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Late Paternity : In 1990, 67 men between the ages of 50 and 72 became fathers in Ventura County.

June 13, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When men enter their 50s and 60s, chances are they're planning for retirement. You might find them at RV exhibits or trying out sports equipment at the mall. Who could guess that they'd turn up in a Lamaze class?

Sixty-seven men ages 50 to 72 became fathers last year in Ventura County. Paternal age was included for the first time in the county's 11,033 recorded births for 1990. Dr. Lawrence Dodds, director of the Ventura County Public Health Agency, said it will be several years before it is possible to see if this is a trend.

According to Dr. Gary Small, associate professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, increased longevity and the high rate of divorce and remarriage are some reasons for late paternity. In addition, many people are delaying first marriages and postponing families.

"With the ability to treat fertility, the biological clock is still ticking," he said. "But we've reset the timer."

The greatest worry is that older men will not see their children beyond their teens. From the child's perspective, he may perceive a stigma about the gap between the ages of his own parents and the parents of his friends. Small said a father with an older appearance could be an embarrassment. Or a child could fear that his father will not live as long as others. He might resent his father's inability to participate in activities or sports.

"Friends could make fun of his old man, who indeed is older." Small said.

Yet the concerns about having a child late in life are balanced by the positive aspects, Small said. "The father is usually more established in his career. He may be more financially secure, more able to spend more time with the family." Also, an older man is usually more mature and may even be experienced in rearing children.

Prof. Irene Goldenberg, family psychologist at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, said it is oversimplifying the issue to look for a single motive to explain parenthood in later years.

"I don't think at age 50 people think, 'Gee, I miss something,' and fix it by having a baby." However, she said the urge "to do it over again, to correct the mistakes in child rearing or with the first spouse" is a very powerful motive. "Some older fathers have said the child is a sign of their virility," she said. Often, it may be an unplanned pregnancy.

Goldenberg stressed the importance of agreeing about parenthood. "Otherwise, anger will permeate the marriage," she said.

One of the biggest problems with late parenthood, Goldenberg said, is the value gap since there are really two generations between parent and child. "It's like your grandmother deciding how late you can stay out at night," she said.

Despite some drawbacks, many couples consider late parenthood a miracle. Mary Rodgers, 39, wife of 58-year-old entertainer Jimmie Rodgers, was 4 1/2 months pregnant when they discovered that they were going to have a baby.

The Thousand Oaks couple, who have been married for nearly 13 years, had been told that she could not have children. "We had tried for a while after we were married," Rodgers said. "But since I had three boys and a girl from previous marriages, we just accepted it."

Baby Katrine represents the third generation of children for Rodgers, whose five offspring range in age from 31 years to 19 months. His oldest daughter and her husband are the baby's godparents. And his two grandchildren, 2 and 5 of age, are older than Katrine.

"Mary and I have kept close with all the kids. They are in and out of the house constantly so Katrine is like a mascot. We pack her up and take her everywhere with us."

Fortunately, their careers offer flexibility to raise a baby. Mary is a self-employed foley artist whose sound effects have garnered Emmy awards. Twice nominated for a Grammy, Rodgers earned 10 gold records singing folk-based songs, including "Honeycomb." He tours regularly.

When Katrine was delivered by Cesarean section, it was a family affair. "Jimmie, my mother and stepdaughter were all in the operating room with me," Mary Rodgers said.

Jimmie Rodgers cherished the opportunity. Since his other children arrived while he was on tour, he had only been present at the birth of one son.

"I know I'm a good father and I've always provided for my family," Rodgers said. "What bothers me the most is that I was gone so much from my first family, although it doesn't seem to bother them now.

"I'm more patient with Katrine than I was with the others. At 7:30 a.m., we watch 'Mr. Rogers' and at 8 'Sesame Street,' " he said.

But he admitted that life can be a little more hectic than he would like. "I go to martial arts classes with my 19-year-old son, and that's not easy at my age. But we're having a great time together."

Sporting a ponytail, farm-boy Rodgers conceded that he gets tired. "If I were in poor health, it would be a disaster. I have friends who looked sideways at me about this baby. But I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me, and especially to Mary, who always wanted a little girl."

Rodgers advised any older man in good health to have children if his wife wants them. "You'll be closer to that baby than you can ever imagine."

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