Do fewer men want children now than they did bef —? Just kidding. No one cares.
Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired women to wear handmaid costumes when protesting threats to reproductive rights. The red robes and white headdresses feature so prominently in memes on social media that one would think reproductive rights restrictions have nothing to do with men.
But maybe it would be closer to the truth to say no one cares one way or the other, really, about men’s role in conversations about reproduction.
The following is a true story about a man I know personally.
A few years into his marriage, Luke*, who had told his wife from the beginning of their relationship that he didn’t want children, underwent (unrelated) surgery.
He took post-surgery pain medication after arriving home from the hospital and fell asleep.
While Luke was all but unconscious, his wife climbed on top of him and impregnated herself without his knowledge or consent.
Whether this man’s story horrifies a reader or evokes a *tsk* and a shrug is a good indicator of how much (or how little) concern the reader has for a man’s right to decide when he’s copulated with, as well as his right to determine whether he becomes a father.
Luke and his wife (much like Katie and Hubble, pictured above) are now divorced.
Luke isn’t the only man who’s been manipulated into fatherhood. A reddit user named “throwitawaydaddy” (presumably a temporary handle) left the following in reply to a post titled, “Dads of reddit, do you ever regret having kids?”:
“Every day. I knew I never wanted kids from the start. Things didn’t work out that way. My [girlfriend] was on BC but still got pregnant. I’m kinda suspicious about that but I can’t prove anything. We’re still together, our son is 8 now. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. … I struggled A LOT with my rights. I wanted to run, I wanted to be able to opt out of parental rights and just split…”
There is no shortage of cases of women choosing fatherhood for men:
- In 2005, a court ordered Dr. Richard O. Phillips to pay $800 a month in child support for a child born after a fellow doctor inseminated herself with Phillips’ ejaculated sperm, which she’d collected in her mouth and then secretly kept for later use.
- A man in Australia learned 12 months after a one-night stand that the woman he’d slept with had had his baby. He was ordered to pay child support for the next 18 years.
- These three men profiled in The Daily Mail were tricked into fatherhood: Jack Goodchild, whose off-and-on girlfriend impregnated (intentionally, Goodchild suspects) on one of their “on” moments and later dismissed Goodchild from her life; Jonathan Evans, who at the time had been casually seeing his girlfriend for just a few weeks before she impregnated herself with semen she’d collected from the condom they’d used (he’s now paying court-ordered child support); and Nick Robertson, whose wife lied about taking birth control to sneak in a third child, one he’d told her he didn’t want.
The cases go on and on.
It isn’t only sex partners who dismiss what men want when it comes to children; scientists, too, show a lack of interest.
As a childfree woman who’s been writing from the childfree perspective for almost a decade, I know you can’t swing a virtual diaper bag without hitting at least four blog posts or articles every week about women deciding not to have children, and new books about women’s childfree choice release fairly regularly.
Putting aside the occasional “fatherhood regret” piece and Planned Unparenthood — Creating a Life Without Procreating, a childfree book by Canadian author Dann Alexander, rarely does material explore the experiences of childfree men.
Online searches about reproductive habits lead to pages of carefully gathered statistics illustrating how many women do or don’t want children. They provide scads of research analyzing why these women don’t want children and what people are saying about it. But few such statistics exist to document men’s changing family preferences — or their family preferences, period.
“I’m not really sure anyone has looked at intentions or desires for kids when it comes to men**,” says Dr. Karen Benjamin Guzzo (@kbguzzo), Bowling Green State University Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of the BGSU Center for Family & Demographic Research.
Family research is usually directed at those who already have children and is concerned with whether those children were wanted, Guzzo explains.
Women are easier to survey because they always know whether they’ve had a child. Not all men will know they’ve fathered a child, and some may decline to answer questions if they’ve been absent from a child’s life or neglected to pay child support.
Guzzo adds reflectively, however, that the National Survey of Family Growth did release a survey on birth expectations among women.
“I can’t remember why they said they focus on women. I suspect most men want to have children; I don’t expect that has changed over time. Compared to women, their expectations are, ‘Of course I’ll have kids someday, because it’s just something adults do,’” Guzzo says.
Dr. Kathleen Gerson, Professor of Sociology at New York University, says there is an unfortunate tendency to discount what men have to say about children, whether it’s their desires, their behavior, or their motives and intentions.
It’s a big mistake, she says, since it’s just as important to know men’s perspectives as it is to know women’s. She refers to their input as the “missing links, so to speak” in the conversation.
The National Survey of Family Growth does include men in its questions about parenthood and childbearing, however. In answer to the question, “If it turns out that you do not have any children, would that bother you a great deal, some, a little, or not at all?” the highest percentage of men (29 percent) answered “not at all.”
Asked how upset they would be if they discovered they were half-responsible for a pregnancy, just over 48 percent of surveyed men said they would be “little upset” or “very upset.”
That only 24.7 percent responded that it would bother them “a great deal” to not have children, and that almost half would be upset to impregnate a woman, strongly suggests there are far more men who either don’t want or are ambivalent about children than there are men who actively want them.
Statistically, according to the survey, only 25.8 percent would be “very pleased” to impregnate a woman, and 91.3 percent either “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that “people can’t be really happy unless they have children.”
Yet, men — like women, though men will say the pressure on women is worse — still feel pressured to have them.
Dr. Joshua Coleman, Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and a psychologist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that although not having children isn’t as unforgivable as it was in the ’60s, “I think there’s still this kind of thing in our culture that you’re supposed to want kids, or that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t. I think that can exist for both men and women.”
Matt, an entertainer in his mid-30s who realized in his late twenties that he didn’t want children, would likely respond with “very upset” on the Family Growth survey question about learning a sex partner was pregnant with their child. Asked to imagine parenthood as his hypothetical future and gauge his feelings about the rest of his life, the single word he uses to describe the feeling is, “Stuck.”
Matt relocated to Cleveland, OH after spending several years in New York City. In New York, not wanting kids wasn’t something that attracted much curiosity, but things are a little different in the Midwest.
“Here, most of the people my age are married or they’re getting divorced with kids. I’ve had one or two say to me, ‘When are you going to settle down?’ In the Midwest it seems if you don’t want kids, you’re kind of creepy, in a way,” he says.
Perspectives on parenthood are subject to cultural and class diversity, says Gerson, who explains that it has much to do with the degree to which someone is part of a more traditional, tight-knit culture “that valorizes the traditional family above all else,” or whether someone is embedded in a more secular culture “where the value is on choosing the life that seems best for you, and people having the autonomy to do that.”
Daniel R. Norwood first became aware of the concept of choosing one’s best life at four years old, even if he didn’t quite understand what it would come to mean for him. His aunt and uncle had no children, and he asked his aunt why. She said it was because they didn’t want any.
Young Daniel’s shocked response was, “You mean you get a CHOICE?”
Even so, as a teenager, he thought he wanted to grow up and have two children. It wasn’t until he was 21 that he realized his desire for children wasn’t a desire, at all, but a reaction to societal expectations. At the time of this discovery, he was involved with a woman who wanted children, and when Norwood told her he had decided to live a childfree life, that — combined with other problems — led to the end of their relationship.
The responses he’s received from veritable strangers to his choice to be childfree have ranged from the threatening — “You never know. Accidents happen!” — to the offensive — without children, his life is meaningless; he’s selfish.
“Some estimates put the cost of raising a child at over $200,000,” Norwood says. “If I spent $200,000 on an extravagant sports car, everyone would say how irresponsible and selfish I am. They’d point out how I could never afford that, even if I paid it off over, say, the next 18 years. But they can’t see the hypocrisy in telling me to have a child.”
Some recognize the external pressure and fight it; others go along.
Matt, the entertainer living in Cleveland, recalls that one of his friends who married in his early twenties told Matt he was “happy to get the kids part out of the way.”
“What a horrible attitude to have about kids,” Matt says. “There’s nothing that says you have to do it.”
But the silence surrounding men’s views on children does exert its own subtle, but powerful, force that says, at the very least, “Shouldn’t you, though?”
Dr. Jonathan P. Schwartz, former Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Houston and former President of Division 51: Psychology of Men and Masculinity of the American Psychological Association, is concerned that large scale inattention to men’s family preferences conveys the expectation that whether to have children isn’t something they should be struggling with. Instead, he says, it communicates that men should automatically want children and that this leads to men having children they aren’t prepared to be actively involved with.
Or may not have the time to be involved with. Added to the shared pressures of parenthood that include reduced sleep, less free time, and more responsibility at home is the expectation that men will still act as the family breadwinner.
“Those expectations persist even though the economy has changed, the nature of family life has changed, and the nature of relationships between men and women have changed,” Gerson says.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, just over 70 percent of American adults believe it’s “very important for a man to be able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner,” and it’s men who place more of an emphasis on the importance of that role.
Coleman believes the breadwinner expectation is particularly stressful for men with traditional ideas of masculinity, because the recession has made it difficult to earn the kind of income that can support a family. The result, he says, is that many of these men feel that what makes them a man “has been kind of eroded.”
Schwartz says another stressor for the traditionally masculine breadwinning father is the challenge of balancing time spent at work to make money and time spent at home with the family the money is supporting. “Often,” he says, “even if that’s your value, people feel like they’re missing out on something if they’re solely focused on work.”
Because having a child is, as Schwartz classifies it, a “developmental milestone” that permanently alters the trajectory of a person’s life, he would like to see a bigger conversation taking place that explores whether men actively, consciously want children or whether they’re having them to satisfy someone else’s needs or society’s expectations. He argues that helping both men and women think about what it means to be a parent, and what parenthood would mean for their lives in the short and long term, would create happier people deciding to be responsible for children.
He also warns that research shows those who come to a decision without much consideration are more likely to be unhappy with that decision; therefore, it follows that people who go along with what they think they’re supposed to do rather than doing what they want to do will be more prone to struggle.
“Your whole life will change once you have a child,” Schwartz says. “Whatever your plans were, they’ll have to change. Your freedom to do the things you want will change. So, someone who’s not ready for that will experience all kinds of psychological symptoms — depression, anger, resentment. You have to be not only chronologically ready, but emotionally ready. If you think about what our ultimate goal is as a society, it should be children. There’s not a much more important thing we can do to make the world a better place than to have active, engaged parents. Going into having a child without both partners’ engagement and consent is, to me, dangerous.”
*Luke is not his real name.
**Since my interview with Dr. Guzzo, the BGSU research center has released a survey on Men’s Birth Expectations.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of THE AGE OF THE CHILD: When a pro-life Citizen Amendment leads to a ban on birth control — life sentences for abortion, rationed herbs, miscarriages investigated for authenticity — politicians find babies abandoned on their doorsteps. That’s just the beginning. In time, the issue of reproductive rights takes a 180-degree turn, forcing those once determined to protect the fetus to examine their commitment to the child. “An exciting drama that illuminates the hypocrisies of our time without flinching.” — Alan Davis, author of So Bravely Vegetative |“It’s rare to find a novel that portrays childfree women at all, and if they do, they’re often assigned stereotypical characteristics. This is not the case in The Age of the Child.” — Brittany Brolley, RinkyDINKlife