This essay about being in a relationship with a large gap was originally published in the Family section of The Guardian on Saturday May 21st 2011. A shorter version also appeared on Offbeat Mama in February 2011.
As a result of writing about our age gap marriage I get emails almost every week from other people around the world who are looking for advice on their own situation. I’ve written about this experience as an accidental Dear Abby in a piece for the Washington Post.
My husband is a beat poet, a professional fundraiser, and the proudest father I’ve ever known. He also happens to be 35 years older than me, and 60 years older than our son. Somewhat ironically, his name is Young.
Believe me, if you had asked me five years ago who I imagined marrying and starting a family with, a man old enough to be my own father would not have been top of the list. And if a friend had confided to me that they were considering entering a relationship with such a significant age difference, I would have done my gentle best to discourage them. But here we are, coming up to our fourth wedding anniversary, and still recovering from our son’s second birthday party. Love is a wonderful and surprising thing, and as we tell people who ask how we met, we just kinda bumped and stuck.
To those on the outside, there are many disadvantages to our unconventional relationship. The mistake people make is thinking that we haven’t given consideration to those ourselves. Of course we’ve thought about the future, of course we know that things won’t always be as easy and fun as they are now, and of course we realise that we look a little odd when we go out… We dated for six months before moving in together, and several nights a week we would linger over dinner, drinking wine, talking about all the reasons we shouldn’t commit to each other. It is a standing joke between us that, due to those six months, there is no good restaurant in Edinburgh that I haven’t cried in.
I think it says something that we now count the owners and staff of some of those restaurants as our closest friends. I can only imagine what they thought at the time, seeing the twenty-something girl in a denim mini-skirt coming in regularly for intimate dinners with the grey-haired, suited man carrying a briefcase. They saw my tears, our first, nervous kisses, and the intense, emotional conversations that lasted long into the night. They were all professional enough to keep their thoughts to themselves… but something about watching us fall in love right in front of them, and watching our relationship develop, led to many of them becoming our biggest supporters. Other diners who asked about us, or whispered among themselves about ‘the strange couple in the corner’ were swiftly rebuked, and reminded that love comes in all shapes and sizes, and yes, even all ages.
It is tough, when you are giddily falling in love, to stand back and really examine your relationship with objective eyes, but we knew we had to. If we were serious about making things work in the longer term we had to persuade our family and friends that this was the real deal, and we couldn’t do that without believing it ourselves. Before long, all that talking paid off, and because we became completely confident in the strong foundations of our relationship, others did too. To anyone who sees us together, it is very obvious how deeply we are in love.
Unlikely as it seems, there are advantages to a relationship with a large age difference too. Knowing that we will never celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary means that we don’t have time to waste. We make the most of every single day, and refuse to get caught up in the petty arguments that consume many couples. Young lives up to his name, and has more energy and drive than most people you’d meet – he often jokes that my maturity and his immaturity mean that we meet somewhere in the middle and we’re actually just like a regular couple in their forties. I’m not sure that’s quite accurate, but it’s true that we are a good balance in terms of our personalities, and we bring out the best in each other.
Once we had both fully committed to the relationship, we decided we might as well really go for it, and pack as much into our lives together as possible. Almost exactly year after we started dating, Young whisked me off to Paris for a long weekend. We spent a lovely, sunny Friday afternoon shopping in La Place Vendome for an engagement ring… and then on leaving the shop with the chosen one, (small but excitingly sparkly) we both had a weak-kneed, what-have-we-done moment and had to collapse into the nearest café for a bottle of red wine and a large plate of pig knuckles. In that sense, the emotional ups and downs of our relationship are much like those of any other couple. It wasn’t a fear that we were doing the wrong thing by committing to each other, it was a fear that we were doing something crazy by committing at all. We were both very strong, independent people with interesting things going on in our lives. When Young had met my mother for the first time, less than a year earlier, he had told her that we were having fun but there would be ‘no cottage, no marriage, and certainly no babies…’ It felt like we had come a very long way, very quickly.
However, the post-engagement anxiety was short-lived, and seven months later friends and family surrounded us for our wedding day. Clichés exist for a reason, and it was genuinely the happiest day of my life. My father gave a moving speech, noting that even before I’d told him about Young he knew there was someone special in my life because every time we spoke on the phone I had ‘bubbles in my voice’. I was surprised on the day to realise that I had no nerves, just a calm feeling that this was absolutely the right thing to be doing. When Young started to say his vows, we locked eyes, and the only way I got through mine without wobbling was by continuing to hold his gaze. We had only changed the chaplain’s suggested wording in one way – instead of saying ‘until death do us part’ we said ‘for as long as we both shall live’. We were determined that our marriage should reflect our general attitude towards life, and we wanted to emphasise the positives wherever possible.
Our son Tom arrived around eighteen months later, and having a child has made our ‘live for the moment’ philosophy even more pertinent. I’ll say it so you don’t have to – my husband is probably going to die while our son is still pretty young. Although knowing him as I do, I wouldn’t actually put money on that… his current stance is that he would be happy if he lived to 95, which is another 33 years. I’m holding out for 100. I had coffee with a friend the other week and she said, only half-joking, “We all know that Young is secretly immortal, right?”
Again, we knew that having a child was an enormous decision, and we talked about it endlessly, making sure that we were doing it for the right reasons and not purely selfish ones. We knew that we could provide a safe, happy and loving home for a baby, but how would we work things out financially in the future, given what different stages we were at in our careers? How would our child cope if his Daddy’s health declined? How would I manage if I ended up being a carer for both my child and husband? What if he or she were bullied at school because their Dad looked like their Grandpa?
There were so many questions that we couldn’t give definitive answers to, but we did talk in depth about different scenarios and how we thought we would manage them. In the end, as with so many things, we had to just trust our instincts.
We really believe that there are no guarantees, whatever your age. We know very well that couples the same age, who look like a perfect match on paper, can’t always make things work when they expand their family. Neither Young nor I had a particularly straightforward childhood and, perhaps because of that, we are convinced that having an awesome father around, even for a short while, is vastly preferable to having an uninvolved or uncaring father around for life.
And he really is an awesome father. To have your first child at sixty is no small thing, but to throw yourself into the job with as much energy and enthusiasm and excitement as Young has done is quite incredible. Despite the many demands of his working life, he is never too busy to read a book with Tom, or get down on the floor and wrestle with him. The highlight of the day for both of them is bath-time, which Young has always done. Whatever kind of day they’ve had, some quality time together with a plastic shape-sorting whale and a bottle of no-tears shampoo seems to make it all feel a whole lot better.
My two boys love each other so dearly, and when I was struggling in the early days of motherhood, it was seeing their love for each other that helped me come to terms with our new life. Not only was Young right beside me for every 2am feed and 5am nappy change, my physical and mental recovery from a difficult birth was only made bearable by the glimpses I caught of him pacing the room with Tom, whispering his love and singing lullabies.
Tom has just turned two, and it has been an immense pleasure to watch their relationship develop. Young remains as involved as he was in the first weeks, with every aspect of our son’s care. Aside from the practicalities though, they have an incredible bond. The memories of sitting on a doughnut cushion for six weeks, falling apart with postpartum depression, are fast being pushed to the back of my mind and being replaced with many happy new snapshots. I never tire of seeing Tom perched on his Daddy’s shoulders, giggling away at some shared joke.
Some things will never change, and we accept that. We still do get some odd looks when we go out, and Young has been mistaken for Tom’s Grandpa on a couple of occasions. I am sure there are still those who think our relationship is wrong. But what could be wrong about two people in love, happily married, bringing up their son? When it comes to building a family, we feel that age really is nothing more than a number.