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
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser