Sunday, April 3, 2022

Becoming a Dad at Forty (or so)

Me, shortly after becoming a parent for the first time, and right around the time I turned 40

Another picture from around the time I turned 40. I'm not sure if I was really asleep in this picture or just pretending.

I was forty when I became a parent for the first time.

Actually, that's not true, that's just what I tell people. I was 39 when my first child was born, though I did turn 40 about ten weeks later. For simplicity, though, I tell people (if it ever comes up, which frankly it hardly ever does) that I didn't become a parent until I was forty – even though the truth is that I was still in my thirties. Just barely, but technically in my thirties nonetheless. Practically still a kid!

There are, of course, a lot of things a person isn't prepared for when they become a parent for the first time, but in my case there was one extra thing I wasn't prepared for, in fact hadn't even thought about: How often I would be mistaken for, just assumed to be, the grandfather rather than the father.

The fact that I was going gray, was in fact mostly gray, by my mid-forties didn't help. By the time my second child came along when I was forty-three, I probably really did look like a grandfather. A young one, true, and devastatingly handsome – er, well, young, anyway – but lots of people become grandparents when they're in their forties. There are plenty of people my age, younger, even, who look like me, and who are grandparents.

But I was not one. And it really bothered me when people just assumed I was.

I can't remember the first time it happened, but I remember once when Elyse, my second child, was about three and I was forty-six, we went to McDonald's for breakfast – Elyse had gotten a McDonald's gift card for Christmas; whoever gave it to her knew that we liked to go there once a week or so and get pancakes and sausage after taking my other child to school.

So this one morning I'm writing about, as Elyse and I sat and ate our breakfast at the McDonald's in Snellville, the one near the Target, there was an older couple at a table near ours – and by "older," I mean older than me; probably in their sixties if not in their seventies; old enough to justify an assumption that they were grandparents – anyway, this older couple was smiling and waving at Elyse and trying to make friends with her, as some people do when they see young children in public.

On our way out I tried to avoid them, but we had to go right by their table to get to the door, and Elyse smiled at them and told them her name (after they asked, of course) and proudly showed them her gift card. The woman looked impressed and said, "Did you take Grampa out for breakfast?"

My heart sank. Elyse was probably confused. (Grampa, or Pa, my father wasn't with us; what was this lady talking about?) I just smiled a smile I didn't really feel, didn't bother to correct them, muttered something about how we loved the pancakes, and got us out of there as quickly as I could. I hope I didn't show it to Elyse, but I was in a funk the rest of the morning.

This was not the first time some version of this had happened; by then it was common enough that I steeled myself for it, knowing it was likely to come.

Why did I dread it so, though? There's no shame in being a grandparent, even if you aren't even fifty yet, and, as I've already said, plenty of people are grandparents before they're fifty. I'm sure if I really had been the grandfather, I would have been proud and pleased to be recognized as such. But since I was not the grandfather, I felt a little insulted that these people might be implying (not on purpose or with any awareness, of course) that I looked too old to be the parent of a toddler. I wasn't obsessed with youth or with looking young or anything; it didn't bother me at all to look like I was in my mid or late forties when I actually was.

But to be someone who was forty-six, and looked it, and was just assumed to be too old to be the father of a young child? That bothered me. And I guess in part that's what I felt like was going on when someone referred to me as Grampa or Granddad or whatever.

But I was proud of my kids – still am – and didn't like it when people didn't realize I was in fact the father of these wonderful children. Now that their ages are in double digits – Elyse is less than a year from being an official teenager, for pity's sake! – people tend to realize I'm the father, which I appreciate. Also, it does give me a bit of added security, and also some pride, when I fill out an official form, at the dentist's office, let's say, and on the "Relationship to Patient" line, I get to write Father.