Still a small fraction, but more men become dads late in life

06/17/2012 12:00 AM

04/18/2013 7:45 PM

Instead of coffee, George Nied drank a midmorning protein shake while his children wandered in and out of the kitchen. The concoction was a muddy green. Kale seemed to be involved.

"You can live a long time," he said. "The more I work on it, the longer I'll be around for the kids."

Nied, a trim 63-year-old retiree and Vietnam veteran, used to ride motorcycles and run his own business. Now, he has small children at home – Jack, 6, and Jenna, 5 – and he cares for them while his 37-year-old wife, Kate, pursues a busy career as a manufacturer's representative.

"I just took up bicycling seriously," said Nied, who lives on a sunny block in Natomas Park. "Having the kids stops me from doing other activities. But I thought about that and realized there's really nothing I'd rather do than be with these kids."

Happy Father's Day to the men who became dads past age 50: fathers who are grandfatherly but would prefer not to dwell on that, even if it's true.

They represent a statistical sliver of the nation's entire dad population: Only 2.9 of every 1,000 men who became new fathers in 2009 were 50 or older, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data.

In contrast, the average age of first-time fatherhood is 25, says the 2012 National Health Statistics Report, and three-quarters of men become fathers by age 40.

But while concerns over the uncertain economy helped fuel a 15 percent decline in the birthrate among other age groups of fathers, the rate of late-onset fatherhood has held steady since 1994.

"We're absolutely seeing a lot of older fathers," said Dr. William Gilbert, an obstetrician-gynecologist and medical director of Sutter Women's Services.

And the huge demographic bulge of the baby boom means that their numbers seem especially visible.

Some older fathers, like Nied, are do-over dads whose children from earlier marriages are grown now and have kids of their own. Others, like Gerald Caplan, are first-time fathers who came late to parenthood after devoting the early decades of adulthood to high-powered careers.

"I thought fatherhood would pass me by," said Caplan, 74, a McGeorge School of Law professor whose only child, 18-year-old Graham, just graduated from Christian Brothers High School.

Experts say that men who become fathers past age 50 tend to be better educated, more financially comfortable and, frankly, less stressed than their younger counterparts.

They're often established in their careers and lives in a way that younger fathers are not; they're stable and mature. As a result, many have extra time to devote to their kids and are fully invested in these kids they waited so long to bring into the world.

"These are not struggling people," said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who researches family issues. "But how do they have the stamina? I would be exhausted."

A legacy of late-life dads

Older fathers also have to put up with a bit of ribbing – one new father past 50 self-deprecatingly calls his blog "Geriatric Dad" – as well as a good amount of cultural suspicion.

Will they be around to raise the kids to adulthood? With their aging energy levels and achy knees, can they roughhouse with their growing kids the way younger dads would?

Emotionally, not to mention financially, is it the wisest plan to launch a kid into college when the dad is well past retirement age? Is it fair that the children of these late-life kids will probably never know their grandfather?

Such prejudices are strictly modern in origin, said Cherlin. In the more agrarian America of a century ago, for example, families' offspring often sprawled over a 25-year age range.

"There were many second families founded after the first wife died in childbirth," he said. "The children were desperately needed as farmhands. If your wife died, you quickly remarried and had another family. It was all about economics, mortality and survival."

And now it's all about divorce, serial marriage and fertility treatments. With vasectomy reversals, in-vitro fertilization and the use of donor eggs, science has managed to make later-life parenthood routine.

"I've even had older couples who have used both donor egg and donor sperm," said Gilbert.

The down side of grandfatherly fatherhood is what doctors call "paternal age effect," or the risk that an older father will pass along certain genetic syndromes to his offspring. But the research is mixed, with scientists finding correlation but not causality linking older dads with autism and other disorders in their children.

"There are some genetic conditions that increase, but not dramatically," said Gilbert. "The impact of advanced paternal age is less than that of advanced maternal age."

The oldest new dad he has seen in his practice was 69. But it's far from unusual to hear of celebrities – David Letterman, Larry King, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney among them – becoming fathers well past 50.

'Glad to have been born'

When his son was small and would ask his father how old he was, Gerald Caplan routinely said he was 39.

"I stayed in my 30s an uncommonly long time," said Caplan, a Land Park resident who was almost 56 when Graham was born. "Then one day, I was in the other room and heard him ask my wife how old I was. She said, '62,' and that was that."

Caplan and his wife, Deborah, who is 16 years his junior, dedicated their early adulthoods to the demands of their busy law careers. When Graham was born, Caplan said, the couple were thrilled.

"I enjoy every year," Caplan said. "Every year has its own joys and challenges."

Kate Nied was 30 when she decided after eight years of marriage that she'd like to have children. Getting her husband's vasectomy reversed was the easy, albeit expensive, part.

"Going into the marriage, I knew we weren't going to have kids," she said. "Obviously, it was a May-December relationship. But then we thought, why don't we try? He was really doing it for me. Neither of us thought it would work."

But it did, and quickly. Meanwhile, Nied's daughter, Stephanie Nied-Tseu, was 28 and trying to get pregnant herself. The Nieds' news was an adjustment for her, and not just because she had long been an only child.

"I wanted kids, and I wanted my kids to have the traditional grandparent experience I had," said Nied-Tseu, now 35, who lives in Elk Grove. "I wanted them to be certain of their grandfather's attention."

Along came Jack and Jenna – and Nied-Tseu's boys, too: Carter, 6, who is eight months younger than his uncle and seven months older than his aunt; and Beckett, age 2.

They don't worry about the unusual family connections. They're kids, and they play well together. And Nied dotes on his grandsons.

Jenna, a sweet-faced sprite with long brown hair, pattered into the kitchen on a recent morning. Her mother was out of town on business, and her father was thinking about taking his two late-in-life children to the swimming pool later in the day.

"Jack knows how to roller skate!" Jenna announced.

"And you're getting better, too," her father replied as she pattered right back out of the room.

"I liked the idea of having more kids," he said.

"Some people have told me I'll never know my kids when they're grown. But any child in the same situation would probably say they were glad to have been born and have 20 years to spend with their father."

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