'Dad was just Dad': The ups and downs of having an older parent

Margaret Cannington as a child, with her father Source: Supplied

Margaret Cannington's childhood was treasured by her father, and she misses the wisdom he brought to her life. But the realities of how growing up with an older parent can affect children are not often considered, she writes.

It is only with an adult’s understanding that I see anything unusual about the fact that there was a 25 year age gap between my parents, or that Dad was 53 when I was born.

Dad was just Dad.

Reflecting back with this adult’s perspective, however, there was a lot that was really wonderful about having an older father:

By the time I came along, Dad had already established his career and therefore didn’t have the ‘how am I going to support my family emotionally and financially while also realising my career ambitions’ conflict that I see in many of my friends, who became parents in their twenties and thirties. He’d been there, done that. In fact, I think he felt that he had missed out on relishing the childhoods of his older children because he was so focussed, at the time, on building his business and making a living. This meant that he made an active effort to be present in my life and to treasure my childhood. He often said that I kept him young and I have lots of wonderful memories of heading down to the beach with Dad after school and playing kick to kick with him in the park every weekend.

He made an active effort to be present in my life and to treasure my childhood. He often said that I kept him young.

Being older, Dad had a very strong sense of what was important in life and how to be in the world.  You could say that he, quite literally, had the wisdom that comes with age and experience; wisdom and experience that he made an active effort to share with me. To this day, when faced with a difficult situation, I find myself referencing one of the many life philosophies Dad imparted over the years. And it is these philosophical discussions – where Dad would encourage me to forge my own beliefs while learning from his – that I miss most.

Given that I speak so glowingly about my experience of growing up with an older father, it would be easy to assume that I would fully support people who wish to become parents later in life.

But this is not the case.

I find stories about I women undergoing medical intervention to try and become pregnant in their sixties particularly confronting and I have a strong emotional, judgemental response as a result (and yes, my inner feminist cringes just writing that, but it doesn’t make it any less true). Situations that somewhat echo my own family situation, where older (‘older’ again meaning those 60+) people are looking to have a child with their younger partner, I find only slightly less challenging.

Margaret Cannington, on Insight
Margaret Cannington, on Insight

The ‘age gap’ factor doesn’t bother me at all – if my parents' relationship has taught me anything, it is not to judge others' relationships! Rather, I find myself wondering if these people have really, honestly, considered what it is going to be like for their child who, statistically speaking, is almost certain to experience the physical and mental decline of their parent, and probably have to take an active role in supporting their parent through that process, when at an age that it is still the child who should be receiving care.

I just cannot move past the fact that my (older) Dad was considered to have lived a good, long life when he died at 70 – a mere ten years (or less) on from the age these people are trying to bring a baby into the world. When I am asked about the impact Dad’s illness and ultimate death had on me as a teenager, I will usually focus on the positive side of things; how loved he made me feel while he was alive, and how his passing has enhanced my compassion and ability to support other loved ones during their painful life experiences. Indeed, Dad would have my guts for garters from beyond the grave if I went through life with any sort of ‘woe is me’ attitude resulting from his passing.

The brief period I spent as a child carer for my father, and the experience of losing a parent before I had reached adulthood, is one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But the reality was that the brief period I spent as a child carer for my father, and the experience of losing a parent before I had reached adulthood, is one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy – or the child of my worst enemy as the case may be. As such, I will always find it difficult not to have an emotional, judgmental response to people who bring children into the world knowing that witnessing the untimely decline and death of a parent is likely to be part of that child’s life journey.

The logical, less emotive side of me recognises, of course, that everyone has their ‘stuff’ they have to deal with in life, some of it far worse than caring for and/or losing a loving (older) parent in childhood. Likewise, I appreciate that illness and death can strike a parent at any age. I am highly conscious, too, of the damage that can be done by using emotive arguments around ‘protecting unborn children’ to justify the creation of regulations that ultimately restrict what people, particularly women, can and cannot do with their own bodies. I may silently judge people that choose to become parents in their sixties and beyond but regulating or legislating against its occurrence is a whole different conversation.

Ultimately, the question of ‘how old is too old’ is one of those where I wish Dad was still around so we could have one of our philosophical conversations about it.  I think, though, that he would be pleased to know that our story is out in the world, adding our little drop to the conversational pond around this issue.


Margaret Cannington is a guest on Insight's Older Parents, which asks the question: how old is too old to have a child? |  Catch up online now: 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Mamamia