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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

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