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Old father time: becoming a dad later in life

Many men are now in their 40s or 50s when children come along. But there are risks, say experts

Brendan Phelan with his children Talia and Alana and wife Sabina Bonnici.

It starts with a bump in the night, or frisky afternoon delight if you’re that way inclined. When getting busy under the sheets has an end game that lasts longer than a few ooohs and aaahs.

But let’s rewind a bit before Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am ends up with being a literal mam. Having kids is not for everyone and I salute anyone who openly says, “Hell, no,” to the idea of having kids and bats away the backlash – like Jon Hamm or Helen Mirren, who have openly said no to the idea of babies.

The social pressure to procreate when in our late 20s and early 30s is fierce – even though we don’t live in a dated world anymore when getting married is the precursor to bouncing babies and happy families. Raising babies is not for everyone. We are choosing different paths which don’t naturally have more than our footprints in the sand. But sometimes we wander onto that path towards 2.4 children a little later in life, when the grey hairs are curling around our ears.

Older men have higher levels of DNA fragmentation which has anecdotally been linked to increase risk of autism and schizophrenia

For men, creeping into their late 40s, expecting a baby may not be ideal but it is also not uncommon. As with most things in life, there are risks with conception. Dr Tim Dineen of Waterstone Clinic says that while men do not have the same age restrictions as women in terms of fertility, the ability to father a child does seem to decline as men get older. He says: “Studies have found that semen quality diminishes, volume lessens and motility and the shape of sperm decline, which all reduce the ability of a man’s sperm to fertilise an egg. A recent study in the USA found that there are additional risks for the baby, demonstrating that fathers older than 45 had a 14 per cent greater chance of their babies being born prematurely and at low birth weight (each of which can cause long-term complications). As the fathers’ ages rose, their babies were more likely to need help with breathing and require admission to the neonatal intensive care unit.”

And in another attempt to scare us into procreating earlier in life, Dineen reminds us of something else which has been suggested. “Older men have higher levels of DNA fragmentation which has anecdotally been linked to increase risk of autism and schizophrenia.” So, the perfect age for a man to have a baby is somewhere around 30. But with the rising costs of living, a change in attitudes to parenthood and life in general, and technological intervention appearing to be a solution, it’s not uncommon to see men stepping into fatherhood later in life.

‘Irish twins’

“I’d never really thought about having kids when I was younger,” says Brendan, who liked kids but liked them best when they were other people’s kids he could walk away from. A sentiment I think a lot of us can relate to whether we’re parents or not. “But when my wife and I were nearing the age when we had to decide one way or the other, she definitely wanted to have children and, to be honest, I wondered if I might be missing out if we didn’t. Soon after, we had our little daughter, Talia. Gluttons for punishment, and just over a year-and-a-half later, when I was nearly 50 years old, Alana was born on New Year’s Eve, 2018. We now have two under two, also known as a set of Irish twins.”

Being a dad was great when I was younger and it is great now. I feel the life experience I gained in the additional years will benefit my children

While I’m sure Brendan never envisaged becoming a dad later in life, the challenges we expect him to voice are about shuffling through the clouds of fatigue to the point of not being able to make any rational decisions. But his positivity about being an older dad is refreshing, as is that of Kieran, who became a father for the first time at 30, with the last arriving recently at 44.

“Being a dad was great when I was younger,” Kieran says, “and it is great now. I feel the life experience I gained in the additional years will benefit my children. In the sense that I have more wisdom to offer them and I am also surer of my own path, which is probably going to have a positive effect on them as well. I am also more aware of how fast time is passing in general and how fleeting those first few years are. I try to soak up the moments I get with all my children and enjoy their different ages.”

Energy

It seems the older dad has a way of rationalising this important stage in his life and not taking anything for granted. Brendan recognises that the energy of a 30-year-old in comparison to his 50 years will always differ, but with two young babies, the vigour is revitalised. “I think the mentality required to really play with children on their level helps keep us younger too,” says Brendan, “So, with two energetic wee girls, I’m going to be playing with toys and make-believe for some time.”

Kieran doesn’t feel like his age has had a huge effect on how he parents, which may come down to the fact he already had four children before he was recently classed as an older dad with a newborn. “Maybe I worry less,” he says, adding, “I am also a bit surer of the direction I want to go with my parenting and am generally a bit more relaxed. I don’t feel the need to have it all anymore. The nights are more draining than they were at 30 though.”

My biggest regret is that, statistically at least, the likelihood is I won’t be around to enjoy my girls when they have grown up

Like most of us, Kieran worries about the physical aspect of being older. “If my 14-year-old wants to head out to kick the ball, I just go. If they want to play catch or just mess about on the grass, I am there with them. I’m not sure if I will still be able to do this as easily when my now six-month-old is a teenager and I am 60.”

There is one regret for the older dad and it’s one that stings. As our children grow older, so do we. Both Brendan and Kieran are quite aware of the future. “My biggest regret is that, statistically at least, the likelihood is I won’t be around to enjoy my girls when they have grown up. I’ll be lucky to be 80 when they’re 30. You never know though. But best to make the most of the time now and enjoy each moment as it comes,” says Brendan

At the end of the day, when it comes to being a dad of a new-born in your 40s or 50s, Kieran suggests to stay in the moment. “Try not to worry about the future or focus on your age too much. Having kids is wonderful and while it hits you a little harder when you’re a bit older than the average dad, it is worth it and they certainly keep you young and active.”