Outward

Why Age Can Be a Source of Anxiety for Older Queer Parents

Parents of a certain age.

Creatas/Thinkstock

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

A woman gives birth in her 60s. Our 70-year-old current president has a 10-year-old son. The late actor Tony Randall sired two children in his very late 70s. When it comes to parenting, how old is too old? It’s a question all older potential parents ask themselves—or should ask themselves—before deciding to take this insanely huge step. And for social, historical, and legal reasons, the issue comes up particularly often for gay and lesbian parents.

Until recently, for those of us who didn’t marry opposite-sex partners, have kids, come out, and then divorce, parenting wasn’t a serious option. Joint adoption by gay and lesbian couples wasn’t possible until New Jersey allowed for it in 1997. Surrogacy for gay male couples took off at around the same time. I recall learning about what was involved in 1999, when a very close friend and his partner (now husband) welcomed twins into their lives. The company that brokered the surrogacy contract was then brand-new. Lesbians had an easier time in one sense, because sperm donation is less complicated than gestational surrogacy, but the law hasn’t always been supportive of these arrangements, either.

Today, of course, the law is on our side. But it still seems likely that we’ll be, on average anyway, older than our straight counterparts. Adoption, surrogacy, and sperm donation take time and substantial financial resources (particularly for private adoptions and surrogacy). And, since same-sex couples can’t “accidentally” procreate—a point used, bizarrely, in one version of the argument against marriage equality—our kids are invariably intentionally brought into our families. So straight and gay families are likely to continue to look different, and we’ll probably always skew toward the senior.

I must mention that I was nowhere near such a superannuated state as the extreme cases mentioned above when I became a parent. But even in my late 40s (with a husband six-plus years younger), I considered the age question as we welcomed our children into our lives. I ask it still. After all, I’ll be 70 before my kids are of an age to graduate from college. I’m writing this with a fractured hand that likely wouldn’t have broken so easily a decade or so earlier. I was older when I became a parent than my grandmother was when I was born. You get the idea. To me, Tony Randall and the other ancient parents mentioned in the first paragraph are crazy to be even thinking about starting a family. I tend to agree with what one of our caseworkers said when we were in the process of adopting our kids. She opined that she thought an upper limit of “somewhere in the mid-50s” for new parents was about right.

The headline-grabbing stories are atypical, of course, but the incidence of older parenting has been exploding. You can find plenty of solid information on the health risks (and benefits) to both the children and parents in these later-in-life cases—aside from the obvious one that really old parents are going to drop dead before their kids grow up. (As predicted by actuarial science, Randall died at age 84, leaving behind two small children to be raised by his 50-years-younger wife.)

I do worry about the possibility that my own health will decline before my kids grow up. But I’m the sort to worry about all sorts of things, including the possibility that the vending machine snack won’t be deployed. And in truth, I’m not that old. What more occupies my mental space is the question of how my child-raising—and that of many of my gay peers—is different from younger parents’ experiences, for good and ill.

I’m the oldest of three, and, typically for the 1950s, my parents were done with the whole birth thing by their mid-20s. (Frankly, I can’t imagine that.) But that was quite typical of the time. Until very recently—before the widespread availability of birth control—child-bearing age more closely followed the onset of capacity.

Younger parents, of course, have inexhaustible energy—which is often great for their kids, as long as it’s put to good use. We grandparent-age types have our own kind of mojo, but it’s more carefully measured out. I recall trying to keep up with one of the kids running down the street a few years ago, and suddenly realizing a snapped Achilles’ tendon would be my reward for continuing. There are plenty of ways I connect with them through exercise and outdoor activities—tennis, hiking (under duress), swimming—but these don’t require explosive energy. I try to stay fit, but there’s no sense denying the limits of what I can accomplish. In that sense, it would have been great to have started this whole dad adventure sooner.

So younger parents have the edge there—but they’re not fully formed adults. The pre-frontal cortex doesn’t completely mature until we reach our mid-20s, meaning that parent-crucial skills like impulse control, multi-tasking, and seeing long-range consequences are still developing. Although the current occupant of the White House provides evidence to the contrary, there’s generally a certain sobriety and perspective that comes with age. Maybe I have a better sense of humor about the small things. (Or maybe I’m just better at convincing myself that I’m keeping things in perspective. You’d have to ask others—like my husband David.) Maybe I understand, more than I did at a younger age, that what most matters are our relationships—and being able to accept others, despite their shortcomings, knowing that I’ve got a heaping pile of my own limitations.

So if you’re a gay man thinking about becoming a parent, pull up a chair next to me. The challenges of parenting at this age are real, and sometimes scary, but when I was watching my kids interact at the supermarket this past weekend, I was suddenly, unexpectedly, overcome with joy. Reaching a certain age has allowed me to appreciate how contingent, how randomly miraculous, my life with my children is. I think age has something to do with this perception; and just maybe, so does being a gay dad. I waited a long time for this, and I hope that I’ve been able to transmit some of my gratitude and appreciation to them.