Parenting story: Is there a right age for fatherhood?

Is there a right age for a man to become a father? Musings of an entrepreneur and a hands-on father...

By Rohit Sakunia

Parenting story: Is there a right age for fatherhood?

I was on my way back home after an agonising Friday at work when I found my cell phone flashing ‘Kartik Senior’. The name is a dead giveaway but I will still bother to explain. Kartik was a senior during my MBA days. He was one of the oldest in his class too, having opted to ‘live life’ before pursuing an MBA. Kartik calling only meant one thing, it's time to party!

“Perfect timing maccha” I said. ‘Tell me where and when, I will be there”. Kartik chuckled. “I'm going to be a father bro”, he broke the news. The agony was gone in a second, I felt like I had just taken the ice bucket challenge. Kartik and fatherhood? At 41? “Hellooooo….” he said reminding me that he was still on the other side. “Heyyyy…. Congrats maccha” I managed to blurt out. We exchanged some commonly established and socially acceptable question and answers, of course. But I was still unable to process the news. I come from a traditional Marwari family. I got married closer to 30 than 25. That’s almost blasphemous in my community. My wife and I would probably be disowned if we ventured into being parents after 40. Why blame the community, we wouldn't want it that way either. Unable to hold my wonder and shock, I sought answers from the only place that never disappoints me- Google. ‘Is fatherhood safe after 40?’, I typed. I had no idea what I was going to do with the answers. Or why I needed them. But my voyeuristic mind had to find out.

Here is what I found out. Men don’t have menopause. Thank heavens! But turns out, we have a biological clock too. Despite men making sperm from puberty to death at the same rate, some of the sperm parameters start to change as men turn 40. There are increased risks of the child having schizophrenia, higher risks of preterm death, and of chromosomal abnormalities. This sounds familiar. Oh wait! Women nearing 30 or on the other side of it hear it 50 times a day! Reared in societies which expect them to achieve financial independence, career success, and marital bliss, all simultaneously, they are often at the same time criticised and mocked for delaying parenthood until their late 30s. Caught between the non-negotiable rock of science and the hard place of social expectation, the millennial woman cannot win. Guess what! Men can now be beaten with the same stick. Biologically speaking, it would appear that both men and women should be producing children a good decade before most of us actually do it. So, according to ccience, around the time we are graduating would be good! I know a lot of women who agonise over declining fertility or not being able to bear children. Society does not make the agony any easier for them. I’m also sure men will never feel a definitive cut-off date or the neighbouring Sharma Aunty looming over them. In our society, a first time mother at 35 is likely to face more resistance and taunts than a first time father at 42.

Speaking of fathers at 42, back to Kartik. His call to share that news was about 2 years ago. Kartik is now a handsome, a-la- George Clooney-style dad to a highly energetic, crazily curly-haired, curious little angel. And when I call him, George Clooney, I don’t mean he got married in Italy wearing expensive suits! I was referring more to the greys and silvers in his hair. “I don’t age man! I’m like Enrique Iglesias. I’m 40 and still look 20’, he always jokes. Funny! Does he know Enrique became a father at 42? I have to admit, as much as I enjoy seeing him let his girl pull his hair and climb onto his back ruthlessly, I can't help but notice the calmness in him. Something I didn't see in him for a long long time.

Kartik was always up and running. If not at work, then to the next holiday, or party or scuba diving lessons. You get one shot at life, his social status says. And it’s been that way for a while. At 35, I’m what Kartik was 7 years ago. Only difference is, I just run at work. As a new age entrepreneur, I dont have the choice of not running. My son is 4. I had him when I was 31. My wife broke the news to me about 3 months after I celebrated my 30th birthday. I was thrilled. That’s the only phone call from her I fondly recall in almost a decade of our relationship. I thought I was ready for it. Fatherhood that is. Always fond of kids, always certain that I wanted at least two, a boy and a girl, if my wishes had their way. I had just got myself a job at the global tech giant, Google. I was, by many standards, having it all. A pretty wife, on her way to becoming the mother of my child, a handsome job, a car, and on the lookout for a house. This is what my parents had raised me for. This is what the society had prepared me for all long, subtly or otherwise. Be the breadwinner. Support your family. Get a job. Get a better job. Make money. Also make children. I was ticking off every box that traditional and clichéd success defines. When I heard the news and over the course of the next few months, I decided that I wanted to be involved in everything. Changing diapers, getting him/her to sleep, singing, playing, feeding. In a very quintessential way, I wanted to be the millennial father. Absolutely hands on.

What's the concern, you ask? Surely, changing diapers isn't a task! Not until the child decides to poop right in the middle of the change. Apart from the mess that soils your beautiful bed linen and perhaps your pants too, there is no real emotional challenge to it. Not even close to the other roadblocks.

In early 30s, when you are just about beginning to grow in your career, being a hands on Dad directly confronts the number of hours you spend at work. You are not settled financially. You are always worried if you are doing enough. You are still paying off some loans. Your wife has already taken a break from work. You can't lose your job. Life and its circumstances weigh you down. In my case, I even started my entrepreneurial journey when my son was an infant. Emotionally or physically spending time with my wife or with my son seemed daunting. I wanted to. It was excruciating to come home every night to a sleeping child only to leave home even before his waking hours. Not being financially secure when you know you now have another life, even if that’s just soiling diapers and keeping you awake at night, weighs heavily on you. It may partially be due to social conditioning too. Whatever it is, you can’t shrug it off.

Apart from obviously being more handsome and popular with women, was Kartik also enjoying his fatherhood more than me? I bounced off the question to my wife while driving back home from his place. May be 30s is too soon to be a father. Because you are not done with other responsibilities. You do have more energy. But no such luck with time or money. Why have a child at a time when you are focussed on building a career and thus ensuring a better life? Is money the only thing that ensures a better life for your future? What about quality of life? What about the chances of passing on mutated sperms and hence higher health risk to your child?

“What if you owned a cricket team one day and I buy an entire Tiffany’ store”? My wife interrupted.

“What?”

“Think about it….. If we lived life on “what ifs” we would never move ahead. Being a parent, father or mother, means the nature of “busy”, the nature of ‘right’ changes. It sometimes means working hard, with nothing concrete to show for it. Like I stay at home all day to see our son turn the house into a tornado and that’s all I can show for my time. Proudly. My sister works. She gets to show a healthy bank balance. There are people out there judging me for not working and her for working too much. My mother was 20 when she had me. I turned out fine. Your father had 2 children, by your age. You do seem like you need a little help with your head and the few strands of hair left on it, but otherwise you are fine. I’m also sure your friend will make a great father too. Men or women, father or mother, at 20 or 30 or 40, it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to make your choice. It’s okay to aspire to do different things in life at different points. In fact, we need to celebrate it. Celebrate our differences!

I just didn't have a come back to that. Most of the time, I pretend my wife is right to avoid conflict and or punitive action. She seemed to make sense this time though.

Just then, my son said “Paapa, I’m Simba the Lion King. Do you want to be Scar or Mufasa?” he asked.

“I just want to be your dad”, I quipped.

“Paaaaapa!” he screamed clenching his teeth in irritation.

My wife and I laughed as we continued to move at a glacial pace in Delhi’s traffic. Fatherhood at 20 or 30 or 40. It’s a bliss, it’s a blessing. And that’s all that matters. 

About the author:
Written by Rohit Sakunia on 10 September 2019.
Sakunia is a entrepreneur by head and a hands-on father at heart. From being a Community Manager at Google to a failed first attempt at entrepreneurship to a running venture, he has had a 10-year roller coaster professional journey. On the personal side, Rohit is a hands-on dad to Parth ‘Chocolate’ Sakunia and tries to do things a modern-day dad should – be involved, set an example and remember you can never be perfect. 

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 12 September 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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