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
Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.