From the June 2016 issue of The Rotarian
When my wife, Erin, first got pregnant, we did what almost every newly expectant couple does: We enrolled in a childbirth class. Every Thursday night, we wandered down to the musty basement of a nearby hospital, where a cheerful woman named Susan offered us first-time parents a graphic account of all the joyous terrors to come.
At 39, I expected to be the senior member of the group. In fact, at least five dads appeared older than me. One guy in particular, mostly bald and hobbled by a balky knee, looked to be in his 50s. He never wanted to sit on the floor for the breathing exercises, because, he joked, he feared he might never be able to get back up. Erin and I initially (and erroneously) took him to be the baby’s grandfather.
A decade has passed since we took that class, but I still sometimes think about that old dad, no doubt because I am now 49 years old and find myself, rather unexpectedly, with a toddler, in addition to a nine- and a seven-year-old.
Not surprisingly, I live in what probably ranks as ground zero for older parents: a suburb of Boston where folks tend to pursue advanced degrees and promotions before starting families. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly a third of all babies in Massachusetts are born to women 35 or older. As a rule, the dads are even older.
This pattern is obvious in neighborhoods like mine. My dad neighbors are in their late 30s or 40s. Like me, they tend to emerge on weekends clutching giant mugs of coffee and looking sleep-deprived.
What’s harder to see is the subtle but dramatic demographic shift taking place all across America. In 1970, the average age of a new mother was 21. Today, it’s almost 26. The age of first-time fathers is inching toward 30. And while birth rates are slumping generally, among people over 40, they’re actually on the rise.
Sociologists even have a name for us: the sandwich generation. The idea is that we’re sandwiched between the needs of small children and elderly parents.
To be perfectly clear: I could not be more thrilled to have become a father to three beautiful children. In many respects, I’m glad I delayed having kids. I’m more financially and emotionally stable, a good deal calmer, and probably more realistic about my limitations than I was at 30 or 35.
But there are aspects of raising children at this, uh, advanced age that have come as a rude shock. The most obvious is that our parents have been aging right along with us.
In late June 2013, our youngest daughter, Rosalie, was born. Two days later, my brother called to inform me that my mother was in an intensive care unit. She had fallen and gone into a delirium.
I immediately flew to California, leaving my very tired wife with a newborn and two other young children. Her parents were one state away, but they had health problems of their own that made travel difficult.
The delirium was an acute episode, from which my mom recovered. But her fight against cancer, which began seven years ago, has been ongoing. It hasn’t stopped her from being a loving and attentive grandma. But it has created a certain mood of anxiety around our recent visits.
Erin and I know that our children are lucky to have four engaged and adoring grandparents. But they are all in their late 60s and 70s, and they are all battling various chronic illnesses. But even without this looming heartbreak, we still face a daunting task: the physical rigors of raising children at an age more often associated with grandparenting.
My patient and optimistic wife reminds me that our children will keep us young. And I very much want to agree with her. But on dark days (as, say, when bending over to change Rosalie sends a shooting pain down the back of my legs), I torture myself by calculating how old I’ll be when my youngest enters kindergarten (52), learns to drive (63), and graduates from college (69).
My age has become something of a joke around our house. “Don’t worry, Papa,” nine-year-old Josie will tell me, “when you can no longer walk us to school, we’ll get you a wheelchair.”
I appreciate her good humor, of course. But a real sense of shame is lurking beneath my laughter. After all, when I was Josie’s age, my dad was leading my brothers and me up steep trails in the Sierra Nevada and coaching my soccer practices, not stretching his hamstrings on the living room rug and popping Advils.
I don’t want my children to see me as invulnerable or immortal. But I feel haunted by the notion that I may be a burden to them at precisely the moment when they are leaving the nest and making their own way in the world.
Even if I remain in exceptionally good health, it’s hard to imagine that I’ll be the kind of active grandparent that I, for instance, had growing up. In fact, if our children wait as long as we did to have kids, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get to meet our grandchildren at all.
I don’t mean any of this to be depressing. I’m simply trying to face the reality of a parenthood that begins so much later than in previous generations.
In some sense, we’re in uncharted territory as a society. Who can gauge the impact of parents in their 50s raising teenagers, for example, especially given the ways in which technology is transforming youth culture?
A silly but illuminating example: My seven-year-old, Judah, often visits me in my office, which is decorated with manual typewriters. A few weeks ago he asked me what “the machines with all the letters” were for.
I explained that they were used to write with before computers came along. “I had that one all the way through college,” I told him, pointing at my beloved Royal.
He looked at me with an expression of indulgent incredulity. “Seriously,” he said. “What are they really for?”
As you may have figured out by now, I can get pretty grumpy about all this when I let myself go. Erin has a healthier outlook. “What matters isn’t our age or our energy level,” she tells me. “It’s our ability to appreciate and love.”
This may be the one overarching attribute to being an older parent: It has renewed my sense of wonder and gratitude at the human arrangement.
Choosing to have a child is, after all, the most audaciously hopeful thing you can do. It’s the kind of decision you can’t make based on age or ease. It has to be driven by a deep desire to enact your love regardless of the inconveniences.
As an older parent, I do live closer to my own frailty and mortality. I’m more fatigued, day to day, and more aware of all that can and will go wrong down the line. But on most days, this perspective has the rescuing effect of making me more humble, more present, and more grateful for the blessed moments we have.
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.