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The Sydney Morning Herald

Don't call me grand dad

Author: Fenella Souter
Date: 10/03/2012
Words: 3621
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 12
For most men, turning 60 means a run towards retirement and lazy days at the club. For late-life fathers, it can mean sleepless nights, dirty nappies, the chance they won't be around to see their child finish school ... oh, and joy. By Fenella Souter.

When mike carlton, at 62, learnt that his 34-year-old wife was pregnant, he started doing what many expectant fathers of his age do: arithmetic. He calculated he would be 80-something by the time the child was ready for university. His son and daughter from his first family would be entering their 50s.

In the late 1990s, the broadcaster and journalist struck up a relationship with Morag Ramsay, who had been his producer at ABC Radio. He was 52, she was 23. They fell "madly, deeply in love", says Carlton, who was then coming out of a long marriage, and the yawning age gap was irrelevant. Both continued frantic careers, Carlton on Sydney's 2UE and Ramsay in television, where she is now a producer on Four Corners. Ten years into the relationship, Ramsay fell pregnant.

Carlton found himself in the circumstance that faces many men who enter a relationship with a much younger, often childless woman who wants babies. Looming into view are a familiar set of mountains to climb, and nappies to change, but this time with a seniors card in one hand. Visions of idly working on their golf game or serenely composing memoirs in a book-lined study, in a house free of colourful toys and colicky babies, are replaced by the ticking of a biological clock and, before they know it, evenings spent singing The Wheels on the Bus.

Carlton, now 66, says he was open to the idea of another child, although not pushing for it. "We did talk about it early on. She always wanted one and I think she probably wants six now. I wasn't crazy about it, because I'd been there and done all that and had two adult kids, but I'd always said that if she wanted to have a child, then we would."

If part of Carlton secretly hoped it would never happen, he has no regrets that it has. Most of the men who spoke to Good Weekend on the record felt the same, although a few who wished to remain anonymous said that while they adored their new children, they were finding it a slog as time went on. One quietly admitted that if he'd realised how exhausting it would be - embarking again on the protracted process of child-rearing and finding himself back in the same domestic situation he'd left, but with a wife at a very different stage of life - he might have reconsidered.

For Carlton, it was mostly a matter of absorbing the initial shock when Ramsay confirmed she was pregnant. "I was stunned. One, I was delighted because she was so transparently happy but, two, I was nervous and very quickly started to do the sums ... Then I had to come to terms with, 'God, here we go again', back to nappies and toilet training and sitting on very small kindergarten stools at this age at interminable school concerts and parent-teacher nights. But it has been an absolute delight. Fabulous."

The only drawback he acknowledges applies to all parents of young children: the around-the-clock responsibility. Unlike grandchildren, these ones can't be handed back.

"It is more confining," Carlton admits. "I can't just take off for a paddle or a swim. Long weekday lunches with mates are a thing of the past. But I'm perfectly content knocking around the house. We live on the beach, so we go there a lot, building sandcastles and so on. I don't miss that boring old first-night/restaurant scene I used to be part of. You grow out of it.

"Occasionally, I miss the intellectual company, when you realise the only person you've spoken to all day is the butcher to buy some steak and the rest of your conversation has been with a three-year-old, although he did ask me about the Afghanistan war the other day."

Perhaps to the irritation of their earlier families, many "start-over dads" claim to be making a much better fist of fathering this time (although it's worth noting there's also a subgroup of lousy older fathers, idling on the sidelines, too old to be interested). Mike Carlton, for example, once a notorious workaholic who admits he was absent for periods of his first two children's lives, seems to have turned into a model father with Lachlan over the past year, even delivering baked goods to the local mothers' group from time to time.

No longer in the punishing world of radio, he has time on his hands. He continues to write his column for The Sydney Morning Herald and he's hoping to write another book - in 2010, he published a history of HMAS Perth - but for the moment describes himself archly as a "domestic drudge". He cooks and shops and looks after Lachlan when the child is not at kindergarten or when Ramsay is at work part-time. "I've actually learnt how to use a washing machine for the first time in my life," he says, apparently without shame.

"On my first round," says Carlton, "I was building a career and working stupid hours and trying to pay off a mortgage and drinking too much. This is much more relaxed. I can devote enormous amounts of time to him and I'm enjoying it. With the first two kids, I was in and out of their lives, but I think that's true of a lot of men at that time of life."

His daughter, Alexandra, 34, who has a five-year-old, and his first son, James, 31, get on famously with Lachlan, Carlton says, although he admits they probably "recognise" the new kid gets more time and attention. "But I don't think they resent it. I think they understand what I was trying to do, build a career and become a megastar."

From a new wife's perspective, an older man who has parented before can be a gift. "It's really reassuring to have a father who has all that experience," recalls one mother, married to a man who has three adult children. "There are so many things you don't know about when you're a new mother, but he's seen it all before. Like, is croup cough serious? I didn't know, but he did. When should you go to the doctor with fevers or ear infections? Our 11-year-old son is only interested in sport and doesn't read and my husband says, 'Oh, don't worry, they're like that at this age.'"

Still, even experienced fathers can have faulty memories. One former wife tells of her ex calling and asking if she had breastfed their children.

surprisingly, several late-life dads recalled their own negative feelings about having an older father or seeing other boys "burdened" with one. Says a Sydney musician who was 60 when his baby was born, "My father was 48. We weren't close and I did kind of resent it as a kid that he couldn't keep up. At football games and so on, all the other kids' dads were relatively young and mine seemed like this old guy and he was pretty grumpy."

Carlton says something similar: "I remember when I was at school looking at other kids who had older fathers and somehow pitying them that they were saddled with such an ancient figure." He laughs. "Now I've put my son in that camp."

With a higher rate of divorce and remarriage, more couples delaying parenthood, and a spirit of the times that suggests we can "have it all", regardless of stage of life, the snowy-haired, rheumy-eyed father won't be such a singular sight in the playground by the time Carlton's son Lachlan is in high school. Much older fathers are a small but growing band. In Australia in 2010, only 408 men aged 60-plus became fathers (compared with more than 18,500 men aged 32), but that was up from 261 in 2004 and 226 in 2000. As for those in their late 50s, 777 men aged 55 to 59 fathered a child in 2010, up from 674 in 2004 and 516 in 2000. The average age for Australian first-time fatherhood is 33.

At the extreme end of the older-father set are men like Rupert Murdoch, who had two children with Wendi Deng when he was in his early 70s, and the late Saul Bellow, who had his last child at 84. Others on the 60-plus-dad list include Robert De Niro at 68, Hugh Hefner at 65, Rod Stewart, at 60 and 66, Paul McCartney at 61, and talk-show host Larry King, at 65 and 66. Singer Julio Iglesias had the latest of his many children at 64, although he's a spring chicken compared to his father, a gynaecologist who fathered children at ages 89 and 90, after his 40-year-old wife underwent fertility treatment. Iglesias snr, who died days after the second pregnancy was announced, explained it thus: "At my age, a child is marvellous. If people say I just did it for my wife, I don't take it as an insult, but the truth is I wanted it just as much as her..." It was also, he said, "an act of generosity towards her. I need her so much that I said to her, 'Here, this is what you wanted for when I am gone.'"

Artists and musicians have a long tradition of late fathering. Pablo Picasso was 68 when Paloma was born. Australian artist Charles Blackman was 72 when his last, Axiom, arrived. At 67, tenor Luciano Pavarotti had twins, one stillborn, with his former secretary, 36 years his junior. Pavarotti died from pancreatic cancer just before his youngest daughter's fifth birthday.

In Australia, writer and former speechwriter Don Watson, in his 60s, recently had a daughter with his new partner, author Chloe Hooper, in her late 30s. At the time of writing, Age journalist Russell Skelton, 65, and his wife, journalist and ABC TV presenter Virginia Trioli, 47, were expecting their first baby. Last year, model Kristy Hinze, at 31, and her Netscape billionaire husband Jim Clark, then 67, had a daughter. Paul Hogan was 58 when he had a child, his sixth, with Crocodile Dundee co-star Linda Kozlowski. Hogan is now 72.

Late fathering isn't new, even if it seemed to fall out of fashion for a while. Nineteenth-century literature is littered with crusty old squires, young wives and mewling new heirs. Even Australian founding father Sir Henry Parkes, widowed, scandalously married his mistress at 73 and fathered his last child at 77.

Celebrity older fathers in the news have raised eyebrows but have rarely been more than the butt of half-admiring digs of the "sly old dog" variety. It's often hailed as a sign of virility. It was a different story when British woman Susan Tollefson, using IVF and a donor egg, became a first-time mother at 57. There were column inches of outrage and no shortage of moral judgment. She was accused of being "selfish" and "irresponsible" (and even Tollefson, struggling after her younger partner left her, admitted it may have been a mistake to provide IVF to a woman of her age). Was it just another case of double standards or does it suggest we continue to see fathers as more dispensable, somehow less necessary to the child's life ahead?

Any future embarrassment the child might feel at the sight of the "ancient figure" waving from the edge of the sports field pales in comparison to the more poignant question of whether an older father will be around to cause any. The children of older fathers live with the certainty, not merely the mischance, that at least one parent will die or be lost to them while they are relatively young. It's a tragedy built into their life's course from conception. On the other hand, they may be fathered more intensely because of that knowledge.

On average, today's 65-year-old male can expect to live to 83 or 84, but in unknown condition. The possibility of dying, being felled by a stroke or set adrift in the fog of dementia before Lachlan reaches adulthood is "something we just live with but don't dwell on", Mike Carlton says. The former passionate drinker and ardent smoker has reformed and is now doing his best to stay alive.

Says Carlton, "I now want to be on the planet as long as I can to see as much of Lachlan as I can. I want to see him develop into a fully-fledged adult male with some sort of career or direction. I'd like to know what he's going to study at university."

There are some stark reminders that old age is a cruel master whose hoary forward march no amount of hipster hats, hair dye or blind hope can stop. Former NSW premier Neville Wran made news last year when a wrangle broke out over Wran's health, with his wife, Jill Hickson, claiming he was suffering from dementia and others, including his daughter from his first marriage, insisting he wasn't. It now seems he is indeed in the grip of a form of dementia. Wran was in his early 60s when he had two children to the much younger Hickson. While he was clearly firing on all cylinders back then, the passing of 20 years has taken its toll. At 84, he looks worryingly frail. Their two children are now in their early 20s.

The fathers who spoke to Good Weekend said that while they no longer had the energy and stamina of their youth, they still felt fit and vigorous in their 60s, even if the outside world mistakes them for old men. A few years ago, Canberra teacher and saxophonist Mitchell Burns, who had retired from his job with the Education Department, was working in a pizza cafe in Canberra.

"We needed takeaway cups or something that were in a loft out the back. You had to get a ladder and rummage around. I said to the young guy I was working with that I'd go and he said, sincerely, not with any disrespect, 'Oh, can you manage the ladder?' I looked at him and said, 'I'm sure I can.' He said he wasn't sure if his dad would have been able to."

Burns, 66, is equally confident he'll be able to kick an AFL football when his latest son, Leon, now 2, grows up. "If I'm here, then I expect to be here being useful. I suppose I'm not really considering that I'd be here and not much use."

A devoted and engaged father of four other sons - Sam and Joey, now in their late 20s, from his second marriage, and two teenage sons, Miles and Francis, with his current wife, Marie - Burns was delighted by the news of his wife's surprise pregnancy after a 16-year gap. "I couldn't think of anything I would look forward to more than having another little one." His first grandchild was born four weeks after Leon.

Like others, Burns appears to be meeting late fatherhood with a chirpy mix of optimism and denial. He has weathered some painful setbacks without losing his hopefulness about life: his first wife was killed in a car accident when the couple were in their 20s; some years ago he had a serious accident with a chainsaw; and last year his younger brother died unexpectedly. To support the family, he is working part-time as a teacher, this time with children in court custody, many of whom have endured brutal home lives. It's made him think the length of parenting matters less than the love. His income is modest. The family of five is squeezed into a tiny flat in Queanbeyan.

"We had two small bedrooms," he says. "Now we've got three even smaller ones. But while those kinds of things are pressures, it's really about the quality of life. The quality of life isn't the material possessions. It's the joy of the relationships.

"I'd love to be spending every day with Leon but, because of my financial situation, I have to work three days a week to get by. I can't set up trust accounts or put anything aside in that sense, so I can just try to be the best present, on-site dad that I can be, here and now, with what I've got."

Dr Peter Gill, director of non-profit research organisation the Blue Whale Study in Victoria's south-west, became a father for the first time at 58. His son, Felix, is now 21 months. "I'd been in and out of relationships all my life, but it had never quite worked out to have children," he explains from the family's home in bushland, his voice deceptively youthful. He is in charge of childcare that morning and breaks off to comfort a howling Felix who has dropped a piece of wooden railway line on one foot.

"So it was always a lack in my life," he resumes, with Felix now merrily playing inside a cardboard box. "Then, in late 2003, when I was also working as a lecturer and guide and boat driver on Antarctic tourist voyages, I met Susie and we hit it off. After various ups and downs we decided to get married. She was 18 years younger than me and very keen to have children, so suddenly it seemed possible."

Susie was 40 when the baby was born and Gill just days shy of 59. Susie had been 33 when they met. "We waited a little while and then we tried for a couple of years to get pregnant, a bit of a struggle, but we got there in the end."

Felix was born with a cleft lip and palate but subsequent operations have been successful. Gill was the only father Good Weekend spoke to who was aware that late fathering posed health risks to the offspring, although he hadn't thought this defect was one of them. It is listed in some of the scientific literature, although the association is not conclusive (see box on page 15).

A cyclist, walker, adventurer and chopper of fire-wood, Gill, too, is hoping to defy the ravages of age. "Now that Felix is on the scene, there's no choice," he says. "I have to stay young for another 20 years in effect. I have to be a father to a very young child, but that's a beautiful thing. My ambition now is to attend his 30th birthday party. I'll be 88."

Gill, like the others, is besotted. "Nothing really prepares you for the feeling. And it still surprises me to look at him and think, 'This beautiful child is my child, my son.'"

Has fatherhood changed him? "I think it has started to. I see Felix as my guru in life now, in a way. I'm going to learn about myself from

him, and through him I've reconnected with my own childhood."

Mike Carlton says something similar: "Lachlan is a lovely, engaging little boy and - this sounds like a terrible cliche - but he 'keeps me young', quote unquote. I'm taking him to kindy now and I'm the oldest person in the building by far but it invigorates me, in fact."

Another father, who didn't wish to be named, wasn't so convinced that late fatherhood keeps a man young. "That's what other fathers keep telling me," he says with a grim laugh. "I dunno. I'm so tired most of the time, I feel older."

A first-time father, he had no idea of the workload or the non-unionised hours. "There have been rocky moments, mostly because of fatigue and lack of sleep. It has definitely put strains on the relationship. I'm sure we'll pull through, but I do worry sometimes that I'm not up to the task."

Has he ever wished he hadn't agreed to a baby?

"Fleetingly. Just every now and again I think, 'Oh God, what have I done?' But that lasts for a nanosecond. The joy and the richness this little kid brings into my life more than make up for it. When someone says the word fatherhood to me, I get all warm and fuzzy."

Older dads, at-risk babies?

It's no secret that the babies of older women face greater risk of birth defects and conditions like Down syndrome, but so do the children of older fathers. Advanced paternal age, the medical term, has been linked to miscarriages, birth deformities, lower IQ, dwarfism and specific behavioural problems such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Some of the studies are inconclusive, but the evidence for an increased risk of schizophrenia is what Professor John McGrath, of the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, describes as "robust". A 2011 joint Scandinavian-Australian study, one of a number McGrath has worked on, found that compared to the offspring of fathers aged 20 to 24 years, children whose fathers were 55 and over had a twofold-increased risk of developing schizophrenia.

"With autism," he says, "the story is not perfectly clear because that seems to be linked with the mother's age as well."

When it comes to increased pregnancy risks for women, there's a clear turning point - from the age of 35 onwards. There is no critical age threshold for fathers. The risk just steadily rises across a man's life span because of the furious rate of cell division.

McGrath says that at present there's no need for panic or public-health warnings about delayed fatherhood; the risks and benefits are not fully understood.

Awareness, however, doesn't hurt. "We should be letting the community know that there's a solid, coherent body of research emerging, showing that the offspring of older dads have an increased risk of schizophrenia and autism, at least."

On the other hand, says McGrath, "having older parents is also pretty good on many outcomes as well. Older mothers and fathers tend to have more settled socioeconomic status, get better health care for their children, their pregnancies tend to be planned and they get the proper care."


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