How I finally became a father at 45... and started to have the time of my life

The pros and cons of becoming a mum after 40 have often been discussed. But what about older dads? Pete McGrath reports from experience.

Walking into work one day with my 12-month- old, a colleague that I had sat next to in physics O-level 30 years before asked, somewhat appalled: “Why did you do it at your age?”’

Women over 40 are now the fastest growing age group having babies in the UK. Stories about older mothers make good copy, especially if extreme foreign IVF is involved or the mother expresses regrets, as in the case of Sue Tollefson who in had her baby in 2008, aged 57.

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Fast forward four years, her partner has left, Tollefson has suffered a major health scare and while she clearly loves her young daughter, she’s been honest enough to admit the pitfalls.

However, little is said about becoming a father at 40 and beyond, other than media mentions of men who have got one past the goalie at impressively advanced years: Professor Dumbledore, in real life Michael Gambon, worked his fertile magic at 69. Had Rupert Murdoch been managing rather than reproducing at 72, we might still have had the News of the World. David Bowie (53), Mick Jagger (55) and Rod Stewart (60) were positively youthful by comparison.

Having done it at 45, fatherhood is something that brings its own challenges. I thought I’d got a head start being the step-father of my wife’s two wonderful kids, and reckoned I had a pretty good idea of what I would be getting into when we decided to try to fulfil their respective requests: son wanted a brother, daughter wanted a sister.

But nothing can prepare you the moment you are given your baby and with your massive, clumsy adult hands change that explosive first nappy (the one where the baby has inexplicably blown the entire Canadian tar sands out of its backside) thinking: “Oh my God how am I not going to break something this small?”

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Being an active, engaged father is demanding and no matter what shape you’re in, you are not the resilient creature you were in your 20s and 30s when most of your friends were doing this kind of thing.

Wherever you are in life, you will be adding to it broken nights, a noisy, messy thing clamouring for your attention and a drain on your financial resources.

And it is not going to change. At 55, I will have to be keeping up with a 10-year-old. At 60, I will have to be a good, sensitive dad to a boy going through the ferment of adolescence, not an arthritic, pill-popping old git who maunders on about how things were in my day.

Pre-children, I was heading nicely into middle-aged spread and thought it was inevitable that I would get fatter and slow down with age.

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With the need to be a good father I’ve dropped four inches of waistband and at least three stone. I’m looking at the lonely Ripon Triathlon mug in my cupboard and thinking it could do with a companion. And I feel up to it.

There is also a massive mental adjustment needed to become part of a child’s world. As an adult your work is never done. There is always the need to do more either at work or at home.

With a young child, you have to learn to be with them in the moment because that is where they exist. Just sitting and cuddling this late gift, messing in the garden or on the floor has to be relearned as a worthwhile thing in its own right. Becoming a father at 45 was a chance to remind myself that you should be a human being and not all the time a human doing.

Those first 18 months are vital to a child’s mental and emotional development and I spent as much of them as possible being present (which is not the same as being in the room), talking, playing and with him on my hip as we went about our lives.

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And in those first two years they are as cute as hell. It is time filled with moments you will want to remember all your life.

I became a father in my 40s only because I hadn’t fallen in love before. I had been in relationships, but had my doubts about their longevity. I felt that to continue with them would be dishonest to the women concerned and, crucially, for the future wellbeing of any children.

Having married in our 40s, we wanted a child together but given our ages agreed to “leave it up to the universe” to decide whether we did or not. While the universe was deciding, I cleaned up my life, cutting back on coffee and booze and improving my diet to give those orbs every chance of producing strong swimmers.

As with the physical side of coping with a child, your chances of doing your bit to help conceive a healthy child are also affected by advancing years. So much so that the scientific advice is try to get your fathering done before 45.

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Data shows that cases of Down’s Syndrome and limb deformities increase markedly in the offspring of men over 50, and being over 40 increases the risk of a pregnancy ending in miscarriage. I certainly held my breath during the 10-week scans until the sonographer pointed to the narrow nuchal fold and the presence of a nasal bone as a strong indication that there was no Down’s, something confirmed in a 13 week nuchal fold scan.

The genetic news is not all bad for we grey-about-the-temples dads: recent research from Northwest University in the USA has found that older men father children with increased chances of reaching old age. Our spermatic DNA have longer telomeres (the endcaps that hold the strands of DNA together) in turn improving the resilience of your child’s DNA.

On the few occasions, we have both been frazzled by our strapping new arrival, my wife and I swap the stock phrase: “Let’s have a baby in our 40s. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Not much, in my experience. Holding that little man as he smiles and having tears of joy unbidden in your eyes? Having someone call you “Dada” (he said “dog” first, mind you) and laugh hysterically when you blow raspberries on his fat, perfect little belly?

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It takes years off you, far more than the stresses of late parenthood are wont to put on.

As Jack approaches his second birthday, I know I’m a better father now than I would have been one or two decades ago. A little creakier, but definitely longer of patience and a wiser man, better able to launch my family into an uncertain world. And oh so appreciative of what we’ve got.

A final tip? Core strength. Make sure your stomach muscles and back are in good nick. You’re going to be doing a lot of lifting, bending, holding on to a struggling thing that doesn’t want to get out of the bath or up from the supermarket floor.

And you want to hold on to him, because from facing an old age when all that was you was going to die when you breathed your last, becoming a father at whatever age gifts you a kind of immortality. That child is carrying a lot of you into the future.

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Oh, there’s another core strength. Love that late child though you do, make sure you love the mother more. She’s really done the really heavy lifting.

Peter McGrath lives in Runswick Bay with his wife and three children.

A word about fatherhood...

To be a successful father... there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years. (Ernest Hemingway)

I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection. (Sigmund Freud)

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Fatherhood is pretending the present you love most is soap-on-a-rope. (Bill Cosby)

A father carries pictures where his money used to be. (Author unknown)

Sons have always a rebellious wish to be disillusioned by that which charmed their fathers. (Aldous Huxley)

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s (Robert Frost)

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