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Father-son team examine benefits, costs of older fathering
STANFORD -- Fathering later in life may make more sense than fathering earlier, according to economist Martin Carnoy, a Stanford professor of education.
Far from being disappearing dads, middle-aged men with younger children are much more likely to be in there taking care of Junior and loving it.
In Fathers of a Certain Age, to be published this month by Faber and Faber, Carnoy and his co-author, son David, argue that men in their late 40s, 50s and even 60s, secure in their careers and ready to make time for families, tend to be more nurturing and willing to share in child-care responsibilities than their younger counterparts.
The Carnoys reviewed the burgeoning empirical literature comparing fathering experiences at different ages and interviewed dozens of older fathers, exploring how they feel about parenting small children in late middle age.
"These older fathers are more stable financially and better able to provide for a child," the elder Carnoy said. "But more important, they are usually willing to spend more time on the family. They have fought the workplace wars and are much less sanguine about the rewards of long work days. Almost everyone we interviewed was spending a lot more time with their children than they did as 30-year-old fathers trying to climb career ladders. Family plays a much more important everyday role in older fathers' lives."
Many of the fathers the Carnoys interviewed have another set of children who are now grown. "They have been through the process before, have made mistakes and want to be much more involved this time around," Martin Carnoy said.
Fathers of a Certain Age suggests that middle-age fathering is on the increase after many years of decline, and that this is no accident. As college-educated women seek to build their professional careers and postpone child-bearing to their early 30s and beyond, they are much more likely to end up marrying a man who is in his mid-40s or older. The result for the men who choose these women is often "fathering at a certain age." Census data indicate that more than 350,000 men in the United States over 45 fall into this category.
A father of a 4-year-old daughter himself, the 56-year- old Carnoy also has two sons from a previous marriage, including 30-year-old David, his co-author.
"The older fathering story is a complicated one. It usually involves older men marrying younger women and often older children who are angry at their fathers for starting a second family," the elder Carnoy said. "My son provided the view from the younger generation - a second opinion. He got young people his age talking about their fathers or their older husbands in ways I never could have. The book is not only a story about the phenomenon of older fathering, it is a debate between father and son. We agree to disagree."
David Carnoy said he felt that older second-time fathers rarely considered the feelings of their earlier children when starting a second family. "I really like my little sister now, but I didn't have a say in my father's decision," he said. "Neither did most of the other older kids I interviewed. I would have told my father not to do it, but the important thing is that I wasn't consulted. In the book I try to give voice to the doubts that I and others have about this whole concept."
Although the Carnoys found older fathers to be intensively involved with their children in ways advocates of the new fathering would applaud, the book discusses frankly some of the major pitfalls of late fatherhood. Not only do many middle-aged fathers have to deal with their disapproving older children, there are also the sheer energy requirements of raising a young child, the possibility of paternal death early in a child's life, and the financial difficulties of facing retirement and paying for a college education.
"Not everyone smiles when they hear that 'grandpa' is really 'dad,' " the elder Carnoy said. "We talked to a lot of people who told us they thought that having children at 'that age' was selfish and against the child's interests. They believe that the risk the father would die when the child was a teenager or young adult offset any possible benefits of older fathering. It's a real problem, but we don't think it deters many older couples from going ahead and having children."
The book also finds that in larger cities and college towns where professional women are concentrated, older fathers (and mothers) no longer turn heads. There are just too many of them.
"It used to be that starting a family in middle age was reserved for the rich, famous and eccentric. Now, in certain communities, it is so commonplace that the old stigmas are disappearing," Carnoy said. "It is easier on the children, too. When Dad is not the only one with gray hair coming to school, the other kids don't make a big deal out of it."
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