What Older Dads Know

I’ve gotten really good at changing diapers, and some other things too.

a child playing with a toy horse and carriage on her father's head
Martin Parr / Magnum

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

My son Elliott is standing on the booth seating, getting little sneaker prints on the vinyl, so I try to distract him with a french fry. “Sit down!” says Lila, my niece, only 3 years old but still wanting to boss around 2-year-old Elliott. Leslie, my mother-in-law—Elliott and Lila’s grandmother—is trying to get Lila to focus on her own lunch, but it seems as if the entirety of her meal will be the strawberry milkshake next to her rapidly cooling hot dog.

Lunch finished, if not actually eaten, we gather the toddlers and their accoutrements—the toys, the wipes for milkshake mustaches or worse, the loose shoe. As we get the kids into their coats—it’s January 31, my birthday—a man in his 60s standing near the door grins and says, “You two are going to sleep well tonight!”

“Hah,” I say. “Yes.”

“I’ve got grandkids too,” he says. “But they’re a thousand miles away, so I don’t get to see them that often. But when I do, yeah, just like that. Wears you out! But you guys are lucky.”

“Yes we are,” I say and out the door we go, and it isn’t until I’m struggling to get Elliott to submit to the straps of his car seat that it registers: The thousand-mile grandpa assumed that I was my mother-in-law’s husband, and that we were entertaining the kids so their actual mommy and daddy could rekindle their romance or something.

I’m tempted to go back into the diner and correct his misapprehension—“Excuse me, sir, I’m the father, not the grandfather”—but who could blame him for his confusion? My mother-in-law is a vibrant and active 69. And today was the very day I turned 58 years old.

I was married before and have older children—three of them, all now adults. But my wife, Mara, 18 years younger than me, had no children of her own, and in 2019 we decided to start our own family together. I was apprehensive about trying parenthood again at the age when I had expected to be finally learning the piano and enjoying leisurely cruises (really classy cruises up European rivers with history lectures, none of that Carnival Cruise stuff). But I couldn’t deny my wife her most profound desire, motherhood, as a condition for spending the rest of her life with me. Or, more coldly, the rest of my life. When I die, which I am planning on doing long before she does, I do not want to leave her by herself to deal with all the crap, of every variety, that I will leave behind.

Three days before my unwitting date with my mother-in-law, Mara had given birth to Elliott’s little brother, Teddy. On the occasion of both births, people have chosen jokes from the same small menu: “How’s the back holding up?”; “What’s it like not sleeping at your age?”; “How often do you get mistaken for his grandfather?” Answers: fine; just as bad as it is at any age; and in a first approximation, every time we’re out in public. A man chasing a toddler almost six decades younger than him around a playground is, I guess, worthy of note, as we’re supposed to have more sophisticated things to do than change diapers. I do, of course, but on the other hand, I have become very, very good at changing diapers.

And that, in the end, is what makes all the difference. Unlike those poor bastards who are handed their first kid in the delivery room, wet and screaming, and told to take it home and somehow keep it alive, I’ve done this before. I have knowledge, and I have wisdom, both of which I sorely lacked 25 years ago, when my first child was born.

Some of it is obvious. Don’t sweat meals; they’ll eat when they’re hungry. It’s all right if the baby cries; he just needs something and hasn’t yet learned to ask politely. It’s all right if the baby is quiet; you don’t need to poke him, as if the default state of infants is death. And that time when your toddler toddles right off the bed and thunks onto the floor headfirst with a distressingly hollow sound? It looks and sounds a lot worse than it really is, and she’ll have forgotten it long, long before you do. (However, do not try explaining to your spouse, as she comforts the wailing child, that according to the square-cube law, the mass of the child is far less than her height might make you think, so the force of the blow is proportionally less as well. This sort of soothing is not welcome.)

But there are other lessons, lessons I learned the hard way, through failure and regret, and those are the ones I think about most, and the ones that sometimes cause me to hide my face from my son as he plays or spins in circles, so he won’t grow up wondering why his father is so sad.

All new parents, realizing that they have no other model to rely on, eventually turn to the example of their own parents, either to replicate or rebel against. During my first time around, I replicated far more often than I rebelled, because when your back is against the wall and you simply have no idea how to deal with your child, you turn to what was done to you, whether or not you liked it at the time. I remember vividly, when my eldest daughter was in early adolescence, acting out, and defying me in a way I couldn’t handle, repeating the worst thing my own father had ever said to me, transfixing me with dismay: “If you do this, it will change the nature of our relationship.” I was desperate for something that would make a difference, so I said those terrible words to my daughter, like passing on a family curse. It had no effect. It was like the moment in The War of the Worlds when they finally drop the A-bombs on the Martians, and the aliens end up being immune to those too.

Now, of course, I have a different model of parenthood to emulate or diverge from: my own.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know what happened last time. I’ve been trying to remember everything I learned so I can apply those lessons in moments of stress, when old instincts take over.

One of the lessons is not to be surprised when there are moments of stress. Nobody who hasn’t been a parent is prepared for how difficult it is, from the quotidian challenges of, say, putting on shoes, to the later, more serious troubles of illness or dangerous behavior. The first time around, I thought that a little anger, a little sternness, could be useful in managing a child. If they behaved badly, I would get angry because I wanted them to know it. But the only thing a child learns from anger is to be afraid. Respect cannot be insisted upon; it is a form of love, and love is not subject to demand.

I think now of all the moments and meals I missed with my kids the first time around as I pursued professional advancement or social status. Whether or not I got what I wanted, it was all pointless, because while I was doing that, my children were at home, and they were the only relationship I really needed to work on, the only future I needed to secure, and I botched it. It can seem infinitely vast, the distance a child will have to traverse from the cradle to adulthood; their life can seem, in moments, almost static. But it’s not; it takes minutes, seconds; you’ll check your email and the next thing you know the kid’s in high school. This time around, if you need me, I’ll be at home, where they need me.

But the biggest advantage I have over my younger self is that I am no longer so afraid. What I worried about never came to pass, and the tragedies and losses that did arise, I never saw coming. Life can be cruel and capricious, and all kinds of terrible things will beset our children, just as they beset us, and the only useful thing you can do is let your kids know that you will always be there for them. So much of what young parents stress about—the brand of baby food or car seat, the exposure to dirt or sunlight or screens, the thousand other things people try to sell you or ways they try to scare you—none of it matters. A child is a person, and what kind of person he will be is largely beyond your control.

Basically, don’t drop them or expose them to open flame; that’s it. And although you shouldn’t drop them, if you do, they’ll be fine, usually. (Because of the square-cube law! Really, it’s important to know about that.) I parent now by offering my children meals, and a haven, and hope.