In My Own Write: Second families

How do men cope with the demands of late fatherhood?

Gordon Brown with newborn son 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gordon Brown with newborn son 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While I was walking home from our local makolet carrying two bags of milk, I saw a tall, grey-haired man coming toward me, a small child toddling alongside. As he drew near, smiling, I recognized a fairly new neighbor with whom I have exchanged greetings in the parking lot, without any deeper acquaintance. I don’t even know his name.
“Hi there,” he said.
“Hi,” I responded. “Is this your grandson?” “It’s my son,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, always ready to put my foot in it, “I didn’t mean to imply that you were old.”
“I am old,” he answered. “This is my second family.”
We bid each other a friendly goodbye, and I got the impression that our relationship, such as it was, had not been unduly harmed by my faux pas.
But the encounter did spur some reflection.
WITH DIVORCE rates rising – in Israel as elsewhere – it is no longer a rarity to come across fathers of small children who might be mistaken for their children’s grandfathers.
My chance encounter made me wonder about the reality of daily life for the “emerging brotherhood of men in their 40s, 50s or 60s rearing young ones again at the same time they have adult children, and sometimes grandchildren as well.” (Sharon Jayson in USA Today, September 2011) While it must be a boost to a man’s sense of his own powers and a confirmation of his enduring vitality to sire a child late in life, what price is there to pay when the gap between his age and his child’s is half a century or more? Not surprisingly, the toll is one of energy.
I had a flashback to many years ago, when a couple who belonged to our synagogue adopted a small child from a South American country. The adoptive father was in his sixties, rather overweight, and I remember seeing him in the park with his new daughter and feeling rather sorry for him as he huffed and puffed trying to keep up with a tireless three-year-old.
A friend who married a much younger woman when he was in his sixties fathered a child at age 69. Life with his now almost fiveyear- old son is a joy, he declared, “always interesting, never boring.”
But he admitted that taking care of the child is tiring, and he is quite happy for his wife to assume more responsibility for the nitty-gritty of looking after their son and the effort of keeping him entertained.
Another friend calls her brother-in-law, now in his fifties, “a fantastic father” to the two young daughters of his second marriage.
“He’s rather laissez faire – he doesn’t waste a lot of energy on laying down the law – but at the same time he’s utterly caring and reliable, and the children, now two and four, seem very happy.”
The younger daughter was born with Down Syndrome, and my friend added how touched and impressed she was by his sweetness to the child.
MUCH WEIGHT has been given to older mothers’ increased risk of giving birth to babies with Down’s and other disorders. Far more controversial has been the suggestion that aging fathers may pose health risks to their offspring.
Epidemiological evidence over the past few years has suggested that as men get older, their odds of having a child with autism, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – or Down’s – may increase.
Sperm cells divide continuously – about 840 times by the time a man reaches 50 – and the theory is that each round of DNA replication increases the chance of spontaneous mutation, leading to possible disorders in the children born. Some researchers have put the mutation rate in males at about five times that in females.
Is it reasonable to assume that a man should age physically in every respect but his sperm? asked one woman commentator, implying that male pride might lie at the root of a reluctance to face the likelihood of men, too, having a “biological clock.”
WHEN A man has a second family, what becomes of his relationship to his first one? And when children are born in this “second round,” what happens when the two groups of children (backed by their mothers) make conflicting demands on their shared father’s time and energy? How does he deal fairly with his past and present family obligations? A blogger who calls herself Izetti goes into compelling detail about the thorny problems that can arise in second marriages where “first children” exist, lamenting that “nobody teaches a divorced person how to transition into another marriage and family, or how to deal with balancing the two.”
She herself is in her first marriage; it’s her husband’s second.
“I’ve never had to compete for a man before,” she writes, “but I often feel I’m competing for importance between the ex-wife and their child together. He seems to be their representative and voice in all our arguments, whereas I am the rep for myself and our daughter.”
The reason her husband, and other fathers in a similar position, appear to put their former family obligations before their current ones, she says, is “for fear of being labeled a dead-beat or irresponsible dad.”
“Sometimes my husband has to drop everything... to tend to a crisis situation with his first family. Is this the responsible and right thing to do? Yes and no. Sometimes it’s during a crisis with our current family.”
As in most situations, she notes, the boundaries are unclear.
“How much of the first family do you have to sacrifice to make the second marriage work?” she asks.
When it’s a contest between the needs and demands of “our children” vs “your children,” the going can get really rough, with emotion blocking openness and honest communication. Juggling financial obligations to each family muddies the waters even further.
Izetti concludes, fascinatingly, with something she was once told by a marriage counselor: “A second or subsequent marriage is to be treated as a special-needs relationship, with extra communication, nurturing, etc.”
Step-children, the counselor added, also fall into the special-needs category.
I would echo this advice, adding only that given the rising divorce rate, it applies to all marriages – first ones as well.
‘WE OLDER fathers make a better go of parenting,” claimed Charles Glass in Britain’s Evening Standard on October 13 last year, noting that “in Britain, one in 10 babies is born to a man over the age of 45. Since 1980, the number of men between 35 and 40 fathering children has risen 40 percent. At the same time, fatherhood among men under 30 has declined by a fifth.”
Fathers are getting older, he declared, and that is not necessarily bad for the children.
“Laugh at us,” Glass invited readers. “Mock us. Don’t pity us or our children. “My friends who preceded me into late fatherhood are much gentler to their late-born children than they were to the first batch. They have learned, from mistakes the first time around, how to be fathers.”
When these men were young, Glass admitted, they were somewhat more agile than they are now in playing tennis or football with their children. But, on the other hand, they were in the middle of their careers, rushing out of the house and leaving much of the parenting to the mothers.
In later life, “they are more likely to be fathers by choice, and this means they become more positively involved with the child.”
Added John Preston, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in a Telegraph column: “It frankly amazes me that women even consider reproducing with a man under the age of 45.”
SO DO older men make better fathers? Enough variables of circumstance and temperament exist to make the question not exactly irrelevant, but perhaps the wrong one to pose.
It seems to me that the question fathers of all ages – and mothers, too – should be asking themselves on a regular basis is: “How do I use the advantages of my current stage in life to be the best parent I can be to my children?”