On Being an Older Dad

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"See this line on her pinky?" the nurse said to us. "That's where she keeps her daddy."
“See this line on her pinky?”the nurse said to us. “That’s where she keeps her daddy.” – Photo: Derrick Schneider

I had just turned 42 when our daughter was born.

I’m an old dad. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the median age for a father when his first child is born is 25.4. If I’d had my first child then, it would be driving, not diapers, that I’d be thinking about right now. I know some dads who are older, but not many.

I think of my age all the time. My shoulders and spine yell in protest when I lean in to my daughter’s crib to pick her up. I inflict days of pain, sometimes, simply by picking her up the wrong way. Sleep deprivation grinds me down far more now than it did when I pulled all-nighters in my youth.

But the aches and pains of middle age are mere gnats next to the grim calculus always hovering in my thoughts. When she’s a teenager, I’ll be in my mid-fifties. When she graduates college, I’ll just be at retirement age. If she has children, they probably won’t remember me. When she has her fortieth birthday party, there’s a good chance I won’t be there.

Those years seem far away, even now. But it’s hard not to do the math. Every time I see her. I remain apathetic about most children, but I am madly in love with this particular one. Everyone knows that a day away from their children is a day they’ll never get back, but starting 6,000 days in the hole relative to my counterpart at the median gives each missed day extra poignancy.

Do I wish I had started earlier? Well, the grass is always greener, isn’t it? There are many moments when I think of the time she and I won’t have. But there are also many moments when I think of my life so far.

As an adult, I’ve been to Tokyo, Australia, and New Zealand. I’ve been to Europe more times than I can count. My wife and I have been to some of the world’s best restaurants. We’ve gone to plays and movies on a whim, sat quietly for hours reading books together, and taken long road trips. I’ve spent hours poring over random programming projects just because I could.

But when I phrase it like that, it sounds selfish, at least as society views childless families: “I wanted a full life with my wife. We didn’t need a kid. We could do whatever we wanted.” It’s not just that, though.

An extra seventeen years over the median male hasn’t just given me more topics to talk about with my middle-class Berkeley friends. I can teach my daughter so much more now than I could have then.

At twenty-five, I could follow recipes well. At forty-two, I’ve read On Food and Cooking cover to cover and talk about cooking to my daughter in terms of science, in terms of technique, in terms of flavor and balance. At thirty, I barely drank wine. At forty-four, I’ve taught wine classes and written wine articles. At thirty, I knew Java. At forty-four, I’m comfortable with any programming language she’s likely to learn in school. I’ve learned how to combat my chronic insomnia, the value of flow, and countless other little things. In the last decade, my ability to do research has improved, my writing has improved, and my knowledge of visualizing data has improved: My daughter’s going to kick ass when she has to write reports.

These are skills I didn’t have when I was of median age. These are things I couldn’t have taught her because I didn’t know them myself.

I also didn’t know myself. At forty-four, I can look back and realize that my beliefs weren’t fully formed at twenty-five. I didn’t really know what my ambitions were. I barely knew what I wanted to do with my career. Or what I wanted from life. I have a better idea now.

These are things I can now — only now — share with my daughter as she gets older. I can offer her years more experience and wisdom than I could have in my early twenties. So I do my best to focus on that.

But a part of me will always yearn for another decade or more with her.

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