What is the right Age to have a baby?
For many years, my parents didn’t want kids: they were having too much fun. They came round to the idea, but after a few years of trying were referred to a fertility consultant. My mum hadn’t yet booked an appointment when she realised her period was late. She went to see my dad in his pharmacy after closing time, and took a pregnancy test from the shelves. A few minutes later she was holding her breath, watching him climb on to a chair, as he held the test up to the light to make sure. Then he made her take another one. It was positive – and the GP’s letter was still in her bag. My mum, 39 when I was born, was classed as an “elderly primigravida” and he, at 51, was delighted to call himself an “elderly primigravidad”. Last October, we celebrated his 80th birthday.
My dad is an old dad. He was born 26 years before my partner’s dad, the same year as his grandmother. That’s pretty old – though nothing on Donald Trelford, the former Observer editor, who recently wrote about becoming a father again in May last year. He was 76 and a half when his daughter Poppy was born, and is proudly laying claim to the (unverified) title of “Britain’s oldest new father”.
Men having children at 75 and over is still rare – there were 15 cases in 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics – but older fathers are becoming less unusual. In 2002, 3.4% of babies in England and Wales were born to fathers aged 45 or over; a decade later, it was 4.8%. In 2013, there were 9,374 babies who, like me, were born to dads over 50. And, judging by population trends, there will be plenty more where we came from.
I wonder what life will be like for these children. When I was growing up, I never really noticed that my dad was older than everybody else’s, or that my parents’ friends all had kids who were at least 15 years my senior. I didn’t know it was unusual for dads to spend so much time at home with their children; it was my normal. He wasn’t an older father, he was just my Pops. When I was a little girl, he amazed me and my friends by wiggling his ears. On holidays, he taught me an old Hungarian Jewish card game he had learned as a boy. At weddings, I would drag him on to the dance floor and refuse to let go as we danced, song after song, my feet planted firmly on top of his freshly-polished shoes.
These days, I speak to him nearly every day. He’ll describe a lampshade he’s got his eye on in the local charity shop, or remind me of the time he saved my life when I was a baby, by taking a semi-deflated balloon out of my mouth, or come up with names for the salt beef bar he’d set up if he had his time again. He does make very good salt beef.
But in the spaces between these memories and calls and salt beef sandwiches, I have always been haunted by the shadow of his death. His age brought health problems that began when I was seven, when he had a heart attack on New Year’s Day. I don’t remember much about what happened, except for the excitement of eating dinner in Pizza Express on a school night, after visiting him in hospital. I do remember, a few years later, waking up in a hotel room in France in the middle of the night to see a group of men standing around my parents’ bed. My mum rushed over and told me to put on my slippers, and held my hand as we ran through the lobby in our nighties and out into an ambulance. My dad, lying on a stretcher, recited the names of all the tablets he was taking, my mum studiously noting them down. It was a false alarm, but every couple of years he has another scare and I rush to join him and Mum in hospital, preparing to say “I love you” for the last time, again. The anxious feeling fades, but it never really goes away.
I was 12 when he had an extreme reaction to medication he took for his heart condition. Overnight, he lost 80% of his sight, and it never came back. He says he sees the world as if it’s an impressionist painting, which I suspect is less pleasant than that sounds. His heart, his blindness and each new birthday have shaped our family dynamic. As a teenager, I was not just his daughter but his eyes, too, and I grew fiercely protective of him. When we fought, I wouldn’t argue back, I’d just cry. I never rebelled, I just worked as hard as I could and worried about how much cheese he was eating. The boundaries became blurred; I was never his carer, but I did become more caring.
We see each other about once a week, most often for a walk. We used to walk around the block seven times, which would take one hour and six minutes – we’d time ourselves. It was good exercise, and a chance to put the world to rights. It’s true that age brings wisdom; his advice is always canny. Not that I’m any more likely to follow it, of course. Sometimes, the cold air makes his chest hurt, so we cut our walks short, but the wisdom still comes strong and true. People often ask whether my father played sports with me as a child, but a long walk is as physically demanding as it gets for us. It wasn’t something I ever missed as a kid. Striding out arm in arm or hands loosely swinging by our sides, choreographing the perfect about-turn at the bottom of the hill, we felt the closeness others get from the rough and tumble of a football match.
Colin Perry, 35, from Edinburgh, did play football with his father, Walter, who was 57 when he was born, and who died in 2003. But only once. There was a 25-year age gap between his parents, and as well as an older brother and younger sister, Colin has three half-brothers from his father’s first marriage. “My dad did a lot of good-time living when he was young,” he says. “He was known for his poker exploits, fond of a gin or two, a heavy smoker.” But by the time Colin came along, his dad was winding down: “He would sometimes phase out of conversations, but he was still switched on when he wanted to be. He was always the smartest guy in the room.”
By the time Colin was a teenager, his father was very frail. He had muscle wastage in one leg, which meant he couldn’t get around the golf course any more. Colin says, “As I grew up, he had to walk slower and slower. I’d slow down, too – I didn’t want him to feel bad – but we reached a point where, if I slowed down any more, I would have been standing still. And there was no disguising that. Once, he said to me, ‘Do you think I’m decrepit?’”
It’s not that Colin felt he was missing out, but he was aware that other dads were more physically active. One weekend when Colin was 12, playing football by himself in the garden, his dad decided to join in. “I saw him shuffling up the path to the house, then he stopped in his tracks and turned to me with a curious look on his face. He took a few tentative steps towards me, and for the first and only time in my life took a few shots at me in goal, before shuffling wordlessly back inside. There was a lot going on in those few minutes.”
Perhaps as children of older fathers, we learn to be receptive to emotions expressed in different ways. Like Livia Kent, 37, whose father, Charles, was 62 when she was born, in Washington DC. “My dad wasn’t physical like my friends’ dads, who were all big bear hugs and basketball games,” she says, “but his affection came through in the stacks of articles he’d leave by my breakfast plate – cuttings he’d clip from the newspaper about things he thought I should find interesting.”
Her dad was born in 1915, in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, and lived in Paris and London before moving to the US. “He had an old-school European sensibility about him,” Livia says. “He was never concerned with American notions of modesty and wore Speedos at our local pool without a second thought. Since he was retired, he spent a portion of each day walking around the neighbourhood, book in hand, with nothing on save a pair of short shorts and a beret. ‘I saw your dad walking around,’ friends would often report. ‘Yep,’ I’d respond. What else could I say? I found it terribly embarrassing as a child, but it’s something I remember with great fondness now.”
That sense of embarrassment is shared by many of the people I spoke to about their older fathers, including Caroline Welling, whose dad, Peter, was 60 when she was born. As well as a sister who is a year older, she has three half-siblings from her dad’s first marriage, who are closer to the age of her friends’ parents. “I never thought of my dad as being older until primary school friends started calling him my grandad,” she says. “I felt embarrassed, so I lied and took 10 years off his age. I did that until I was 13, when I realised it really didn’t matter. I feel ashamed about it now.”
Caroline’s feelings changed when her class was doing a project on the second world war and her father came to talk about his time as an evacuee. He explained how, at eight, he was evacuated to Cornwall, then, when he was mistreated, brought back to London in the middle of the war. “He told us what it was like running into air raid shelters, and how his school was bombed and his two best friends blown to bits. I realised then how amazing my dad is and felt incredibly proud of what he’s gone through and accomplished in his life.”
My father was also evacuated during the war. As a child, he would play with the service medal his father was given after the first world war, aged 24. My father and Caroline’s were raised not in the 60s, like our friends’ parents, but in the 30s – and a gap of two generations creates a real cultural gulf. I was told children should be seen and not heard, which seems Victorian to me now – though when Dad was born, George V was on the throne.
For Hemal Rajani, from Bolton, the gulf was far more complex. Hemal was born 22 years after his older brother, when his dad, Ratilal, was 45. His childhood was shaped by loss; his mother died from a brain tumour when he was seven, his brother from a heart attack two years later. Father and son grieved separately. “He never spoke to me about them, never showed his feelings,” says Hemal. “On birthdays, he’d give me a card and say happy birthday, and that was it – he never liked a fuss. He had a very traditional, old-fashioned view of parenting. He saw his role as a provider.”
Hemal’s father worked night shifts in a cotton factory in Bolton, the first and only job he had after coming here from India, via Kenya, in the early 70s. Hemal spent a lot of time with his extended family and is still close to many of them. Now married with two boys of his own, aged five and seven, Hemal is a very different father: he never went to a single football match with his dad, even though they are both Manchester United fans; Hemal has already taken his boys to see their team play. He is hands-on, involved in every aspect of his sons’ upbringing. And they have brought out a different side to their grandfather: “He cuddles and kisses them all the time – he was never like this with me. Often he says, ‘I saw my grandchildren today, you’ve made me happy.’ It is quite something to see these emotions in him.”
Hemal will be passing on to his sons some important lessons he learned from his father. “My dad taught me I had to be independent and fend for myself. He made me hard-working, confident, driven.” Hemal had a part-time job throughout his education and that helped in his career, as well as his approach to life: “I’ve learned that nobody else can give me the things I want – I’ve got to do that. Two or three times a day, I look at where I am, where I’ve come from, the family I love, and I know it’s thanks to my dad. He made me the man I am.”
None of us can claim to speak for all children of older fathers, and I would not want to suggest that older fathers are better than younger fathers; but there has long been an assumption that the reverse is true. The first result that pops up on Google when you search for “older fathers” is an article dispiritingly titled Children Born To Older Fathers Are More Likely To Be Ugly. But it gets more serious than that. Before Caroline Welling was born, her parents struggled to conceive and decided to adopt. Her father was 60, and the only country that would allow them to adopt was Peru. As soon as the adoption went through and baby Luisa moved in, her mother became pregnant naturally with Caroline.
Although there is no upper age limit for adoption in the UK, guidance says that agencies will not usually consider an age gap of more than 45 years between child and adoptive parent. Of course, all children need stability – and this goes for adopted children perhaps more than for others – but for all the fuss about older parents, age is just one risk factor when it comes to life and death. No parent can honestly promise to be there for his or her child, regardless of when they conceive. I watch my cousins and friends who have lost fathers younger than mine, and I feel guilty, and grateful, that he is still here. I think my dad does, too. But they also show me that the relationship between father and child cannot be measured in years spent together. That’s not how love works.
Headlines tend to focus on older mothers rather than on older fathers, because while the average age continues to rise, they are more unusual: 0.3% of babies born in England and Wales in 2013 had mothers 45 and over, whereas 4.8% had fathers of the same age.
Ben Elphick is 15. His mum was 47 when he was born, his dad 51; he is an only child. His mother, Lucie, suffered five miscarriages before having him. Ben says, “When I started at primary school and I saw my friends being picked up by their mums at the school gates, I noticed they did look a bit younger than mine.” His mum once got mistaken for his grandmother on a school trip – she laughed it off, and it didn’t bother Ben. “I don’t think her age affects her,” he says. “I can talk to her about my life, and that’s the biggest factor that influences a child growing up, I think.” The experience hasn’t put him off older parenthood. “I’ve got a sense that my mum lived a full life before she had me – she doesn’t want to go on holidays without me or do stuff just with my dad, because they’ve done that already.”
While Ben’s friends say they want to start a family when they are in their 20s, he’d rather wait: “I’ve seen how important it is to get out and do stuff before you settle down. I want to go travelling and have adventures and different jobs before starting a family. My parents were more financially stable, and their relationship was stronger because they had been together longer before they had me – I think it’s been a good thing.”
I, too, would like to follow in my parents’ footsteps and make the most of my time with few responsibilities. But my father once told me he regretted having me so late in life, because he will know me for a shorter time. And I’m very aware that, should I wait as long as my parents did, my dad would never meet his grandchild. That makes me very sad, and there is no answer to it. I sometimes feel compelled to speed life up, to do it all right now, just to make sure my dad is there to see it happen. I resist – I don’t want to rush things – but ever since my dad’s heart attack, I have felt that we are living on borrowed, or bonus, time, our happiness balancing on the edge of a cliff, out of our control. When my mobile rang at work last week and I saw it was my mother calling, I panicked. She would never do that unless it was an emergency. I held my breath as I picked up the phone – but she had just called me by mistake.
I know these thoughts are circling around my father’s mind, too. He often talks about what I should do with their house when he and Mum are gone – “Never sell it, it’s a good investment” – and last year I went round to find a workman in their bathroom. He was taking out the shower door, which you would push in to enter, and putting it back the other way round, so it opened outwards. Dad told me, “Every morning I get in that shower and I think, if I collapse, I’ll fall and block the door, and no one will be able to get me out. It will be easier this way.” It was such a morbid explanation that I had to laugh, but the fact that he thought this every morning made my heart hurt. I hope that, when his health does deteriorate, I’ll be as gracious and caring as Livia was for her father. “It was a blessing and honour to take care of him in his last years,” she told me. He died aged 97.
In spite of all my worrying and last I-love-yous, here Pops is, still cracking jokes, still making salt beef and still falling asleep on the sofa at 80. But I know our luck won’t last for ever. I often think of the words of the Queen following 9/11, quoting psychiatrist Dr Colin Murray Parkes: “Grief is the price we pay for love,” she wrote. It’s a high price. But, as my dad would say, it’s a good investment.
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