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.