Existential musings of an older dad

Bryan Miller '74 with his son.

Bryan Miller ’74 (pictured with his 10-year-old son, Sean) is a longtime journalist and former restaurant critic for the New York Times. He lives in Tarrytown, N.Y.

By Bryan Miller ’74

I recently attended my high school reunion in Newton, N.J., a rural town with a population of approximately 8,000 in the northern reaches of the state. As always at these affairs (including Colgate gatherings, I should add), conversation turns to my classmates’ children and, in recent years, grandchildren (yikes!).

“My son is an architect in Philadelphia,” a beaming mother volunteered. This prompted another to add, “How nice, my daughter is a real estate lawyer in Chicago. Loves the city.” Then chimed in a liberally imbibing dad: “My daughter is in real estate development; my son is a dermatologist in Hartford — and his wife is pregnant!”

Inevitably, eyes turned toward me.

“Bryan, do you have children?”
“Yes, a son.”
“Wonderful. What does he do?”
“He’s still studying, finding himself, that sort of thing.”
“That’s nice. What are his plans?”
“Well, he’s really good at mathematics, so he might make a career in that field, maybe teach.”
“Bravo! We need more good math teachers.”
“Yes, but I’m insisting he finishes fifth grade first.”
Blank stares.

As fate and immaturity dictated, I fell into the jaws of parenthood at an “advanced” stage of life, 52. My son, Sean Albert Miller, is now 10, barely a step along his number-crunching career — that is, unless he gravitates toward one of his other articulated aspirations: a stunt man, an NBA point guard, or a sportswriter. I’m cool with any of those.

Parenthood has been described as the unprepared attempting the impossible for the sake of the ungrateful. I have never been that cynical, but in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, when someone asked if I planned to have children, my stock answer was: “I need kids like I need cholera.” It seemed so confining, so ripe for disaster, especially for a determined journalist who wanted to see the world, expose the truth, and, if lucky, dispatch some venal politicians into penal institutions (this was the post-Watergate era). Moreover, I simply did not believe that I possessed the parental instinct. When pressed about parenthood, I was armed with a handbook of rationalizations, some real, some rote. Then again, maybe it had something to do with losing my father when I was a young child — he was only 25. Who knows what emotional shrapnel that leaves behind?

Besides, for a decade I was a restaurant critic for the New York Times, a period in which I dined out 5,123 times. Babysitter bills alone would have paid for a house in the south of France, with a good cook. My wife at the time respected my outlandish career demands and did not lean on the baby button.

But, like the tide that erodes a child’s sand castle, age softens our blunt, youthful certitudes. Once the pace of my career subsided, so did my disinclination — or fear — of having a child. My second wife at the time was 39 — hardly superannuated by today’s standards. At last I was nudged (more accurately, strong-armed) into diaperhood.

I learned one thing early on. Being an older dad is like a man doing needlepoint: While enjoyable in private, the presence of others brings a twinge of self-consciousness. In Sean’s first year, I was a work-at-home parent assisted by a nanny, and I rarely thought about being an older dad. My connection to Sean was pure and unexamined. It was only when we began spending time out of the house, shopping, or at the playground, that I became increasingly uncomfortable about my age — or, more directly, about how other swing-setters saw me.

At elementary school parents’ night, I am obviously older than others. I try to shake the awkward feeling, but it follows me around like a dog.

At reunions and other such gatherings, colleagues inevitably try to shore me up by spouting two bromides that I never want to hear again. “Having a child will keep you young!” I don’t need a child for that. Indeed, I could use some goading toward the adult side. And: “Enjoy the next few years because he’ll soon become a teenager!” The teen thing does not spook me, despite Mark Twain’s admonition that “When a boy turns thirteen, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns sixteen, plug up the hole.”

One of my emotional survival strategies is to ignore the math. Resist calculating your advancement against your child’s milestones (I’ll be this old when he graduates from high school, even more senescent when he exits college). It is a downward spiral that becomes an obsession worthy of Lady Macbeth. For most people, living in the present, with little attention paid to the highway ahead, is a foolhardy enterprise. For older dads, it is a survival tool to be wielded often.

Growing older without children can leave one with a feeling of cosmic insignificance. Kafka said that life ends, not stops. This is to say, humans are terrified at the thought of expiration, although some manage to sublimate it better than others. As a consequence, we are driven to seek permanence, some marker to attest to our brief stopover on the planet, great or small: raising families, erecting monuments, creating businesses, indulging in the arts, teaching others. So, with Sean, I have achieved my ticket to perpetuity.

One morning about four years ago, Sean told his mother that he had been having nightmares about me dying, and attending a funeral. My hair turned white (whiter) upon hearing this. Did he pick this up from me? Or someone in school? I was shattered.

Like any mature and responsible dad, I sat him down, held his hand, smiled reassuringly — and lied. Just a little. I will be around for a long, long time: as long as Eliot’s dad and Jake’s dad, and maybe you. Initially he listened quietly, betraying no emotion. “Dad, have you seen my baseball bat?” he asked. I wasn’t surprised at this, because discussions with 6-year-olds are like reaching into a stuffed dryer — you never know what will come out first. He has not expressed such eschatological anxiety since.

My next high school reunion is in five years, at which time Sean will be in 10th
grade, and I will be on the far side of Social Security. I can’t wait to shock them again.