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Do you have children? Or want them?
I am an involuntarily childless man. I always expected to be a dad and there have been times in my life when becoming a father was ‘on the cards.’ My reactions to my ‘broodiness’ have included: anger, depression, elation, guilt, isolation, jealousy, relief, sadness, yearning, and withdrawal.
When I was growing up in a working class area of Manchester, my parents could always close down any boundary-pushing request with the words: 'You will understand when you are a parent and have to say no!' I am now in my 50s and will never be in that position.
My desire to become a father peaked in my mid-30s, a time when I felt out of sync with my peers. I felt on the edge of my social circle whose focus was increasingly centred on children and parents. I became jealous of one of my friends who became father. I told him, 'You have the life I should have had.' During my 30s and early 40s I could only talk about the frustration and angst I had with my partner. In my 40s, I changed career and trained as a counsellor. It was the research project for that qualification that lead me in to investigating men’s desire for fatherhood.
I have since completed a further two research projects looking at male broodiness and the implications of not becoming a father. They’re listed below. I believe this issue is important on two levels.
Firstly, an increasingly ageing population and declining fertility rate has serious implications for both individuals and institutions as demand for both social and health care services increase with age. Recent reports have projected that in the UK there will over a million people aged 65 and over without children by 2030. As men are now living longer than ever it is likely there will be more childless older men. This is important because most informal care for older people is undertaken by their adult children .
Secondly, people assume they can reproduce and although some cannot, or chose not to, the majority of people want to become parents. For men and women finding they are infertile has a massive impact on their emotional, social, psychological, economic, and physical state. Research shows that, post infertility treatment, men who did not become fathers suffered poorer mental health than those who had become fathers. A Swedish statistical study found that that lone childless men, and lone non-custodial fathers, had an increased risk of death through suicide, addiction, injury, external violence, poisoning, lung and heart disease.
My first research project looked at how the desire for fatherhood affected men. It turns out that there is very little information on men’s experience of wanting to be a father. I decided that I had to find out what men who wanted to be dads felt, and interviewed 10 men aged 33 to over 60. Fatherhood was viewed as a re-connection, repayment, repeat or replacement of childhood experience.
The younger men expressed both fear and excitement in their attitude to potential fatherhood while the older men were wistful about an opportunity lost. All the men reported having experienced depression: eight of the men thought that childlessness was an element in their mental health. The men also talked about feeling bereaved and isolated and some indicated issues with alcohol and substance abuse. My second study showed childless men (59%) were nearly as 'broody’ as childless women (63%). In addition, the men had higher levels of anger, depression, sadness, jealousy and isolation than equivalent women did.
There has been a common statement made by the men in my research, 'This is the first time I have spoken about this.' I hope I have shown that men are very interested in becoming a father but it seems that to express those thoughts and feelings publicly is very difficult. I think it is very important for men, women, and society as a whole, that men’s feelings and thoughts concerning fatherhood are recognised and acknowledged as valid. Failure to do so has vast implications for both individuals and society. Bottling things up and being unable to express one-self for fear of being humiliated or mocked is not healthy for men or those around them.
It’s tough for men to ask for help but if you don’t ask when you need it, things generally only get worse. So we’re asking.
In the UK, one man in five dies before the age of 65. If we had health policies and services that better reflected the needs of the whole population, it might not be like that. But it is. Policies and services and indeed men have been like this for a long time and they don’t change overnight just because we want them to.
It’s true that the UK’s men don’t have it bad compared to some other groups. We’re not asking you to ‘feel sorry’ for men or put them first. We’re talking here about something more complicated, something that falls outside the traditional charity fund-raising model of ‘doing something for those less fortunate than ourselves’. That model raises money but it seldom changes much. We’re talking about changing the way we look at the world. There is nothing inevitable about premature male death. Services accessible to all, a population better informed. These would benefit everyone - rich and poor, young and old, male and female - and that’s what we’re campaigning for.
We’re not asking you to look at images of pity, we’re just asking you to look around at the society you live in, at the men you know and at the families with sons, fathers and grandads missing.
Here’s our fund-raising page - please chip in if you can.