilled by the idea. But being an only child myself, what did I know about babies?
During the next nine months I learned a lot. I read all the books including Childbirth for Men. I went to the pre-natal class and puffed and pushed down with the rest of the class. As the due date got closer, I rented a crib, a wicker basket on wheels, and set it up in our bedroom. For the first time I realized that a new being was coming into my life. My mother-in-law arrived from abroad, full of knowledge and endless stories of near tragedies and melodramas concerning newly born babies and their ignorant parents - mainly fathers.
The birth itself was exactly as emotional and wonderful as it was supposed to be. I was right there; I was amazed; I was terrified; I was completely overwhelmed. Two days later they let us out of the hospital with a brand new baby.
Suddenly, we were three instead of two. What on earth was I supposed to do? Well, I could certainly prepare bottles. I set aside the top shelf of the refrigerator and in a corner of the kitchen created a "sterile area" that NASA would have been proud of. No one was allowed near. No ungloved hands touched the bottles. Everything was handled with sterile tongs. My mother-in-law, still present, laughed non-stop at most of this.
More Patience, More Understanding
I will never forget the first time that I picked him up for my first night feed . Fifty years of life experience, a participating father, but still I was anxious about picking up this tiny, fragile, little human. I held him at arm's length away from me as if he was a priceless crystal vase that might break at any moment. A warm sleepy voice came from the depths of the bed: "Not like that, hold him close, take him in your arms, look into his eyes." So I did, and from that moment on I have always held him close, even though now he is 13 years old and as tall as me.
I feel that the years under my gray hair have given me that pause between thought and action, between temper and lashing out, so that I never get close to physical punishment.
What does it mean, being a father 50 years older than his first born? It means that I have much more patience and understanding than I had when I was 25. It means that I can use the wisdom that I have accumulated. It means that I don't try to reduce the age gap by pretending to be a young father but instead I try and give the message that there are advantages to being an older father.
My maturity has helped when it comes to setting limits and dealing with situations that demand discipline. In my house there was always the physical fear of what was called "a good hiding ." It was always "hit first and then listen." I swore that this would never happen with my children. I feel that the years under my gray hair have given me that pause between thought and action, between temper and lashing out, so that I never get close to physical punishment.
I have heard my son say: "My dad does such-and-such well." But I have never heard him say "My Dad's too old for stuff like that ". I have heard him say plenty of other things, some of which have made me cringe but the KO that I had feared, never came. There were moments in the eye-to-eye confrontations that are bound to happen in any parent-child relationship when he called me everything else under the sun - and under the earth too, but not ever, "You old whatever... ."
Less Running, More Ingenuity
That's not to say there aren't problems. But there are ways of getting around them. For example, when my son was younger and learning to ride a bike, I couldn't run after him holding the saddle of his bicycle. I solved the problem by standing at the top of a not-too-steep hill near our house and getting him to coast down it with his feet touching the ground. Clever old Dad had taken off the pedals. I shouted encouragement all the way and jumped up and down.
There is, of course, a down side as the years slip by. The summer holidays are still eternity for him, whereas for me they are frighteningly swift. There is no way that I cannot make the inevitable calculations. When I will be eighty, he will be thirty. Will I ever see him married, will I ever have grandchildren? Will I be a burden while he is still a young man making his way?
And now that I am the proud father of a daughter born seven years after my son, the situation has grown more poignant. I have quickly learned that everything that they say about fathers and their daughters is true. She really can twist me around her little finger with one look of her huge, infinitely blue eyes. But what about her? Will she be able to tell me of her first loves or will I be too gaga by then to understand - or not there at all?
I can't predict the future. I only know that I have lived and am living the most wonderful experience of my life. Every day is for itself. Every look, every time a little hand comes out of nowhere to hold mine, I know that the age difference means nothing at all. Every time I see my kids standing on their own two feet and looking the world in the eye, I give thanks.
I just hope they won't want me to go skateboarding with them.