The Daddy Chronicles

What’s that old guy doing on the playground? That’s only one of the tough questions a middle-aged dad might have to wrestle with. But Peter Birkenhead wouldn’t have it any other way

By Peter Birkenhead
Photograph: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

LAST NIGHT I read my daughter a story called Goodnight Knee. It’s a lot like the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, except for the parts where Daddy makes stuff up because he’s 52 and forgot to wear his glasses again. These days, even though he’s committed most of the book to memory, Daddy sometimes just squints at the page and takes a wild guess or two.

Alice, my 22-month-old daughter, is learning a new word every day, and yesterday’s word was knee. Probably because she’s heard me say it a lot lately, what with all the bending and wincing I’ve been doing since she became mobile seven months ago. So after yet another complaint from my squeaky bones—as I reached for a copy of Goodnight Moon—I was inspired to turn a moment of small, blind panic into a learning experience for both of us. “Goodnight stars, goodnight bowl of mush, goodnight . . . knee.” “Knee!” Alice chirped, pointing to one of her barely discernible joints. It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the reality of fatherhood over 50 for me: loss, compensation and flexibility of mind, if not body.

When I was 24, I left a bowl of half-eaten Froot Loops in my kitchen sink for two months. When I finally went to pick it up, there was a small gray lizard living underneath it. Back then I was lucky to get out the door every day in matching socks. Like a lot of young men, I considered washing dishes and making beds an affront, something I was forced to endure on the way to an imminent, amorphous, ever-elusive glory. Whenever a girlfriend encouraged me to participate in this insulting mortal existence, I heard a death sentence and ran for my life. But that kind of running can take you only so far, and many years (and one failed marriage) later, I am now a big fan of the mundane. Having a first child at 50 is a double dose of reality, an event that leaves you no choice but to say, “Good morning, mortality. Have a seat. Thank you for making life important. Alice and I are going to tear a piece of paper into a thousand little pieces now, in case you’d like to join us.”

I have no illusions about the downside of that reality. I’ve done the math. I do the math all the time. I run smack into it at weddings and funerals. And playgrounds. A full head of (mostly) dark hair has helped me avoid, so far, the inevitable jungle gym compliment for being an engaged grandpa, but I know it’s coming. When my wife, Jenny, and I spend time with younger friends, I’m reminded that Alice’s contemporaries are growing up with a different idea of what a dad looks and sounds like, what kind of music he listens to and which books he reads. I know that they’ll be able to imagine their fathers as omnipotent or immortal a little longer than Alice will.

Both of my mother’s parents lived to be 100. I go to the gym a few times a week and haven’t eaten meat in two decades. But obviously I have fewer healthy years ahead of me than the average 32-year-old. Jenny and I knew that when we decided to start a family. She was 38 and I was 49, and we understood that we needed to make a choice fairly quickly; but we understood it was a choice, and we made it as consciously and as thoughtfully as we could.

I did some reading and was happy to learn that cognitive functions like problem-solving skills, pattern recognition and wisdom are at their strongest in middle age. Pair that with the typical post-40 drop in testosterone (and the many kinds of restlessness it inspires), and the middle-aged man starts to look as if he were practically designed for fatherhood. And a lot of men seem to agree: Over the past three decades, the number of first-time dads ages 45 to 49 has increased by 36 percent.

First Published July 28, 2011

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