‘Don’t panic, it just comes naturally’: becoming a father in later life

Lawrence Zeegen hadn’t planned on becoming a father again in his 50s. The illustration professor already had three children from a previous marriage. But when his second wife, Rebecca, who was 43 at the time, made it clear she planned to be a mother, he soon learned that “changing nappies is a lot like riding a bike – you never forget how to do it”.

His daughter, Zöe, who is now seven, was conceived using an egg donor. Zeegen, who is 59 and from Cambridge, says he is delighted that he went against “all rational thinking” to become a dad again – but notes that parenting is different when approaching 60. “I have a little less energy than I did at 27 with my first-born. I’m pretty active and look after myself – I want to be around for as much of my daughter’s adult life as possible.”

After Al Pacino made the news for expecting his fourth child at 83, weeks after Robert De Niro welcomed his seventh at 79, Zeegen shared advice for new, older parents. “Don’t panic. Most of it just comes naturally. Take a deep breath and go with the flow. Embrace it all.”

For piano teacher Patrick Dailly, 74, having a 13-year-old daughter has kept him “young in mind”. “I’m abreast of some modern music which I like and I seem to get on well with her friends, who either don’t notice or politely ignore my great age,” Dailly says.

Related: Jon Snow ‘at complete ease’ with becoming a father again in his 70s

And not just young in mind: when Dailly, who also has a son in his 40s from a previous marriage, speaks to the Guardian, he has recently been hiking “across the Scottish wilderness” with his wife, Kathryn, 54, and his daughter, Scarlet. He admits he “ended up with seriously pulled muscles, while she was bouncing around like a spring chicken”.

Dailly says there are advantages to becoming a father again at an older age. “I’m financially much more secure, and feel a more mature person and able to deal with life better. I’ve mellowed.”

But children of older parents sometimes feel different to their friends. David, who is 41 and from Bedford, was born when his father was 63: “Growing up I would pretend that he was my grandad as – and I hate to say this – I was embarrassed that this ‘old man’ was my father. He was in poor health for most of the time that I knew him.

“My dad wasn’t like the other dads. He couldn’t play football with me or take me to the park,” remembers David, who is a graphic designer and was the youngest of three children, explaining that his mother was in her mid-30s when she had him. “Luckily, I had an older brother who filled the gap there a bit – [but] I remember feeling jealous of friends and their dads who were running around together.”

He remembers his father as being “really funny” and having “lots of different catchphrases – a bit like one of the ageing game show hosts that he obsessively watched on TV each night”. “I did really love him. He introduced me to the music of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr and we watched a ton of war films together.”

David was left heartbroken when his father died when he was 15. “My dad didn’t become a grandad, he didn’t see me graduate, didn’t see me build a career, didn’t meet my wife or children.”

He stresses that his father was in poor physical health: “I know there are old fathers out there who are healthy and fit.” But as a father to two boys, aged six and 10, David says his upbringing means he loves being an active dad himself. “I pride myself on able to take my sons on bike rides – I don’t rest on my laurels.”

Katie, 53, also knows how difficult it is to lose a parent at a young age. “My dad was 53 when I was born and my mum was 38. He was a lovely dad, calm, patient and good fun. He was very understanding and accepting of all youthful foibles. If I went out with my friends as a teenager, he’d let you have a fag in the car on the way home,” the university administrator from London remembers.

“He was part of that generation that had a resilience that I think people tend to lack now. He worked in civil engineering and had travelled around the world to work – he was very open-minded and interested in things.”

When she was 18, Katie, who has three older siblings, suffered the sudden loss of her mother after she died of a heart attack. “We somehow weathered the awful grief and the bleak feeling her absence gave us together.”

Her father became seriously ill a few years later. “It was very hard for me to deal with in my early 20s. I stayed living at home with him and got a job locally, while my friends went off to university and went travelling.

“He died when I was 25. Older dads are wonderful, but you don’t have them for as long as you’d like.”