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.