Hello lovely people.
Sunday 18 June will be Father’s Day in the UK. For a couple of weeks now I’ve been receiving emails from companies professing to have ‘the perfect gift for Dad’ and I’ve noticed the signs outside pubs saying, ‘Book now for Father’s Day.’ It has always struck me that Father’s Day seems to be a more muted affair than Mother’s Day. Nevertheless, I imagine that for many childless men, men who have lost children and those without access to their children, the prospect of Father’s Day can bring up feelings that are every bit as intense as those that women experience.
Of course, my being a woman means I can’t get into the head of a man; can’t instinctively ‘know’ what the male experience is like. Men often report that they feel they process and express their loss, grief and anger in different ways to women. Yet, I feel the voice of this male experience in our wider society is not very loud and, I believe, can often be subsumed by the seemingly less reticent voice of the female experience.
You can do an Internet search and find many studies that describe the woman’s experience of fertility issues and childlessness. There are few studies that have explored what it is like to be a man and to not have the children you wanted. In my own Internet search I found just a few male voices ‘out there’ and their words speak of the subtle ways in which their sense of loss goes unacknowledged. One name and one voice that came up again and again was Robin Hadley who has done a study into the experience of childless men – a study that subsequently became the basis of his PhD. This is part of what he says in an article called, What is it like to want to be a dad but you don’t have children:
My mid-30’s were particularly challenging for my expectations of being a Dad. All my friends and colleagues seemed to be having children and I had a sense of being left behind. This started a sense of ’missing out’ of not only of the actual experience of parenting but also of the social aspects of parenting. For example, during coffee break or at lunchtime colleagues would share parent-related anecdotes, advice or experiences. These could range from how to deal with getting a child to eat to the latest ‘must have’ toy.
At such times, I felt I had no credibility and could not contribute to the conversation. This led to a sense of being an outsider in quite a few circumstances: no birthday parties to arrange or attend, no parent’s evening, no arguments about staying up late or homework. Those I knew who were parents also said, “You don’t want kids! They take over your life. The things I would do if I didn’t have kids. You’re best out of it mate. Living the bachelor life, you lucky so and so!”
But inside, I did not feel like I had won the jackpot.
(Full story at: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/childless-men-speak-snsw/) Also see an article about Robin Hadley’s research here: http://www.psychreg.org/impact-male-involuntary-childlessness-part-1/
I will wager that Hadley’s words reflect what many men experience: the sense of not feeling as though they are part of their peer group, of perceiving they have ‘no credibility’, of not having their loss acknowledged by their social group and instead having to listen to friends and colleagues telling them why they’re lucky they don’t have children.
But where do men find the forum to have that difficult conversation about what it is like to want to be a father but to not have the children they so desire?
Whilst doing a little bit of research for this post, I looked on Fertility Network UK’s website (one of the UK’s biggest charities for people with fertility issues) and interestingly, they are, at this moment, seeking input from men about their experience of infertility. They are inviting men to complete an online survey because “[t]oo little is known about how men understand, experience and cope with fertility issues…” http://surveys.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/snapwebhost/s.asp?k=149036964806
Just as the word ‘motherhood’ is a powerful container for adjectives such as ‘nurturing, maternal, feminine, fertile, wise’, so is ‘fatherhood’ a kind of shorthand for ‘virile, strong, caring, masculine, providing’. Yes, these are stereotypes. Of course, women are providing and strong; men are nurturing and wise. But the grief of childlessness seems to play havoc with our sense of identity and that sense is often affected by social stereotypes. But I feel there is something even deeper at play here.
In both my personal and professional life, two emotional entities eventually bring themselves to the fore in any conversation about childlessness: shame and vulnerability. Both men and women say that they feel ashamed about their childless status and about the fact that they were not able to ‘achieve’ what is portrayed as a ‘normal’ and significant rite of passage. To believe that you might feel ‘other than’ for the rest of your life is a devastating thought. And to express that sense of shame, to admit ‘there is nothing I can do to fix this’, can make us all feel vulnerable. I can imagine that ‘put up and shut up’ can become a coping strategy for many men.
I have no easy answers to the dilemma that many childless men face. But perhaps by making the conversation about men’s experience of childlessness easier to engage in, we can swap the word ‘shame’ for ‘courage’ and ‘vulnerability’ for ‘inviting’. By ‘inviting’ I mean that by normalising an emotional experience we might begin to feel that we can invite in questions, curiosity and the understanding of our peers without feeling dangerously exposed.
Of course, there will be some men out there who do not wish to have the conversation and who are absolutely fine not talking about their childlessness and how it affects them. I respect and honour that. But for men who feel silenced by social expectations perhaps Father’s Day is a timely reminder that they too have the right to find their voice and to start that conversation about their unfulfilled desire for children and the sense of ongoing loss that can bring.
Do you feel you could add to the male voice of desire and loss? Please feel free to comment on this post or to send a message that could be posted anonymously if you prefer. It would be good to hear from you and to see the male experience expressed in your own words.
Starting the conversation
Even if you feel you can’t have the conversation about your feelings with anyone else, perhaps you can start the conversation with yourself. Be gentle. Go as far as you are able and stop if you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Take some time to notice and to connect with that nurturing, parenting part of you. Ask questions of it. What do you feel it needs? You can do this on paper or in your head, take a series of photos that tells the story of your nurturing self, write a song, create a meal, start a journal. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve found that having conversations with the difficult stuff can be…well difficult! But often by coming at it obliquely and through your creativity we can find ways that help us discover and re-discover those aspects of us that grief and loss can smother.