Carol Sarler

Old father time

Becoming a dad past retirement age isn’t miraculous, it’s just selfish

Old father time
Text settings

Becoming a dad past retirement age isn’t miraculous, it’s just selfish

He isn’t the first and he won’t be the last. But lack of originality was clearly the least of Donald Trelford’s concerns as he commandeered acres of Sunday newsprint to boast of the arrival of his baby son, Ben. Mr Trelford is, if you please, a strapping 73 years of age and joins a motley club including Des O’Connor (a father at 72), Luciano Pavarotti (67), Clint Eastwood (67), Rupert Murdoch (72), Rod Stewart (66 — his eighth) with no shortage, I fear, to follow.

Most of them, if pushed, will put up a stout defence to justify their little miracles, and while few are blessed with Trelford’s fluency, the gist is always much the same. In his case, he says, he got his defence in early to thwart inevitable attacks, ‘mainly by female columnists’ — although if he really thought pre-emption would keep us at bay, he didn’t serve a long enough apprenticeship in print.

Thus we are assured of a hands-on fatherhood, in which — imagine! — dad manages the bottles, burps and nappies that quite passed him by with his previous, now-adult children. Getting up in the night is hardly a problem, given that older people need less sleep and ‘usually make one or two nocturnal loo trips anyway’ (prostate joke, geddit?), while even if boy Ben is ‘not to have a very long relationship with his father’, quality beats quantity. Ben will have his full attention and that is ‘what matters in a relationship’. All in all, we can scarcely wait for Ben to be old enough to express the gratitude he must so surely feel.

The back-story is equally predictable. More divorce invites more additional marriages, and older men who have achieved wealth, power or influence stand a better than average chance of attracting younger women — not, to be fair to the broads, because they are necessarily gold-diggers but because successful men are frequently graced by charisma. Trelford, a former editor of the Observer, is something of a looker and a charmer which makes a wife 25 years his junior not a surprise. The usual next step in these unions seems also to have been followed here: the younger wife, still possessed of itchy ova, determines to exercise her ‘right’ to have a child, while the old fella gives in — well, to what? her desire? his vanity? — and seizes the opportunity to prove there’s still lead in his pencil.

But if there is a price to pay it won’t be the proud parents paying it. Even at the point of conception there are medical concerns for the child — concerns that Trelford swishes away with a brisk ‘my age never seemed to be a problem from a medical point of view’. Really, Donald? Are you now so far removed from journalistic research not to have discovered that sperm has a sell-by date? That children of older fathers are almost twice as likely to die before adulthood? That the chance of schizophrenia is three times as great? Down syndrome four times? Autism six times? Did you wonder why sperm banks won’t take samples from anyone over 39? Some of us might at least have mulled it over.

Never mind. The first gamble, so far, appears to have paid off. It is in the gambles to come that the odds, and their consequences, are chilling. Most men in Trelford’s position refer stoically to their mortality; in his case, he concedes that, had he been younger, ‘I would live to see more of the child growing up.’ But no matter; he had a friend who died months before his child was even born, and ‘Many children lose a parent in early life and go on to lead happy and successful lives.’

Indeed they do; a generation of war widows may testify to the death of a soldier husband, to shushing their own grief for the sake of their children. Widows and divorcees by the million have been left alone to raise children who have suffered relatively little by their loss. And if any of these aged daddies were likewise to drop dead suddenly, an event preferably followed by a memorial where the great and the good clap sonny on the back and assure him what a sterling chap his old man had been, then he, too, would get off relatively lightly. If nothing else, such children are left with the undivided attention of one parent, a younger, able and active mother.

The bigger danger for the children of these old men is not that their fathers won’t be around but that they will be. This is one subject that the most defiant of justifications avoids; if the men are capable of anticipating their death, they appear far less willing even to acknowledge the decline that may precede it. Perhaps it is because they tend to be rich, famous and powerful — see above — that a threat to their potency is simply a threat too dreadful to contemplate. Trelford’s ‘funny’ prostate, for instance, stands an 80 per cent chance of being cancerous by the time his boy is 12 — and while it probably won’t kill him, it could be a portent of much more and much worse.

Most ghastly of all for a child must be the onset of dementia. To watch a parent catatonic one day, raging the next, violent the next, defecating the next and through it all not even knowing who you are is chronicled on a daily basis. Those with access to the public gaze, like Alan Bennett, Rosie Boycott, Fiona Phillips and Cliff Richard, have all thrust into it their own experiences of trying to cope with a parent so inflicted and of finding it the unbearable trial of their lifetimes. But if they are in their fifties when they go through it, how much harder must it be for a teenager?

Accidents happen; we get through. None the less, a house that smells of sickness (and they always, always smell) is no place for the young if it can be avoided. No room for friends, no space for noise, no time to talk — and nobody much to talk to, anyway. These ‘miracle’ babies rarely have siblings of their own generation. And as for the mother, the one who would provide her full attention had she been a war widow? Oh, she’s far too busy, what with the drips and the meds and the spoon-feeding and the bedpans and our dear old friend, the drool.

We all assess risk, all the time, and it may well be that the Trelfords found acceptable, for whatever reasons, a degree of probability that you or I might not. What sticks in the craw, however, is the reference to Mrs Trelford’s ‘right’ to be a mother. Donald: ‘Anyone who says I shouldn’t be having a child is saying that Claire should not have a child at all, which I don’t believe anyone is entitled to say about another human being.’

Some people don’t need anyone else to say it for them. Women who carry the gene that gives a child a 50-50 chance of Huntington’s Chorea routinely elect to remain childless. But even if we must, and I do suppose that we must accept the Trelfords’ ‘right’ to conceive a child if they so wish, we must also be at liberty to suggest that their wisdom is another matter altogether.