WHEN MY SON WAS BORN IN 1983,1 considered myself a foot soldier in the men’s movement, a new breed of nurturing dad, courageous enough to change a diaper and live to write about it in the Today section of The Dallas Morning News. I went to natural childbirth classes-almost made Coach of the Year. We joined the La Leche League, and I could assemble a breast pump in the dark of night faster than any two nannies combined. At the moment of birth, I could be counted on to be there-a videocamera in one hand, a catcher’s mitt in the other.
Fourteen years and a new wife later, I find myself again on the daddy track, preparing for re-entry into the world of the postpartum. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me. I’m glad that my biological clock keeps good time, but at 46, I’m in no shape to parent. A chronic backache limits my flexibility-makes it difficult to even think about picking up a toddler without getting a chiropractic adjustment. I am balding fast, graying even faster. And I keep having this dream: It’s years from now. I’m at a wedding. I’m escorting a young woman who I suppose is my daughter down the aisle. She leans against my arm for support. I lean against my walker.
With my unconscious broadcasting hints of a baby girl, I felt a modicum of calm about starting over. Although I’ve loved raising a boy, my son had been a prepubescent jock- a kicking, throwing, hitting, dribbling fool. A daughter seemed easier somehow, a sweet little Indian Princess who would fix me hot chocolate on cold wintry nights while I tried to keep the circulation going to both my hands and feet.
With each passing trimester, I secretly longed for a little girl. My wife and I had agreed that we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby in advance, but when it was time to get a sonogram, I knew I had the opportunity to put my mind at rest.
Upon entering the doctor’s office in Piano, a jolly, white-coated woman led us into a darkened room. The woman pressed a plastic sensor against my wife’s budding belly and asked, “Do you want to know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
I hesitated. “How often do people want to know?”
“You’d be surprised how often.” My wife shot me a look of confusion. “Just tell us if all the parts are there and working.”
The woman searched the terrain of my wife’s stomach as adiviner would search for water. A murky image flashed on a monitor, and we were told that everything had its place and there was a place for everything.
But I pressed the woman further. “You know the sex now, don’t you?” She smiled. “I’m 99 percent certain.”
I figured she could only be that certain if she saw the presence of something rather than the absence. “So then it’s a boy,” I mumbled.
My wife held her breath. “All right, just tell us.”
The woman pointed to the screen and circled something that she claimed was a scrotum. Proof positive.
Most fathers would be beating their breasts at the prospect of perpetuating the species, but my heart sank with the news. The thought of another son seemed altogether exhausting, yet I knew it was time to buck up and be thankful.
I was helped along by my friend, local obstetrician Dr. Bob Darrow, who sent me an article from The New York Times. “Call them SODs-start-over dads,” the article announced. “They are men who have become fathers at a time in their life when many of their contemporaries have retired…” Mentioned were a number of high-profile dads. Yasser Arafat had a daughter when he was 65; Anthony Quinn when he was crowding 80. Clint Eastwood fathered a baby recently at 65, and Tony Randall at 77 has one due this month. These codgers had me beat by some 20 years and yet they were still procreating with abandon.
Apparently, I’d been looking at this daddy thing wrong. I thought a newborn would make me feel old, but Dr. Bob was telling me “a baby will keep you young.” In his practice, he had seen many SODs, a phenomenon he considered healthy as long as the dads remained that way. “Get plenty of exercise. If you want to be there for your kids, stay alive and well.”
So I’ve joined a new health club, started counting fat grams and have cut back on red meat. And why not? If Yasser Arafat can summon the strength to drive a carpool, then so can I.