I received a birthday card from one of my oldest friends this week. Actually, it was more of a postcard. On the front was a photograph of a pure white sandy beach, fringed by palm trees, edged by azure sea beneath a sapphire sky.
One word was written across the bottom: 'Honduras'. On the back my friend had written: "Happy birthday! Wish you were here? LOL".
Oh how I Iaughed out loud as I packed my children's books into their bags, zipped up their winter coats and headed out into the freezing January rain. Wish I was there? YES.
My friend is pretty much the same age as me (50 and a day, since you ask). We share a love of beer and food and football, and lots more besides, but that's where the similarities end. For unlike me, his nest is empty of children, whereas mine is going to be very full for many years to come.
Mike is one of that increasingly rare breed of men who became dads when they were very young – whereas I am very much part of a growing zeitgeist of older dads.
This week, I read an article by a dad called Paul Connolly who, like me, has entered his fifth decade.
He is a father to seven-month-old twins (for which, many congratulations) and reckons that he is better equipped to be a dad now than at any other time in his life: calmer and more patient, with more wisdom to pass on to little Caitlin and Leila.
It's exhausting, of course – as he writes: "The combination of three-hourly feeds, double nappy changes, squalls of infant bawling and trying to work five days a week saps every ounce of energy from creaking bone and jaded grey matter." – but for all of that, he believes that fatherhood at an older age than the norm is more rewarding.
Hmmm, well I'm not so sure. As far as I can tell, I am, by some distance, the oldest parent at the primary school gates each morning and afternoon. It isn't something that has particularly bothered me as I've chatted with other dads and (mainly) mums as we drop off and collect our kids.
But this week I've started to feel the odd twinge, hear the odd creak, exhale the odd groan, pant the odd breathless puff. And I've even spotted a couple of grey hairs. Eeek! Because this week (as I have mentioned - not that I'm obsessed or anything) I turned 50. And I'm starting to feel my age.
Turning 50 is, of course, an occasion for celebration, not least because at some times during my pre-parent reckless existence I felt I might never reach this milestone.
As a newspaper reporter, I jumped out of planes, reported from war zones, went undercover to expose criminals, and got ridiculously, horrendously drunk more times than I am able to remember.
I also got engaged three times, then married, then divorced, and then finally met the love of my life and had children. By which time I was 40 years old.
Even then – not the springiest of chickens – I didn't feel like an 'old' dad. Seeing my two sons born made me feel younger and more alive than I had ever felt during the previous four decades. And becoming a stepdad to my wife's daughter put a spring in my step and kept me on my toes through her boundless energy and relentless curiosity.
But now I am starting to feel knackered – and wishing I had done this whole fatherhood malarkey a hell of a lot earlier.
These feelings are, of course, symptoms of the classic midlife crisis. And even though I am not about to buy a Harley Davidson, don a leather jacket and race off with a dolly bird into the sunset of my years, I can't help looking around and wishing for, well, more – even though I've got more than any man of my (limited) looks, (lack of) intelligence and grumpy (to say the least) personality could ever dare to dream for.
Or put another way: less of the boring house dad stuff. The housework, the chores, the school runs, the every day grind of clearing up and chasing after children (aged 12, nine and six, in my case).
And I blame that bloody postcard from Honduras. Because the friend who sent me that card, got married and had kids way younger than me.
Two years ago, they all left home, so he packed in his job, sold his house and is now backpacking around the world without a care in that self-same world.
Other empty nest parents I know talk of romantic weekends away with their wives; the freedom to go on holiday without having to pay the extortionate 'school holidays' tax'.
But they also talk about the friendships they have developed with their – now adult - offspring (post-hormonal-teen-self-absorption) – in the same way I did with my parents once I'd left home.
I know that's unlikely to happen with between me and my children, because I'll be dribbling down my chin in an old folks' home by the time they grow past the surly teen years and become rational adults.
When my dad was 50, I was 23. To mark that occasion, we had a fantastic night out together – him, my mum and my three brothers. He wasn't having a mid-life crisis – because he was over-the-moon that all four of us had left home!
Isn't that reaction counter to so-called Empty Nest Syndrome, where parents feel sad when their offspring leave home? Apparently not.
According to new research, rather than seeing the empty nesting period as a moment to mourn, parents are now making the most of the opportunity. Lucky buggers!
A new breed of over-50s are making the most of the lack of responsibilities at home and heading abroad to fulfill their travel dreams – just like my mate, Mike.
For more than half of respondents, it is not a time tinged with sadness but one of great excitement and a time to remember what they wanted to do with their life before children.
Ninety per cent feel that now is the time to visit their dream destinations whilst they are still fit and healthy. And over 40 per cent feel they can indulge in their passion for travel because their children have finally left the nest.
A spokesperson for All Leisure Group, who carried out the survey with Travelsphere, said: "The majority of over 50s feel it is now their turn to enjoy and indulge themselves."
Well bully for them. As my stepdaughter says: "I'm well jel!" (Very jealous, since you ask!).
But just as an old man starts to sink into a trough of self-pitying depression, along comes a trio of big, smiley YOUNG faces holding out birthday cards, one of which had scrawled on the envelope: "To the cheese, steak, chicken, beef, wine, pork and curry lover. I mean YOU, dad – the most AWESOME dad in the world."
And at a time like that, an old man's turbulent emotions snap out of self-pity and somersault into joy.
As I watched my children's eager fingers tearing at the wrapping paper of the presents they had bought (with a little help from their mum!), I thought: "I hope you never leave home!"
Fifty years OLD? No, my kids keep me 50 years young!
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