If there’s a magic age to have kids, no one has found it yet. But psychotherapist Carder Stout’s account of approaching fifty with a pair of toddlers—and why he’s the better for it—makes a compelling read. Stout, who spent his thirties being single, getting sober, and developing a career as a therapist (see his insights on depth psychology), had once assumed he’d be married by twenty-five and a dad by thirty. He was wrong and, as it turns out, right in other ways.
By Carder Stout, PhD
When I was a boy, I had this grand notion that I would be married at twenty-five and a parent by thirty. This seemed logical at the time—my parents reached those milestones at those exact ages. So when I hit my mid-twenties and marriage was not on the table, I began to feel like a failure, but as I started looking at my friends and their relationships, there seemed to be a consensus: No one was in a hurry. Sure, periodically there were weddings of lovestruck couples out in the Hamptons, but for the most part, we were all content to be single. The dating scene was robust, and friends amorously paired off for a year or two at a time, but people weren’t getting down on one knee just yet. This was fine with me. Our twenties were a time to romp—and according to national marriage statistics, that’s normal.
I checked the numbers: In the US, the average age that a man gets married for the first time is twenty-nine, and for women it is twenty-seven. In 1990, the ages were twenty-six for men and twenty-three for women, and in 1960 it was twenty-two and twenty. Why are people getting married later today? A few reasons include: Because of safe and available birth control, there are fewer unintended pregnancies and fewer shotgun weddings, so many more people are able to attend college, enter the workplace, and find a place of their own without the pressure of a growing family. Couples are able to better plan their futures together, and with more options: They no longer need to tie the knot in order to cohabitate, and many couples decide not to get married at all.
In my thirties, I think I attended more weddings than a lot of ministers. I actually had a set of tails, pressed and waiting in my closet. I nearly went broke: bachelor parties in New Orleans, engagement celebrations in Paris, wedding ceremonies all over. Eventually I grew weary of “being a good friend.” I began to decline invitations if couples weren’t in my immediate circle, citing work conflicts or family plans I couldn’t break—in the end, I bent the truth quite a bit.
I was happy for the marrying couples. I was not ready myself. I had my own wounds to address, several addictions to mend, and an emerging self to discover. If I had gotten married during this time, I’m sure it would have ended in disaster. Instead, I sailed directly into the category five hurricane that was my life—on my own. By the time it finally blew over, I was in my forties.
I walked down the aisle at forty-four—fifteen years late, statistically. And I think it’s the years that I focused on myself that have made me a more capable husband. Without years in therapy, I would have been a completely different person, and certainly not one prepared to share a life with another human being.
A year after thrown rice, my wife and I had our first child, a beautiful daughter named Maxine. While I’d been certain that waiting for marriage was the right choice, I had never understood the unyielding responsibility it took to be a dedicated father—especially not an old one.
I am now a member of what I call the Old Parents Club.
People in the US are having children later and later. The average age woman has her first child at twenty-eight years old, up from twenty-four in in 1970. The median age for a first-time father is thirty-one, up from twenty-seven in 1970.
I always wanted to have children, but as I approach fifty with a pair of toddlers, I am reminded more than ever of the pitfalls (and triumphs) of starting late. Let’s begin with the pitfalls. There is a big part of me that feels like a grown-up person—someone who has a career, patients who depend on me, and a mortgage to pay on the first of every month—but these adult responsibilities have not arrived without pain, and they constantly seem to take me away from my kids. As a rule of thumb, older parents have more pronounced careers, which they have certainly worked hard for, but which require a good bit of attention. This work takes us away from family perhaps more than younger parents’ work might, and this can be difficult to swallow.
And then there is the body: It begins to fail. We simply do not move as fast or well as we once did, and when we try, there are consequences. Good sleep, for me, is a thing of the past. I wake up grumpy and hurry out the door with my tank on empty. At first, it was just hard to accept the head fog and bleary eyes. But then on one particular morning, I brushed my teeth with eczema-soothing diaper cream, and on another, I got into my SUV without any pants. My hair began to turn grey (with a few white streaks in the middle, like a skunk). And when my children got colds, so did I; last year I had a cold for the better part of four months. I asked my wife if we should consider buying shares of Kleenex stock.
Age may be just a number—but in the case of child-rearing, it makes a difference. When we are in our twenties and early thirties, there tends to be a little more spring in our step. As we move into our forties, we get more firmly rooted in our particular and specific ways.
But there are triumphs, too. When I walk through the front door at the end of the day, exhausted by work, I am greeted by two little gnomes. When they yell, “Daddy’s home,” it evokes a feeling that I’ve searched for my entire life—to which no substance, paycheck, or pat on the back has ever come close. At night, I tuck my daughter in, and we speak about the people in the world we love. I have become a good listener in my forties—far better than I was two decades ago. I hang on her every word as if she will provide the answer to the mysteries of the universe, and sometimes she does. My children remind me in every moment how curious life is.
Having lived through a decade of self-induced trauma—I am a recovering addict, sober now for thirteen years—I am constantly surprised by the purity of a toddler’s perception. I am reminded by my kids of the little boy inside of me. With every year, it becomes easier to be fully present in my life. I no longer worry so much about the future or fret about the past: There is way too much beauty at hand. When I get home at night, I put my cell phone away and lose myself in fatherhood. I may have more wrinkles on my face, but I like to think that they’re mostly from smiles, and that I’ve earned them.