The Joys and Perils of Having Children Late
This essay is part of Medium’s Mind the Gap: Generational Differences series.
My parents are two of my best friends. Please do not tell 15-year-old me that, in 30 years, Mom and Dad are going to be two of his best friends. He will find that fact depressing. But it’s true. I’m proud of it.
The Leitch parents moved from rural Illinois to Winterville, Georgia about four years ago, after they retired, so they could be near my two young sons, their only grandchildren. After missing most of the boys’ first two years, they get to watch them grow up now. They know their teachers, they make them their favorite brands of mac-n-cheese, they get to go to all their baseball games. Dad helps me coach my younger son, Wynn’s, team, actually, and this year, because we’re trying to play Little League Baseball in a pandemic, he even built a little baseball-field-shaped rack with hooks for them to hang their masks when they go out onto the field. Isn’t it great?
I know they’re just here for the grandkids, but I couldn’t be more grateful to have my parents around, particularly during the pandemic, when they became central to our pod (and the primary source of my fret and worry; they’re in their early seventies, after all). They really are my friends. We go to dinner together, we watch sports and TV shows together, we drink and tell old stories together. We’re closer than we have ever been. It’s precisely the sort of relationship I hope to someday have with my children, when they are adults. One where we are not parent-and-child but simply old friends who know each other better than anyone in the world and can talk about anything. I look at these little boys and imagine them as adults. I cannot wait to see what they are like when they, like me, are 45.
But there’s a problem: I’m not sure I’m gonna make it to see them hit 45.
Don’t get me wrong: I think I’m pretty hale and hearty, and I don’t plan on shuffling off this mortal coil any time soon. But I, like my wife, did something different than our parents: We waited to have children. I spent my twenties and a large section of my thirties trying to establish my writing career and figure out, at a fundamental level, who deep down I really am. I made a bunch of dumb mistakes in that time, but because I didn’t have a family, no one really got hurt but myself. I’m glad I had that time: I’m a better person, husband and father because of it. My wife, who did the same thing, feels the same way.
But it’s not the only way to do this. My parents are happily married, 50 years now, but they are the first to admit that their long and healthy marriage is as much a product of good fortune as anything else. “I married your father because he looked good in his military uniform and he drove a cool car,” my mother is fond of saying. “It is just my dumb luck that he didn’t turn out to be an asshole. He could have been, and I would have had no idea. I was too young to know any better.”
And that, right there, is the difference. My father was 25 years old when I was born. I was 35 when my first son was born, and 37 when his younger brother was. So this time we have together now, my parents and I, the only way I’m going to get to have it with my children when they are 45 is if I’m able to do it well into my eighties. My parents are in good shape and anything but feeble and weak. But will they be that way in a decade?
I think about this every moment I spend with my parents. The friendship I have with them, will I be able to share it with my children? Will they drink beers and watch baseball with me? Or will they be too worried about their elderly, ill dad? Did the time I spend figuring myself out cost me in the long run? My dad once said that he feels like he was a parent before he had any idea of who he was, and he blames a lot of his missteps from that time on that fact. But he also wouldn’t do anything any different, because now he gets to spend more time with me and his grandkids. Will I be able to do the same? Will I regret that trade-off on the back end?
My twenties and thirties were important and valuable. But now that I’m in my forties, looking forward, I’m not sure they were important and valuable enough for me to miss all that they might make me miss. It’s a difference in the generations, I know. I’m hardly the first Gen X kid to get married and start a family a lot later than his Boomer parents. But as I get older, it doesn’t feel like a generational choice. It just feels like everything else does anymore— like I’m running out of time.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, to be released by Harper next month. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.