There’s a pressure on men, too, to be a “proper man” and deliver a child

As you get a little greyer, balder and rounder across the middle, there’s a growing feeling that you should have done certain things by now.

Sooner or later, it happens. Due to my career choice I spend a lot of time in school staffrooms nowadays, where the topics of conversation can generally be put in two categories - Gove and Children - with sub-categories of How Much We Hate The Former, and How Much We Love The Latter.

I can blag my way through the Gove talk easily enough, but I keep finding myself at a loss when it comes to babies and children. You see, at the age of 38, I still have yet to reproduce. Reading contributions from other writers at the New Statesman this week, I have found myself nodding in agreement, even though they were written by and about women. Because although it’s not often mentioned, there’s a pressure on males, too, to be a “proper man” and deliver a child.

Society doesn’t generally expect men to be dads as much as it does women to be mums, but still, an expectation is there. As you get a little greyer, balder and rounder across the middle, there’s a growing feeling that you should have done certain things by now – got married, produced a family, and so on.

More than that, though, people react with slight unease when you react in the negative to their polite personal probing. (In your twenties, it’s “Have you got any children?”; in your thirties it becomes “How many children do you have?” and now as I approach my forties it has become an unquestioning statement of fact: “Did you go away on holiday with the children?”)

“Oh,” they say when you explain that, no, you don’t have any children. Sometimes their faces turn into a kind of awkward pity; sometimes it’s a more incredulous distaste. You can’t help feeling you’re being judged as a man on your ability or willingness to make a baby, or babies. “Well, there’s still time,” they might offer, helpfully.

True, there is. The biological clock doesn’t tick at quite the same rate for men. And for some guys there really is a paternal instinct, a desire to be that dad playing football over the park, or doing the school run, or dancing awkwardly at an offspring’s wedding one day – it’s a yearning that tugs at our trouserlegs every minute of every day, just like the needy toddler we so desperately strive to have.

For others of us, there is just a void where that ought to be, in its place a feeling of uncertainty at the possibility of one day producing a baby, or all the responsibilities of fatherhood that entails. Should we be having children, we wonder, just because it seems that we should? What kind of father would that make us? No, we don’t have 58 photographs of loving sons and daughters surrounding the monitor at our desks at work; we just have ourselves and the other people who love us. Are we selfish, or cruel? Are we heartless, incapable of nurturing?

There’s something else, too. For some men there is a shameful secret other life – a life of tests and visits to GPs, masturbating into a plastic pot only to be told that what you produced wasn’t fast enough, or abundant enough, or genetically perfect enough. You can’t tell anyone – who wants to discuss the implications of severe oligospermia over a pint? – except the long-suffering partner whom you have disappointed and let down by your failure to do the one thing that men are meant to be able to do. You don’t feel like a man at all. There may be workarounds, laborious and meandering, often with a low-odds hope of success or a huge bill to be funded somehow; there may be no hope at all.

For some childless men, then, there is an absence of desire for it to be any other way, a lack of the right circumstances being present at the right time in our lives, or just a simple unwillingness to devote such a huge part of our lives to such an important and vital task as fatherhood. For others, there is a deep, longing sadness running through us like a wound that will never heal.

I should reiterate that society judges women far more harshly for failing to have or daring not to have children, since there are still parts of it that regard it as a woman’s number one role. But I believe childless men are looked on with a similar kind of pity and suspicion. Sometimes you feel like responding to the unavoidable questions with “Actually, I’ll tell you why. . .” but you never do.

Other people’s expectations are not their fault, and besides, you know you can never start any sentence with “As a parent. . .” so you know you’re going to lose, whatever you say. We don’t have that joy – but for some of us, life without children is a joy. For the rest, it is pain, and regret, and sadness. Remember that, the next time you ask. 

Childless men are looked on with a similar kind of pity and suspicion as women. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.