Recognition of the impact of involuntary childlessness on men is important, not only because of actual and projected demographic change but also because of the lack of material examining male involuntary childlessness (Dykstra and Keizer, 2009). The vast bulk of social science discourse on reproduction is centred on women with little investigation of the male experience. This is based on the “widely held but largely untested assumption” (Inhorn, 2012: p.6) that men are disengaged from procreative intentions and outcomes. Consequently, men have become marginalised as the ‘second sex’ (Inhorn et al., 2009: p.1) in all areas of social science scholarship with childless men especially missing from demographical, gerontological, psychological, reproduction, and sociological research. For example, the number of childless men in the UK is unknown as only mothers fertility history is recorded at birth registration (Office for National Statistics, 2014).[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]My small self-funded study found that childless men have a similar level of yearning for parenthood as childless women and reported higher levels of anger, depression, jealousy, and isolation[/perfectpullquote]
In most societies biological parenthood provides the surest way to adult status and this is reinforced by gendered roles that position women as child bearer/nurturer and men as provider/protector. Parenthood is constructed as a natural, spontaneous, and unconscious act that forms a central unreflective ideal embedded in the ‘normal, expectable life-cycle’ social script (Neugarten, 1969: p.125; Morison, 2013). A diagnosis of potential or actual infertility can have significant life-long implications for mental and physical health, well-being, and close and wider relationships (Letherby, 2012). Infertility has been viewed as a form of complex bereavement consisting of multiple disenfranchised loses (Corr, 2004; Lechner et al., 2007) with levels of distress in women recorded as high as those suffering from serious medical conditions (Domar et al., 1992; Domar et al., 1993). Until recently post-treatment men were reported as ‘disappointed but not devastated’ by not attaining fatherhood (Fisher and Hammarberg, 2012: p.142). Weitoft et al., (2004) suggest the lack of health research data is because men’s health is viewed in terms of employment and not family role. Their study found that lone childless men, and lone non-custodial fathers had an increased risk of death through suicide, addiction, injury, poisoning, lung and heart disease. My small self-funded study found that childless men have a similar level of yearning for parenthood as childless women and reported higher levels of anger, depression, jealousy, and isolation (Hadley, 2012).
The childless are “…at risk for social isolation, loneliness, depression, ill health and increased mortality” (Dykstra and Hagestad, 2007: p.1288). Men – either in, or post, infertility treatment – reported the process had a profound effect on their views of their masculinity, beliefs about themselves and their place in society (Webb and Daniluk, 1999; Throsby and Gill, 2004). Men who challenge prescriptive stereotypes, for example, gay men, househusbands, and male primary school teachers are often subject to discrimination and suspicion from both men and women (Smith, 1998; Sargent, 2001: p.19). Men who do not conform to the fatherhood mandate – the patriarchal construct of virility-proved-by-fertility (Lloyd, 1996) – may behave in more extreme masculine ways or reduce their visibility and thus become “liminal” (Hobson and Morgan, 2002). Research has shown that although men have the same emotional experience as women, their wherewithal to access, process, and verbalise their feelings is limited (Wong and Rochlen, 2005).
Much infertility literature focuses on the transition into the acceptance of involuntary childlessness following the cessation of treatment with individuals and couples labelled as “involuntarily childless”. Letherby (2012) highlights that acceptance does not equate to resolution and that the terms ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ do not reflect the complexity of the individual experience. Critics argue there is a population of involuntarily childless people who did not access treatment and are therefore unrecorded and their experience unacknowledged. In addition, the omission of non-treatment seekers limits the generalisability of much infertility research (Greil et al., 2010p.142-3). In my recently completed PhD study of older involuntarily childless men only three participants had accessed infertility treatment (Hadley, 2015). The aim of the study was to examine the lives of older involuntarily childless men. The final sample consisted of 14 men; aged between 49-82 years, with an age range of 33, mean age of 63.5 and a median of 60.5 years. Quotes in this piece are drawn from that study and are anonymised. The sample divided into three transitional phases: pre-transition (3), transitional (2), and post-transitional (9).
The ‘biosocial clock’
The majority of the studies have shown heterosexual men hold a “package deal” view of the adult life course trajectory as work, marriage, home, and fatherhood (Townsend, 2002), “I expected to leave school, get a job, get married, and have a family” Martin (70). Factors that disrupt the assumed procreative transition include the timing of exiting education, entry in to the workforce, relationship formation and dissolution, partner selection, economics, health and age also affected people’s fertility decisions (Parr, 2007; Roberts et al., 2011). Consequently there is a “biosocial clock” formed by age, biology, and socio-cultural normatives that are central to reproductive decision-making. Cannold (2005) argued that for women the ‘social clock’ of familial and cultural expectations and peer group dynamics were as important as the ‘biological clock’ in procreative decision-making. Many of my participants reflected a ‘social clock’ that was related to an age appropriate normative for parenthood. Martin observed how social expectations were linked with discourse surrounding age/stage for parenthood/grandparenthood normatives, “…once you get to 50 then it ceases to be tenable because nobody wants a 70 year old father when you’re 20. You know, that’s grandfather age when you’re 20.” However, “pre-transitional” men navigated the ‘age mandate’ by stressing alternatives to the ‘involved father’ ideal. David (60) adapted the provider role to one of ‘facilitator’, “You think, “Well, if I produce kids at the age of 61 then by the time they’re off to University I’ll be 80.” And if I make it beyond 80, which I hope I will, I mean to fund them through university.”
The men in this sector, Frank (56), Steven (49), and David, all wanted to become fathers. David highlighted the different levels of loss of not being a father, “…it’s one of the central experiences of human life. I think I have something to give and it’s a pity. It’s one of the challenges of life, which, somehow, I feel I’ve missed out.” The impact of not having children not only left David contemplating his life roles but also had consequences for genetic and material legacy, “I have a bit of a sense of the way values and experience has been passed down the family tree and people to pass it on to and I don’t. I think having kids is a way of producing a sense of continuity. Otherwise, death feels very final. If you’re leaving kids, you’ve left something of yourself.” Therefore, not having children had an existential impact by challenging both the “way-of-being” in the present and potential future “ways-of-being”.
On the second part of this article, I will explore both the transitional and post-transitional narratives of men who wanted to be fathers.
Robin Hadley has recently completed his PhD at Keele University. His research study explored the experience of involuntarily childless older men and has recently gained much international attention. Robin’s interest in involuntarily childless men is in part due to his own sense of ‘broodiness’ and wish to become a father. Robin studied that motivation in his MA in Counselling dissertation and discovered there was very little information about men’s experience of childlessness. You can follow him on Twitter @