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Risks for older dads, but oh the rewards

By Philip Lerman
updated 11:02 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phil Lerman: New study says kids from older dads more likely to have mental difficulties
  • Lerman's an older dad and has his challenges, such as being mistaken for son's grandfather
  • Despite the risks and challenges, Lerman says he couldn't imagine not having his son
  • Lerman: Older dads benefit kids with mental challenges; they are lucky to have each other

Editor's note: Philip Lerman is the author of "Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad."

(CNN) -- You know, it's not like older fathers don't have enough to deal with.

We have to keep that smile on our faces when the school's reading adviser mistakes us for our son's grandfather.

We have to pretend not to notice how much more hair all the other dads have, how much younger their wives are and how much more well-equipped they are to coach the soccer team. That's because when they were kids, they actually played soccer, while we grew up with more '60s-like pursuits, such as baseball, stickball and smoking dope.

We have to listen to people saying we're too old to keep up with our own kids, and we have to deal with the fact that they're absolutely correct.

Philip Lerman
Philip Lerman

But on top of all that, every two years or so, we have to deal with another study saying that we're much more likely to produce children who have Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and every other mental illness this side of mogo on the go go. (And we have to deal with the fact that all of the fathers of our kids' friends are way too young to catch W.C. Fields references such as "mogo on the gogo.")

Study: Children of older dads at higher risk of psychiatric disorders

A report published this week in JAMA Psychiatry confirmed this trend. It is a huge study of data about 2.6 million Swedish-born children and reveals that a guy like me, who became a father at 45 (I was 46, actually), would be three or four times more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder.

But look.

When Max was born, they told me that because of my age, he was much more likely to have autism than, say, the child of a guy who hadn't had his first prostate exam yet. They ran me through all the other things that could go wrong, which gave me great pause. It's terrible, of course, to think that we older fathers are putting our children's health at risk.

Until you think about the alternative -- not having them at all. Then it gets tricky, doesn't it

Older fathers may be linked to autism

Max has so far managed to survive my dotage and reach the sixth grade. I'm writing quickly because I like to be done with work at 3:30, when he gets home from school, so we can play a little catch or pingpong or even kick around a soccer ball before he starts on his homework. The thought that I might have listened to the scolds who chastised me for daring to think about having a child in my advanced years -- the thought that this boy might not have come into my life -- is utterly beyond my comprehension.

I shudder to even think of Max never having been born -- and because I am a neurotic old Jew, I have to spit on the ground three times for even having written the words, like God will do whatever terrible things to us that we think or say, but then we spit three times he says, "Oh, well, that's much better then." Where did we come up with this stuff?

As it turns out, Max does suffer from some anxiety disorder issues. Did he inherit them from me? Were they caused by my creaky old decrepit sperm, as the studies suggest, or the cultural heritage that had him born to a father so neurotic that he made his son wear a football helmet to go on the swings? Or is it just one of those things?

I have no idea. But I do know this: He is lucky to have me for a dad.

He is lucky not despite my age but because of it. Because I am old enough to be done with the workplace striving that used to keep me in the office until way past what would have been his bedtime, had he existed then. Because I'm content to work from home, for a much lower salary, so that I can be here to have that catch. To play that game of pingpong. And to counsel him and console him and help him come up with strategies when the anxiety gets to be too great.

And yes, because I have worked all my life and am financially secure enough to get him the help that he needs -- to have him in a school that has responded incredibly well to his disorder. To find the best therapist in the world.

And most importantly, he is lucky because I am old enough to give my son what I could never have given him when I was younger: patience.

Older dads are more patient, I think, because we know we will probably never go through all this again. We know that these precious moments -- the bottles that gave way to sippy cups, the swings that gave way to skateboards, the Wiggles that gave way to Daft Punk -- these moments are golden gifts from God, and we understand that in a way that we never could have, in our salad days.

And so we cherish them, and we savor them, and we believe that spending that time down on the floor when they are little, and in the backyard while they are growing, and at the table talking when they need us to be at the table talking, makes all the difference in the world. All the difference in their world, and in our own.

Hey JAMA -- go study that for a change.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Phil Lerman.

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