Check out this post here: Pregnancy and mental health: the hidden pain of giving birth
A few years ago, I was visiting a friend who has two daughters, a newborn and a two-year-old. Reflecting on his experience of being a father he said that he felt he loved them so much he could “take a bullet for them”. I wept all the way home. If only I could feel that intensely. And here I am, a man who would love to have a child, wondering how I let this happen.
Some people surmise, “It’s different for men. You don’t have a biological clock.” And that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. As a 52-year-old man, can I know something of the anguish of women who long to have a child? The biological clock is, after all, a reality for women – I could theoretically still have a child if I were 70.
The problem is that “it’s different for men” translates easily into “it’s easier for men” and it’s one small step more to “you can’t understand what it’s like for us!” And from this the debate about not having a child is sequestered firmly into the experience of women: women grieve for the children they longed for and men don’t. Maybe that’s true – I can’t claim to be surrounded by men who talk about this. I think that by and large we don’t.
I am not sure what I am allowed to feel and how that differs from what I actually feel. Do men feel grief over being childless differently from women? If so, how? Does it matter?
Daily encounters remind me of what I don’t have. Just this morning, returning from the local shop, I saw my neighbour standing outside the door of our mansion block. Our building is set back off the road and has a communal garden bordered by hedges. There she stood with her two tiny ones, a little boy and girl gazing curiously at the pearled intricacies of a spider’s web spun across the lower branches of our hedge. I say good morning to their mother and then to them. I crouch down to join their wonder, and agree with their mother that probably the mummy spider was having a rest after her hard work and we should not disturb her. I watch their faces, their cheeks the lustre of rose petals, full of wonder at the spectacle. Adorable.
Shopping isn’t easy either. Politely standing aside for the harassed family of four as they pass, trying to manage the strollers, the shopping and the children’s runaround energy, I feel socially inferior. Despite loving my job and enjoying strong friendships, I feel I am not a real member of society – an unmarried man without children. I can’t participate in the hullabaloo about schools, catchment areas, snotty noses, and playdates. I am outside, looking in.
How do I disentangle these feelings? It’s easy just to distract myself. I think the most accessible layer of feeling is a sense of regret – I remonstrate with myself for the chances I missed and sadness for the people I have hurt. I can’t help but replay moments in my life that I wish could have turned out differently. These are so painful. That evening six years ago when I managed in one short hour to say all the wrong things to the right woman, precisely because she was the right woman. I could not bear to have that which I most wanted. So I destroyed something that I really longed for.
Only a few days later, she met someone else and two years later got married. They have a child now. I really wish I didn’t know that. But I do. A little girl. And I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if that little girl were my little girl. Would she have my eyes? My smile? What is it like to see in a child little mannerisms, a way of doing things, moving, speaking, laughing, playing, that remind us of ourselves? Or of course, she may have the eyes of my loved one. And what a joy that would be, to see in our child’s face, our love; to bring into this world a beautiful child that was of us – a child that would grow into her own person but growing out of who we are.
So another part of my sadness is born out of absence – fearing that I will never feel those exquisite joys; that I will never hear my son or my little girl call me dad. How sweet it would be to hear that word from the mouth of my little girl or my small son. To see them take first steps, to comfort them when they cry, to tuck them in before sleep and read them stories. To kiss them goodnight and be with them when the world seems too much. It could still happen. But it feels less likely with each passing year. And just because theoretically I still could doesn’t mean I don’t feel the loss of all those could-have-beens. Also, with the passing of the years, would I now have the energy if it were to happen?
And what of those parents who might answer me and say, “this guy is clueless. Does he have any idea of how hard it is to be a parent?” No. I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like to be short of sleep for a decade. To be exhausted and overwhelmed and have no time for myself. To feel mind numb after reading the same story for the 20th time. No, I don’t understand these things. But I do know what it is like to feel incomplete. To be fit for a purpose that I cannot fulfil. I will probably never know if I could bear the exhaustion and sacrifice that being a father would require but I long to try, precisely because that is the only way I can express something essential about who I am. It is not simply that I would like to be a father. I feel I am made to be a father. And because I don’t have a child, and it saddens me very much to admit this, in some ways I don’t feel fully like a man.
Sometimes, however, I get invited into the club. Four-year-old Archie arrived with his mother, Maggie, for a gathering of friends yesterday. Of course, he didn’t so much arrive as explode through the door. “I’m here!” he shouted as he ran into the hallway. While we adults exchanged smiles, Archie pulled out a dozen assorted soft toys, including a penguin, a lion, a giraffe and a hippopotamus, and left them strewn around the living room floor where he set up camp – a play base from which to launch sorties of boy energy into the kitchen.
Under his arm, too large and perhaps too fierce for any bag, is a pink Tyrannosaurus rex. The first chance I got, I served up food and went to play with him. Once we agreed that Captain America really was the best superhero, we were firm friends for the day, and Lego building and soft toy wars could ensue. Later, as we walked to the local cafe for tea and cake, he took my hand. For so many parents, this must be commonplace – to feel a small hand neatly clasped around the fingers of an adult – but for me it was special. His mother and I swung him, one, two, three, and up he went, until our arms were tired. An afternoon replete with the small joys of spending time with a little boy as he negotiates his way through the world.
And then they go home.
It’s hard to feel alone inside a long and happy marriage. But it’s easier than it looks, perhaps, to feel lonely. Last week, Italian police officers responding to reports of screaming and crying inside an apartment in Rome found something unexpected behind the door. Jole and Michele were a devoted elderly couple who had ostensibly got themselves worked up over a sad story on the TV news, but some gentle questioning elicited the fact that both were struggling with terrible loneliness. After 70 years of apparently loving marriage they still had each other, and yet that clearly was not enough.
This being Italy, the officers rather charmingly cooked them a meal of spaghetti with butter and parmesan and stayed to chat, before doing the washing up and posting a flowery account on Facebook of how loneliness can suddenly sweep over you “like a summer storm”. The story went viral because it’s so heartwarming, and yet on second reading it’s also rather unsettling. The lonely are not quite the people we think they are.
It will be 20 years ago this summer that the first Bridget Jones novel was published, a timely reminder to ignore the spectacularly awful sequels and remember just how neatly the original skewered some of the myths about lonely singleton life.
Bridget was famously terrified of dying alone and forgotten, but ironically the one thing she wasn’t was lonely: she was riotously surrounded by friends and family, even if they did all keep harping on about her getting a proper boyfriend. It’s smug marrieds who can all too easily collapse in on themselves, severing old friendships they will come to regret in the process. (Anyone who thinks that having a baby means you’ll never feel alone again, meanwhile, has yet to find out how it feels to be home with a howling infant, desperately trying to engage the postman in conversation because he’s the only sentient adult you’ll see for hours.)
It’s all too easy to become consumed by family life and then wake up in middle age, ostensibly at the centre of a rich and busy life, struggling to remember your last meaningful conversation. That feeling may not be loneliness yet, but it’s a first step on the road.
For while the cavernously empty feeling endured by the bereaved or unwillingly single can indeed be a terrible thing, and life-shortening to boot, it’s not the only kind of loneliness. A recent University of California study found that while almost half of its elderly subjects confessed to feeling lonely at times, only 18% of them actually lived alone.
Unhappy marriages, atrophying into long silences and separate lives, might have something to do with that, but the story of Jole and Michele suggests something else: a distinct kind of loneliness stemming not from the absence of significant others but from a feeling of disconnection with the wider world, a sense that you’re no longer part of something shared and human. Is it just a coincidence that the Italian couple’s crisis seems to have been provoked by a run of news stories – violent attacks, abuse at a kindergarten – revealing human nature at its coldest?
Fleeting loneliness comes to all of us occasionally, but it solidifies into something deeper and darker for those who start to perceive the world as a harsh and hostile place, one that wouldn’t welcome efforts to connect even if you try. It’s that nagging feeling of rejection, of not belonging or standing somehow apart from others, that is the true hallmark of feeling lonely in a crowd, and it’s by no means the preserve of the old.
Interestingly, a recent Brunel University study of over-50s found more than half of those identifying themselves as lonely had been that way for over 10 years, suggesting the feeling had become part of the fabric of their lives. (The same study, by the way, found levels of loneliness had barely changed since the second world war; so much for the idea of a modern epidemic, caused by fragmenting and hectic modern family lives.)
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that this week’s obituaries of the fabulously wealthy Duke of Westminster, a father of four, should describe him as “lonely”. Immense wealth can of course be isolating – although the money clearly didn’t make the duke unhappy enough to get rid of it, or indeed to eschew the family tradition of minimising inheritance tax liabilities – but in Gerald Grosvenor’s case something else seems to be going on. What emerges is a picture of a man struggling all his life with feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, worried that he had done nothing to live up to the reputation of those ancestors who built his unearned fortune. Bullied at school, he reportedly left Harrow without one proper friend.
And if you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for a billionaire, the blunt truth is that not all lonely people are lovable old grannies who tug at your heartstrings. An unhappy few have pushed others away with their self-destructive behaviour and are now paying a high price for it; some have struggled bitterly all their lives with the art of making friends, never quite mastering social norms. How much of the late-night bile spewed on social media simply reflects the envy and frustration of those who see other people happily connecting all around them and just don’t quite know how to join in? Loneliness has its dark side, one not so easily solved by more visits from the grandchildren or well-meaning volunteer “befrienders” popping in for chats over coffee.
For Jole and Michele, at least, perhaps there will be a happy ending. Now their story has been made public, perhaps surviving relatives or old friends will rally round, and if nothing else the knowledge that strangers worldwide are now asking how they can send letters or visit must do something to restore their faith in human nature.
Yet while a little kindness goes a very long way, it’s too easy to pretend loneliness can all be solved by a few more companionable plates of spaghetti. It makes for a less heartwarming story but the truth is that, like the poor, the lonely may to some degree always be with us – even, perhaps, when they’re ostensibly with someone else.