I walk into the master bedroom of my grandparents’ condo in Delray Beach, Florida with my seven-year-old daughter. My grandparents are there, sitting up in their queen poster bed.
“How arrrrrrre you!” my grandma sing-shouts. “Oh my God! So this is my great-granddaughter! She is soooo gorgeous!”
My grandpa calls her over to “give us a hug, doll-face!” (Forgive the anachronisms; it’s him talking, not me.) He tells me how happy they are to finally get to meet my daughter. Then he scowls at me.
“Now tell us why you had to wait until we died to have her!”
I should probably explain: My grandparents died of old age 14 and 20 years ago, and this is a recurring dream I’ve been having. Not that I don’t believe my dead grandparents would defy science to get in one final stab of Jewish guilt. But I suspect this dream more likely represents my own remorse about being an older dad.
You see, I waited until age 46 to reproduce. (My wife was 36.) We couldn’t have physically waited any longer. Due to the low quality of her eggs and the low motility of my little guys, our IVF doctor said there was only a 20 percent chance that the single embryo he created would even implant, much less ever attend college. (The two other embryos died.) The human body has an organic baby-making deadline, and my wife and I chose not to listen to it.
Not that I’m Tony Randall or anything, but being an older dad changes things. Quite a few of them.
There are benefits to being an older dad. Probably the greatest for me is that having a young kid makes you feel young. If my daughter wasn’t around for me to chase her around the apartment or the courtyard, I would just sit on the couch and accumulate arterial plaque. And because she insists that we never fast-forward over the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, so she can have a dance break, I recognized the names of at least a quarter of last year’s Grammy Awards nominees.
Also, my friends who had kids in their 20s are now empty-nesters. They’re finally free of all parental obligations and want to party like it’s 1999. Only, it’s not 1999 anymore, and they’re old people just like me now. I got to experience being childless when I was young and stupid enough to fully enjoy it – for 24 glorious, globetrotting, godless years after college.
There are benefits for her, too. Some research suggests that the children of older dads are likely to have higher IQs and grades. Due to longer telomeres in their chromosomes, they’re also thought to live longer.
More importantly, my daughter gets higher-quality fathering. I’m more emotionally up for the task, less likely to sweat the small stuff and less focused on my own life than back when all my attention went toward building what I thought was a career and failing at what I thought were long-term relationships.
This is the part where you expect to add that I’m also more financially stable than I would have been in my 20s, 30s, or 40s. But I’m a journalist. I actually earn less money than the inadequate amount I made 20 years ago. Less by almost half. (This year, I had to withdraw $50 grand from my 401k just to cover my half of our family’s expenses.)
I’m actually lucky to have my current full-time journalism job at all after six years of abject unemployment. But I’m also lucky that those unemployed six years overlapped exactly with my daughter’s first six. She got to climb jungle gyms, go out for pizza and laugh at her own farts with her (literal) old man by her side every day.
Sure, I was there involuntarily and it would have been nice to eat pizza once without worrying, “Crap, I’m never going to have a full-time job with health benefits again, crap, I’m never going to have a full-time job with health benefits again.” But I was there, and I think that’s what she’ll remember.
I’m now 52 and don’t look my age, which is great. (It wasn’t great while trying to avoid the inside of middle-school lockers because I looked like a fetus with hair. But it’s great now.) So my daughter doesn’t really notice the 20-30 years I have on all the other dads at her school yet – just that I’m the only one who screams “Love you!” in Pee-Wee Herman’s voice, over and over, as I drive alongside her on her walk to the school gate. (I never claimed not to be an a-hole dad.)
I’m starting to feel my age inside, and this is where the benefits end. As other dads scale cliffs, launch IPOs, and bike 30 miles a morning, I have gout and cataracts, two teeth that fell out due to bone loss, and get cranky without two naps a day. I could be my own daughter’s grandfather.
Speaking of which, I remember my grandfather telling me once, as I slipped into my upper 20s and he into his upper 70s: “You are wasting your youth on yourself.”
At the time, this pissed me off. The fact that I didn’t have a wife and children yet was selfish of me, but it wasn’t selfish of him to try to manipulate me into creating a tiny human being just for his own enjoyment?
Strangely, now, I can actually see some validity in his point.
I would never pressure my daughter to procreate the way my grandfather pressured me, but even if I am lucky enough to get to meet my own grandchild, my daughter is likely to be caring for a newborn and one or two elderly parents simultaneously.
And she’s an only child. So, if she chooses not to be with someone else by age 30, she will be juggling these unimaginably stressful tasks all by herself, an awful period that will be followed by an even worse one — the loss of her entire immediately family.
The Ugly Truth
Even at 52, I still rely on elderly parents to be there for my financial support. When my daughter had a five-freaking-thousand-dollar deductible on her tonsillectomy, it wasn’t magic that paid it. (I’m not telling you this to impress you.)
But I hadn’t even thought of the emotional support they provide me simply by being still alive. I can (and still do) call my mom whenever I want to clarify a childhood memory or regale her with my latest funny fatherhood story — something my childhood friends won’t tolerate, because I never even bothered learning their kids’ names back when I was childless.
These are important supports my daughter won’t have. According to life-expectancy charts issued by the CDC, she can expect to lose me before she is 30. Then, after my wife dies — if she doesn’t precede me — my daughter will be all alone in the world.
So yeah, my grandfather’s point had some validity.
Then again, if I sped things up, if I rushed things out of guilt so my grandfather could have met his great-granddaughter, he wouldn’t have met her anyway. He would have met the fruit of some other sperm and egg who — judging from my pre-wife romantic choices — only got to see its father on weekends and holidays.
My daughter is only who she is because we waited abnormally long to have a child.
Also, I know it’s a cliché, but isn’t it quality time that matters over quantity? Losing a parent is painful whatever age the parent is. So isn’t it better to cry about losing a great dad earlier than to cry about losing a less-great one later?
I didn’t plan to wait until you died to have a child, Grandpa and Grandma. It happened due to a series of choices I made along the way. But I wouldn’t make any of them differently if I could.
So, I’m sorry I disappointed you. Now, if you could stop interrupting my dreams about Scarlet Johansson, I would greatly appreciate it.