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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

The midlife baby blues: the challenges faced when becoming a parent later in life

There are a specific set of mental, physical and emotional challenges, particularly for fathers, who do not traditionally receive the same support as mothers

A new baby in later years can throw your life plans and finances into chaos. Getty
A new baby in later years can throw your life plans and finances into chaos. Getty

Here in the UAE, conversations with strangers usually start with inquiries about two things: what we do for a living and how long we intend to stay here. Let me begin, then, by saying that I am employed as a journalist and that I really have no idea how long I’ll stay as a guest in this country. I’ve never had a “game plan”. I’m 45 years old, I have a wife, two sons, one therapist and no idea what the future holds.

More than 20 years separate my two boys and, truth be told, being a parent was never on my “to-do” list. I’ve never had that desire to be a dad and I assumed that, by the time I was in my 40s, there wouldn’t be any more children coming along.

How wrong I was. Having remarried nearly six years ago, it was assumed by friends and family that the eventual pitter-patter of tiny feet was a certainty. But not on my watch, oh no. I had a nice life, after struggling for many years to make ends meet.

My wife and I talked about travel, savings and investments, perhaps buying our own house somewhere in Italy, France or Spain.

We had a decent disposable joint income and plenty of time on our hands. We had money in the bank. We had plans and a realistic chance of achieving our goals. And then, one evening, I got the news I really didn’t want.

I put on what I thought was a brave face, but my world was shattered in an instant. Life would, I feared, be put on hold indefinitely. I’d become selfish in recent years, which I didn’t feel guilty about. My son was at university in the UK and had grown into a beautiful, gifted young man. I felt that I’d “done my bit” for society as a result. But my wife had never known what it was like to have a child and, while I was fighting depression over the news, she was utterly elated.

There was an immediate financial impact. I had been in a new job for all of four months when we discovered the pregnancy, and that meant we were not covered by the medical insurance provided by my employer.

The pre- and postnatal treatments were expensive, and we had to pay more than Dh60,000 to cover it, as we knew from the beginning that the birth would need to be a C-section delivery.

My moods were dark for long periods of time, but I reasoned that it would be OK once the baby was born. After all, I’d done it before and had coped. But it wasn’t OK, not by a long shot. The birth had taken its toll on my wife in ways we never thought possible and she was practically an invalid for weeks. We had on our hands a little boy who seemed to do nothing but cry, sleep, feed and defecate in a never-ending cycle.

Apart from the financial hammering we underwent and the health setbacks, the lack of sleep was undoubtedly the worst aspect of being a middle-aged new parent.

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I hadn’t realised, until it started being disturbed, just how I’d grown to love and depend on sleep over the years and, with us both being up and down constantly through each and every night, we didn’t take long to snap.

I slept on the sofa most nights in an attempt to improve my rest hours, as I still needed to work full-time. Often I would weep until slumber descended on me, utterly drained, both physically and emotionally, all the while beating myself up about feeling so negative when this little boy was supposed to bring us both untold joy. I felt utterly useless and desperately lonely.

I was stuck in my own personal Groundhog Day and I hated it: get up, get the baby’s six bottles filled with formula (after sterilising them in the kitchen, which usually resembled a makeshift science lab), get dressed, go to work, come home, bath and feed the baby, spend an hour or so rocking him to sleep, try to summon up the energy to eat something, collapse into a crumpled heap on the sofa and then hit the repeat button.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this, that first year was a living hell and mostly I put that down to my age and our location. When my first son was born, I was in my early 20s and surrounded by friends and family who would help us out. This time around my joints were aching and we were entirely bereft of any support network, except for the cleaning lady who came in once a week.

Having spoken to a number of dads here who are a similar age to me, I quickly discovered I was not alone and the emotional descent into the “seventh circle” that I experienced is extremely common among men in their 40s who become fathers, yet is rarely spoken about.

“Most of the people I treat are men aged 35 and up, and many of them are new fathers,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, managing director of LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. Afridi is also the clinical psychologist whom I started seeing after I began having panic attacks last year.

“Parenthood is being left later in life than it used to be, because of fertility issues, career building and lifestyle choices,” says Afridi.

“But what we often overlook is that, especially for men, this ‘middle passage’ causes us to question our identities, our lives so far and the choices we’ve made. Throwing a baby into the mix can cause many unexpected problems.”

She adds that men face very specific issues, with societal pressure to “man up and just get on with it” being responsible for much emotional and mental damage. “It can be extremely lonely for men,” she advises, “because all the support out there tends to be geared towards new mums. Having a baby puts huge stresses on a marriage at the best of times, and it’s important to understand that, for men, it can be likened to experiencing a ‘death’ of their life up to the point when a child comes along. They will be grieving while adjusting to their new circumstances, dealing with feelings of guilt for feeling the opposite of how they think they should be.”

Afridi says that LightHouse Arabia, if it receives sufficient interest from fathers, will soon be arranging regular parenting classes just for them. “They need to seek help,” she says, “to initiate some sort of platform to open dialogue with others for advice. Men tend to ‘self-medicate’ to seek some of that comfort they need, and that’s almost always counterproductive.”

But my experience also proves that things do get better with time. Once our new son began sleeping through the night (up to 12 hours at a time), the stresses in our home life seemed to melt away. And then, as he got older and began walking and talking, his magical personality started to shine through and I began to enjoy being a dad again. I still do.