THE FACT OF THE MATTER
So, Robert De Niro, the Method actor of his generation, has become a father for the seventh time at age 79. And the news has caused a furore not seen since that infamous Will Smith slap at last year’s Oscars’ ceremony.
Flora Gill, daughter of London Times journalist AA Gill who died at age 62, wrote the other day in the London Independent: “I’m afraid to say that my first thought when hearing the ‘happy’ news was, ‘How incredibly selfish.’ I have my own bias, of course. I no longer have a dad. I was an adult, a fully-grown 25-year-old, and yet losing my father, age 62, still broke me. My dad died six years ago but missing him is still constant.”
Ms Gill goes on to say that the selfishness of De Niro is evidenced in the rather obvious outcome that the actor will most likely depart this world when his seventh child is still relatively young and the child will thus be denied a father in his or her life.
Men and women who want children are having them later in life than a generation ago, what with the desire to travel the world, or building careers and trying to get a downpayment on a mortgage. For a woman, today, to give birth in her early 40s is not an isolated event. Yet, after age 30, women still attract frequent reminders about the ‘ticking of their biological clock’.
Not so men. Isn’t Bob De Niro the boyo might well be the refrain. But men, research now shows, have biological clocks ticking too. By their late 30s, they might well consider how old is too old to be a dad. Most researchers investigating older dads start with those in their 40s. Although, believe it or not, some even put 35-year-olds and up in the ‘older fathers’ category.
The average age of fathers has been steadily increasing since the Seventies. For example, in this neck of the woods dads used to be 25.5 years old when registering a birth, but they’re now 33.3 years old.
If you’re still in your 20s or 30s, you have a better chance of fathering a child than if you’re 40 or older because, before age 40, men have higher-quality sperm. Given sperm contain half the instructions for making a baby, pregnancy is easier with top-notch swimmers, as it were. However, we need to put these risks into perspective. The odds of issues occurring are still only small for babies of older dads because they are quite low to start with.
Top-notch swimmers aside, there are other considerations. The fact that, like older grandparents, an older father may also have less energy for parenthood than a 20-something. Another surprise of having children later in life is that your friends could be younger. Your existing friends might be long past the nappy phase, and are now sending their ‘babies’ to university. But you’ll meet dads in the same stage of life as you go through your child’s schooling and such. Through shared parenting challenges, your social circle will expand with younger families.
A more stable money and career comes into play too with older fathers and there is also, with age, the wonderful attributes of wisdom, patience and perspective. The life experience that older dads bring is undoubtedly valuable for fatherhood. Researchers report that older fathers show better parenting skills, more involvement with their children and greater maturity. By age 40 or 50, you’ve probably had richer experiences to broaden your horizons, which someone in their 20s hasn’t yet had.
A former colleague of mine who became a dad again at 57 says being an older father makes his son lucky: “He is lucky because I am old enough to give my son what I could never have given him when I was younger and that is patience. Older dads are more patient, I think because we know we will probably never go through all this again… these moments are one-off gifts.”
At the end of the day, if you can’t work the self-checkout at a supermarket or log onto iCloud without a grandchild to show you the ropes, you probably shouldn’t be juggling a newborn.
I’m reminded of that line from When Harry Met Sally, when Meg Ryan’s Sally points out that Charlie Chaplin was still having babies at 73. “Yeah,” says Billy Crystal’s Harry. “But he was too old to pick them up.”
Meanwhile, I wonder how De Niro’s knees are?