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Graham Lowe and his little blokes

By Graham Lowe, Nicola Shepheard

Graham Lowe, 62, former rugby league coach and Warriors co-owner, steel spine behind some of league's hardest men, repeat cheater of death by arterial disease, is watching As Time Goes By on UKTV early one morning when he finds himself explaining metaphors, pride and disappointment to his then-4-year-old twins, Sam and Jack.

Jack had come in looking worried. "Dad, I was very scared there would be an emergency on the plane when we flew to see Nana," he says.

Lowe teases out what's really troubling him: Jack had overheard him declare his heart was broken while discussing a failed business venture with his wife, Karen.

"But Dad, who will look after your heart if you run out of pills?"

Lowe calls in Sam and explains to his sons that a broken heart is a metaphor for disappointment.

"Look, guys, sometimes things will go wrong and you feel like your heart has been broken. But other times, great things happen and you feel like your heart swells with pride. When you were born that's how I felt - my heart swelled with pride."

The scene is from Lowe's new book, Me and My Little Blokes, out this week. The book began as a love letter to his sons for them to read at age 15 in case he was not there to tell them what it's like to be a father again in one's 60s, and the avalanche of meaning they'd brought into his life.

The words flowed, and a friend suggested he write a book.

Lowe is an unashamed born-again dad. He sees his friends' eyes glaze over when he starts talking about the twins. "I just piss myself laughing and keep going."

He explains that his sons triggered a spiritual awakening, a self-reflection and re-evaluation of what matters.

"It might sound very corny," he says, "but I've found out who I am and I didn't know before."

He writes in the book: "I have two fantastic daughters, Sarah and Amy, who were born in 1974 and 1976. I love them dearly and they know it. However, my life began when the boys were born. That's also when my fun began."

* * *

They've been called Start Over Dads - SODs for short. Men, usually professional and

comfortably off, who have babies while their peers are fine-tuning their golf swing and collecting retirement village brochures.

Often, as in Lowe's case, they feel compelled to oblige the maternal instincts of younger wives and partners. (Lowe left his first wife, his daughters' mother, for Karen in 1986, marrying her in 1991.) Cynics would say for some men it's more about a validation of masculinity.

New Zealand SODs include former All Black and commentator Murray Mexted, a dad again at 55, and Wellington property magnate Sir Robert Jones, 69, whose children are aged 4 to 40

Other SODs include Rod Stewart, 64, whose youngest is 3; Kenny Rogers, whose identical twins were born when he was 65, and Rupert Murdoch, 78, who has six children aged between 5 and 50.

They're a small but growing minority. One in 10 babies are born to a man over 40, and one in 100 are born to dads over 50. The median age for new dads of 32 has remained steady over the past decade, but the proportion of new dads over 40 has crept up from 8.1 per cent to 10.8 per cent, says Statistics New Zealand.

The drawbacks of senior siring are self-evident: the higher probability dad might not be around to see his child shack up or even graduate; the limits on boisterous physical play; the potential for a generation gap.

Even though men can remain fertile into their 80s, recent studies show older fathers are more likely to have children with autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dwarfism and other serious health problems. It's thought as men age, their sperm are at a higher risk of picking up minor mutations.

Other research suggests a biological upside: in many cases older fathers' testosterone levels have dropped and they tend to be more nurturing.

Older fathers often say they have more time for their children; they're no longer consumed by career or status, they're mellowed and more at ease.

Lowe writes of the guilt he still carries for leaving his daughters when he moved to England to be with Karen. He's also conscious of what they missed out on because of his all-devouring career, first as an auto-electrician then a coach.

"I was very concerned about how other people thought I was going. Now I don't give a shit."

TV reporter Simon Pound's father had him at 57. Pound, now 27 and himself a father, feels his upbringing was enriched by his father's life experience. "The best thing about it was growing up with the manners and interests of the generation prior," he says. "It was really cool to have a different perspective, a richer life history that he could draw on."

Child psychologist Glen Stenhouse says it's not so much the parent's age but the quality of parenting that counts.

"I suppose you'd have to say there's a point when it's too old to become a father because you would only have the energy to be a bystander rather than an active participant, and you'd also be checking out before your child is emotionally independent of you."

* * *

Lowe's brushes with death, which began with a brain haemorrhage in 1991 and later led to a triple bypass, were like "a gong going off in my head".

"If those things hadn't happened, I don't think I'd be the person I am today. I wouldn't be as calm, I'd probably be even more materialistic. I probably wouldn't have been here - something would have given."

He wonders whether the balance he's found would have made him a better coach.

"People who know me now have got no idea how ruthless I was. I sacrificed players' health if it meant we could win. That's all that mattered. There's plenty of players going around with severe arthritis and scars that were a direct result of the ruthless approach I took. I'm not sure if I could do that again ... I was probably such a dominating factor everyone told me what I wanted to hear. My weakness was how relentless I was on myself, how driven."

In his book, Lowe explains why he doesn't believe in smacking his boys and how he cried at their fifth birthday.

"It would be a mistake to misinterpret that image I portray as a weakness; in actual fact it's a strength," he says.

"I haven't turned into a soppy Joe overnight."

He still rails against the "cotton-wooling" of today's professional sportspeople - "there's not much you can do in the world now without rehydrating".

The man who helped popularise league in New Zealand now says sport is just entertainment. "At the end of the day, sport means nothing. I'd much rather focus on making sure the kids understand the basic values of being a good person. That to me is winning."

GRAHAM LOWE: LIFE WITHOUT THE COMPLICATIONS

The money we have wasted over the years is ridiculous, and I suspect many people are the same. But the thing that concerns me more than anything is how I've justified the waste.

Selfish is a word that comes to mind, but in saying that I still regard myself and many of my actions as generous.

But now I have the boys I am living in a very different world. For one thing I lack the income of years gone by, and I can't afford to spend it all on the luxuries of life like yachts and first-class trips. But I know I have the most valuable things I could imagine: Jack and Sam.

It's not only Jack and Sam, it's what they stand for. And believe me, even at four years old they stand for something already. They do know what is right and what is wrong. And they also have pride and loyalty.

Many people I've met or dealt with in my life have not the slightest idea what those things mean. If they see a need to trample over friends, lie and cheat, they will do it.

My little blokes have come along at the perfect time in my life, and have reminded me what really matters. You can see it in their eyes. It is as though they already know that we all end up as dust. And that what really matters is our communication with one another, not our cars, boats, holidays, homes and all the other image/status things we are driven to acquire.

Don't get me wrong, I want to be comfortable. But there is something different now.

For example, the little blokes started soccer practice at the local club. I'm not smart enough with words to express how proud I felt as I stood on the sideline watching them and six other kids running around cones and taking their turns to kick the ball. I used to wonder how I would feel watching someone else coach my kids, and all sorts of things were going through my mind on the way down to the practice field for the first time. But when I got there and looked around at the other mums and dads, I thought to myself, why does anything need to get more complicated than this?

- Graham Lowe, Me and my Little Blokes (Random House, RRP $34.99)

- Herald on Sunday

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