by Robert Morton
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In my separate interviews with several first-time fathers over 40, three factors emerged which seemed important to their readiness for becoming older dads: occupational and financial security; a clear understanding and adaptation to today’s diverse fatherhood roles, despite lingering assumptions that being major breadwinner and minor nurturer is the definitive act of mature manhood; and a strong drive for a sense of closure to their childless period of life, by leaving a breathing part of themselves behind.
Because these factors were secured, these older first-time fathers were happy and felt their children had changed their lives for the better. Many fathers their age find new experiences hard to find because their earlier-set life goals have already been conquered and their children have fledged the nest; these older, first-time fathers, however, talk of new aspirations and horizons to explore.
Bill Brown, 52 years old, is a guidance counselor for the Fremont City Schools(Ohio). I happened to call him for the interview while his wife Nancy, a clinical dietitian, was working at Fremont Memorial Hospital. His first words were, “Great time for the interview, my kids are taking a nap!”
From his perspective as a counselor well-versed in child development theory, Brown related how his two boys, Wesley and Matthew, ages six and four, respectively, have transformed his life.
“For years I’ve read about developmental events, and now I see them coming true with my own flesh and blood.” Brown added, “All my readings in child development are coming true, from dry textbook pages to real-life unfoldings.”
Similarly, 56 year-old Gene Morton, a biologist and ornithologist for the Smithsonian Institution, related how his child, five month old Douglas, has added a new dimension to his life. His wife, Bridgett, is a biology-ecology professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.
“To have and raise a baby, to play with and teach him. It’s a great new experience for me–a first time experience. At my age, there’s not many of those left.”
Both Brown and Morton understand the diverse roles dads play today in child-rearing and consider themselves nurturers as well as breadwinners. They realize fathers are not social accidents, and believe they’re more similar to than different from their wives in responding to the needs of their children. They are not satisfied in playing minor roles in child-rearing and find themselves staying in, not retreating from, the nursery and playroom.
True, fathers are excluded from gestation and breastfeeding activities, two superior biological factors which moms can do and dads cannot. Many child experts and lay people, historically, have used these matchless women qualities to incorrectly assign dads restricted roles in child-rearing: modeling the stereotyped male sex-role identity and being major breadwinner and minor nurturer.
Bill Brown is aware of the strength of the father-child bond and that dads have significant impact in nurturing the intellectual, social, and moral development of children.
“It’s amazing how kids absorb things, particularly in the first six years of their lives,” he said. “I feel dads participation in the moral development in the early years is very critical. I spend much time with my wife teaching our children right from wrong, good manners, and how to get along with others. This is very important for dads to do. Kids grow very nasty today, because they haven’t learned the skills needed to get along with others.”
Brown also feels that many of today’s kids don’t have time to play, and are growing up too quickly. “I work a lot on Wesley and Matthew’s having fun and playing. I do what they want to do when it comes to play, with no pressure. I believe creativity grows from this.”
Likewise, Morton feels a strong drive for meaningful participation in nurturing the development of five month old Douglas. “What I’m really looking forward to is teaching him, to make him a human I would enjoy. Douglas has changed my life because I had nothing quite like that to devote myself to.”
“Besides,” he added, “Douglas is so damn cute and he does all the little innate behavioral responses which babies do. He feels good to hug, I just can’t stay away from him.”
I got the impression after interviewing these first-time fathers over 40, that man’s personal development as he ages has much to do with how he interacts with his children. They’ve lived through their early childless adulthood- developing a primary relationship with and marrying a woman, building a social network of friends, and reaching toward occupational, family, and financial dreams.
But, at this point in their matured lives, both Brown and Morton have taken stock of the extent to which they have reached their dreams, and they know and accept which elements of their dreams will not be realized. They are aware of their fading youth, and are discovering the most fulfilling rewards may no longer be found at work, but at home. Unlike most mid-life men, their children are not moving away from them, but are still in need of their wisdom.
“When I was younger,” Brown said, “I went to law school and I was struggling to obtain a higher education. Now, I’m not struggling nearly as much, and I’m making pretty good money. I’m more easy-going with my kids and can spend more time with them. In my 20’s, that would have been hard to do.”
Morton expressed similar feelings about his present stage in adult male maturation. “The separation between Douglas and I would have been greater when I was younger–I was so career oriented. Now, because of my age, I’ve achieved my career dreams; I’m no longer uptight about that. Douglas can be pure pleasure and joy. It’s a 50-50 proposition, Bridgett comes back to nurse the baby from her work. I can’t do that. But, I take care of him and feel good as a father, a nurturer, and as parent and teacher.”
The most striking feature expressed by both men may have been spawned by the awareness of their fading youth and the future inevitability of their own deaths. Both men desire to leave a legacy in their children, to leave part of themselves behind.
Brown notices pieces of himself breathing in his kids. “It helps your self-esteem to see something you’ve produced which will be there when your gone. I see myself in Wesley and Matthew, the fruits of our labor seems to have more meaning-it’s like going through a time warp.”
And Morton noted as well, “As a biologist, it has meaning. I’m going to have someone, namely Douglas, related to me by 50%, carrying on after I die.”
Both Brown and Morton are making important contributions to the transformation of their children into self-actualized adults. I bet, someday, after Wesley, Matthew and Douglas have fledged the nest and begin facing life’s hardships, a consoling, internal voice audible only to them will ask, “I wonder how my dad would have handled this?”
Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S., is a father, writer, practicing school psychologist and educational instructor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Write him about family or educational issues at Child Study Center, 501 Croghan St., Fremont, Ohio 43420 or E-mail: Rsmcoping@nwonline.net
Note: A great resource to increase your fathering power, at any age, is “The Complete Smart Dad’s Tool Kit.” It offers audio cassettes, an on-going relationship-building game for dads and kids to play, pocket guides for dads to teach kids values and morals, etc. Call 1-800-ALL-DADS.