Midlife is typically a time when men are perfecting their golf game. But some are finding that patty-cake is more their speed. Fatherhood is on the minds of more men in their 40s and 50s these days, impacting the dating world and occupying those interested in men's issues. Some of these men are already married when they feel the pull to become dads. Others are single and make it clear on first dates that it's a woman's desire to be a mother - more than her favorite food or CD - that is attractive to them.
"I see this going on really within the last four or five years, and it's increased a lot," says Jed Diamond, a psychotherapist and author of the book "The Irritable Male Syndrome." "There's almost this reversal ... where the men are very keen on having children, in some cases even more so than the women."
For some men, midlife is a natural time to look back and assess what, beyond a career, they hope to have accomplished. But many factors today make it easier for them to contemplate parenthood late in life. It is more acceptable for men to discuss their desire to be parents, for example, and for them to be actively involved in parenting. Other trends, including longer life spans and less satisfying work experiences - i.e., downsizing - make it easier for men to focus on the importance of children when they reach middle age.
The urgency, says Mr. Diamond, could also be fueled by recent research that suggests aging may affect a man's ability to successfully father children late in life, as celebrities David Letterman, Larry King, and Tony Randall did.
But that news doesn't seem to be deterring American dads. While the majority of children continue to be born to men who are 20 to 34, a December 2003 National Vital Statistics Report indicates that birthrates among fathers age 35 to 49 increased slightly from 2001 to 2002, and are up fairly significantly over the past two decades. Between 1980 and 2002, the rate of births among men age 40 to 44 went up 32 percent, and up 21 percent for those age 45 to 49. For men 50 to 54, the growth was 9 percent.
Contributing to such trends are women waiting longer to become mothers, and men having children in second marriages. But observers say it can also simply take a while for a guy to decide it's time for him to be a dad.
"They're waiting until they're ready," suggests Armin Brott, author of "Father for Life: A Journey of Joy, Challenge, and Change." "It's not quite the same sort of stereotypical thing you see about women with the biological clock ticking and the pressure to reproduce instantly," he says. "I think a lot of guys just don't feel that they're ready ... it's something that just doesn't hit for a while."
Baby boomers in particular may be rethinking what's expected of them in midlife, say experts, because they are transitioning from the provider/ procreator model of their fathers to the environment of today, where men balance work and home lives and participate in parenting more equally with their wives. Men can also feel the desire to be dads for egotistical reasons - because they want to leave a legacy in the form of a child to carry on their philosophies.
In some cases, men are having children later because they are still looking for the right partner. George Greenfield, a literary manager in Montclair, N.J., was married for the first time in 2001 at age 53, after having been in several long-term relationships. He and his wife - who is 13 years his junior - had their first child when Mr. Greenfield was 54.
"It was definitely a priority for me," he says of his desire to find someone to start a family with. "I ... got out of possible relationships because somebody didn't want to have children over time."
It's a priority that others in the dating pool share. In a survey in July 2002 by the online dating service Match.com, 14 percent of 277 men age 40 to 59 said they always size up a woman's potential as a mother on the first date. Many more - 44 percent - said they never do. But a majority of this group (and their younger counterparts) said that if forced to sacrifice one life goal for another, they would pick children over a career.
Dan Conway, a public relations professional from southern California, was also looking for the right partner. When he found and married her three years ago, he didn't think he wanted children - she already had them and wasn't planning on more - but now "the biological clock is ticking," he says.
Now in his early 50s, Mr. Conway is grappling with the likelihood that he will not be a father. He compensates by helping out with his stepgrandchildren and by doing a lot of soul-searching about the factors that made him wait: a focus on his career and being single, as well as caring for a dying parent.
"Sometimes you don't know what you need until you get to a place in your life when you're able to accept it," he explains. "A major challenge in life is to find that person you can truly love and someone with whom you have the greatest possibility of long-term compatibility. In my situation, I found this person, but then realized that there's a missing piece in my life."
Fathers who've chosen to have children late in life say they often have concerns about what it will be like to be 65 when their son or daughter is 12. They also have other issues to contend with, such as paying for college on a retiree's income, or living long enough to provide advice as their child grows. But many find ways to overcome their concerns and to embrace the opportunity.
"There's no sense of loss as to what I didn't do earlier," says Mr. Greenfield. "There is an enormous sense of enrichment, and I can't imagine not having had this experience."
That's the sentiment Stanford professor Martin Carnoy and his son found when they interviewed men in the 1990s for their book, "Fathers of a Certain Age: The Joys and Problems of Middle-Aged Fatherhood." Professor Carnoy was becoming a father again during a second marriage, and he was curious about the experiences of late-life fathers.
"They were really neat interviews," he says of the middle-aged men who in particular were parenting for the first time. "There's no ambivalence on their part about having the kids. This is what they wanted, this is why they got married; they finally figured out 'Something is missing from my life,' and they wanted to have a family."
Older fathers tend to have less physical relationships with their children, but are often calmer and form strong emotional bonds with their kids, Carnoy and Mr. Brott say. In some cases, older men can even spend more time with their children, especially if they are financially secure and don't have to work as aggressively at a career.
"There are benefits to both sides of the equation," says Greenfield, who is contemplating having another child. "I think when you're younger, obviously there's more time. But maturity, I think, has its assets. It's nice to be centered and calm and know a lot more about myself. I think I'm able to share a great deal with my son now."