Two Is Enough

For all the stories written by and for women on this issue—and there are few—men are more likely to be absent from the public dialogue about intentional childlessness. Why aren’t men’s stories also being heard?

“Someone once told me, ‘You’re actually the type of person who would make a perfect father.’ I agree with that, and often, it’s the ones who would make the best parents who don’t have kids,” comedian Dan Nainan, 28, told me with a laugh. A comedian based in New York City who has performed for heads of state and at a TED conference, Nainan’s lifestyle simply doesn’t make space for children. He even thinks the snide remarks he receives are funny, especially from people who call him selfish for never wanting to have children. “There’s no one I’m being selfish toward. That person isn’t even born,” he says with amused exasperation.

Not having children is a topic often fraught with volatile emotions, and in an age when the very idea of masculinity is constantly flux, not having children can be a complicated choice related to gender norms, societal expectations, and even religion. When so much rhetoric about being a “good man” is tied up in the idea of fatherhood, where does that leave men who are intentionally childfree?

In the last year, a number of women (myself included) have written openly about their lack of maternal instinct and their desire to remain forever childfree. Polly Vernon wrote about being childless by choice for Marie Claire, and I wrote about voluntarily having my tubes tied for Salon. Despite the prevalence of publications and periodicals entirely devoted to topics such as adoption, parenting, and reproductive justice, few seem to consider that parenthood is not a given. Many couples actively, happily opt out.

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For all the stories written by and for women on this issue—and there are markedly few—men are more likely to be absent from the public dialogue about intentional childlessness. It isn’t as if they don’t exist, so why aren’t men’s stories also being heard? Is it because men face less scrutiny than their childfree female counterparts? Does men’s and women’s access to birth control and sterilization procedures alter gendered ideas about reproductive freedom? Is this somehow related to the somewhat offensive stereotype that men are aloof about parenting and will panic if women express too much interest in starting a family? Or are men simply less invested in talking about children—or their lack thereof—in the first place?

Dan told me he often experiences a lot of the same sorts of awkward conversations and difficult social interactions that childless women encounter. “It’s like I have a mental flowchart; I know exactly how the conversation is going to go,” he explains. “I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that, and that’s a similar conversation—just because you like it doesn’t mean I like it. There are things that everyone does: they get in a car, sit in traffic, and go to a job they don’t like. Everyone has kids, and everyone drinks, and if you don’t do those things, you’re a glaring exception to the rule. But what people don’t realize is that not everybody is into the same things.”

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Fatherhood being one of those things that’s tricky to take back once it’s a part of your life, many men I spoke to had considered or already opted for a vasectomy to ensure that they’d never be caught in an unwanted situation. But like some childfree women, who experience resistance from their doctors, men may also face scrutiny when they show up looking for a permanent solution.

Joel Bordeaux, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student at Columbia, told me that while people may think he’s a bit eccentric for getting a vasectomy at 24, “It was the best $700 I ever spent.” After his first pregnancy scare with a girlfriend, he found a doctor who grudgingly agreed to give him the snip. “The doctor tried to talk me out of it but eventually he agreed that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. He gave me one last chance to back out on the operating table with the scissors poised, but I just laughed. I was biking to school again three days later.”

Fifty-six-year-old Steve Wood of Orlando tried to get a vasectomy when he was in the Air Force. At 24, he eventually had to find a civilian doctor willing to honor his choice because military physicians would not. “I tell people that vasectomy means never having to say you’re sorry,” he jokes, referencing the once-popular book-turned-film Love Story. Currently working on a degree to jump-start his third career change, Steve says telling people about his vasectomy is a “conversation stopper.”

It isn’t just younger men who know that parenthood isn’t for them. When I talked to David, a 51-year-old marketing professional from Milwaukee whose wife Sue asked that I not use their last name, he was matter-of-fact about never wanting to have children, and was thrilled to have stuck with the decision.

“Our decision to forego child-rearing was neither emotional nor rushed. We began talking about it before we married—as all couples should—but we waited about 10 years before we shut the door permanently, with a vasectomy, because we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to be sure we wouldn’t change our minds,” he told me. Unlike some men, David was open to having a family if his wife changed her mind. But she never did, and he has relished the freedom of their mutual decision, telling me, “I’ve deeply appreciated the options available to me as a result [of not having children].”

When I asked about how he handles negative responses to his childfree status, David related several anecdotes about the times he’s received a critical nod or unexpected frown. But, he added, “I suspect men experience less negative blowback than women do. When I make it clear that my wife and I have elected to remain childless, most men seem either to understand or to simply not care enough to belabor the issue.”

Indeed, David’s wife, Sue, was forced to play defense far more than David. “Men and women alike have warned her that she’d have a tough time finding a man to marry her if she didn’t want children, though that certainly turned out to be completely wrong,” he said. David says that as they’ve gotten older and remained childless, Sue has been regarded with pity and even undisguised scorn. One friend went so far as to end their friendship, telling Sue that she wouldn’t be able to relate to people with children. David, on the other hand, notes, “My wife and I have been married 20 years, and I’ve had perhaps a half-dozen substantive conversations about the decision of whether to be or not to be parental in all those years.”

It’s tough to know exactly how much men’s and women’s experiences handling negative comments from others vary, but Ellen Walker, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Complete Without Kids, says men and women often face the same pressures to have children—though, like David’s story, men are more easily let off the hook.

“Men are not assumed to have a biological clock that pushes them to parent, while many believe that it’s a natural, primitive force that drives a woman to want to become a mother,” she told me. “Many people go so far as to say that a primary role for a woman is to parent, and that her life would not be complete without this experience. We don’t really hear this in relation to men.”

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Matt Snow, a 30-year-old clothing designer in Baltimore, admitted that he was largely swept up in cultural norms when it came to considering fatherhood. “When I was younger, I just expected I would have kids because that’s what you do after you settle into a long-term relationship. I was convinced that I would have [to have children] to the point where I even believed I did want to have them.” But after meeting his now-wife, who was adamant from the beginning that she wasn’t interested in having kids, Matt began to reconsider what he’d sort of accepted as normal.

“I never had a crisis of conscience about it. In fact, the realization that I was so unattached to the idea of having kids made it clear to me that if I’m so malleable that I can be convinced to have kids based on social expectations—and then reverse my position because of this woman that I’m totally into—maybe I’m the kind of person who really shouldn’t have kids after all.” Digging deeper, Matt explained, “I didn’t have a strong biological or emotional need for that kind of relationship in my life.”

Their mutual decision hasn’t always been easy, though. Matt’s father made an embarrassing toast at their wedding, publicly urging them to change their mind, and Matt’s mother-in-law frequently frets about her legacy, wondering if her things will eventually end up donated to charity instead of passed down through the family. None of the other men I spoke with mentioned pressure from their families, but for Matt, the issues is front and center as he considers having a vasectomy later this year.

How can childfree men ward of the negative social pressure that, if not discussed as often as what women experience, can crop up unexpectedly? Ellen Walker recommends that men dial down the defensiveness if people ask intrusive questions. “I would suggest that they try to remain neutral and non-defensive in their response,” she told me. It’s also an excellent time for men to bring up and highlight the relationships they do have with children. Many are devoted uncles, teachers, and coaches who might have less time to dedicate to those relationships if they had their own children.

As David told me, “At a restaurant, if the cutie with great big eyes and funny little pigtails at the next table initiates an impromptu game of peek-a-boo, we’re in.” Just don’t expect him to become wistful about the path not taken. He won’t.

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More From Our Special Marriage Section:

Even stellar relationships lose their spark over time; here are the ingredients of a lasting, fruitful partnership, and techniques for weathering the the stormy times: What Your Marriage Needs to Survive

When Tom Forrister transitioned from female to male, his same-sex marriage became a federally-recognized, “traditional” marriage. The one constant was the bond he shared with his wife: My Exemplary, Everyday Marriage

The night­mare of fam­ily court is enough to deter a guy from even think­ing about tying the knot. Marriage: Just Don’t

Guys may think leaving is the right thing to do for the sake of the family, but according to family lawyer David Pisarra, there are a few things they should know before—and after—they walk out that door: A Guy’s Divorce Survival Guide

Encouraging princess culture—however innocently—contributes to the sexualization of girls. Men can be part of the solution to the “princess problem”: Men and the Sexualization of Young Girls

If you’re married and using Internet porn regularly, your sex life—the one with your wife—is probably a lot less satisfying than it could be: How Porn Can Ruin Your Sex Life—and Your Marriage

Men are more promiscuous than women, but that doesn’t mean we should buy the cultural fallacy that men are programmed to cheat; the vast majority of men are happily, naturally monogamous: Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?

Tom Matlack talks to married men to find out when they knew their wife was “the one”: She’s the One

As Gabi Coatsworth’s son’s bipolar disorder gave way to full-blown manic episodes, she watched her husband slip deeper into drink and detachment: Reading Between the Silences

Monogamy sounds like “monotony,” but it doesn’t have to be monotonous. Hugo Schwyzer explores how we can have the security—and the novelty—we desire in our relationships: Red-Hot Monogamy

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—Photo Nathan & Jenny / Flickr

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Comments

  1. Stellar article! I am 27 years old, currently childfree and plan to stay that way. It’s nice to know that even in small amounts men get a bit of blow back from childfree choices. I have two pet peeves when having discussions about being childfree. First is the assumption that I don’t like kids… which couldn’t be further from the truth! I adore children, and love being around them! Second is when I hear the statement, “Oh don’t worry! You’ll change your mind.” Do either of these irk anyone else?

    • That irks me so much too! Okay, so I’m 21. Whenever I mention I don’t want children (I’m too selfish, I have my future mapped out, and frankly, children would ruin that), people are always telling me, “Oh, you’re going to feel different when you have them.” Or “You’ll change your mind soon.” Hello? I feel stronger and stronger about this the older I get. When I was a teen, I didn’t want kids just because I didn’t want to get pregnant. Now I don’t want kids because I know they’ll pretty much ruin my life. I have no nicer way of saying it, because it’s true. I’m not going to sugar coat my words and just say they’ll change my life. No. They’ll freaking ruin it.

  2. Great to see some coverage of men’s stories. I enjoyed this article and relate to most of the men you covered in that my story is very similar. I’d like to see more coverage on the topic.

    However I disagree with the term “intentional childlessness”, its Child Free by Choice. I also disagree with Ellen’s advice quoted at the end. If you’re being asked intrusive questions. I find it quite rude that those with children consider my wife and I’s reproductive and sexual health or history their business.

  3. No kids. My inner child doesn’t want the competition. =)

  4. I’m happy for couples that make EITHER choice and are comfortable with it. What drives me nuts is a few men I know that divorced or refused to marry strickly over this issue, AND THEN had kids with someone else a couple years later.

    Men and women DO change opnions over time.

    Never assume at 20 or 25 that your opinions on ANY topic will remain the same at 35 or 40. Sometimes they will, sometimes they wont.

    • “Men and women DO change opnions over time.
      Never assume at 20 or 25 that your opinions on ANY topic will remain the same at 35 or 40. Sometimes they will, sometimes they wont.”

      Your comment is true whether I have a kid or a tubal at age 25. Either way if I have regrets I’m stuck with my decision. I would rather regret not having kids than to regret having kids, which are a true til death do us part relationship.

  5. I disagree with the need to play up other relationships with kids. It’s perfectly OK to not like kids and not want to spend much time with them. I really don’t like them (I’m a woman) and when I say that sometimes people look at me like I’m some sort of sociopath.

    I mean, I’m not going to kick your kid in the face or anything, but I don’t like children, don’t really have any relationships with any, and don’t want to be around them. And that’s alright.

  6. I knew when I was 8 that I didn’t want kids. Being the oldest of 5 kids (born within 6 1/2 yrs) in a strict Catholic family, I was told I would change my mind. I never did. Everyone TRIED to get me to change my mind: parents, clergy, teachers and practically everyone else.

    I stuck to my guns. It was tough. When I got married I married the 5th guy that asked me…cause the first 4 thought they could change my mind about kids.

    Have never ever regretted my decision. Ironically, I had a partial hysterectomy several years back and found out after the fact I had an (unknown to me) disorder that would have killed me if I’d gotten pregnant.

    So in more ways than one, deciding not to have kids saved my life. And definitely my sanity.

  7. Wellokaythen says:

    I find it very intrusive when people ask if I have children. It used to be when I said “no,” I would always follow it up with some quasi-apologetic remark like “maybe someday” or “I can barely handle having a cat.” Now I simply say “no” as calmly as possible and don’t say anything else. There’s usually a bit of awkwardness for a moment after that, because a simple no is very unexpected, but I consider that to be their problem, not mine.

    I try not to be defensive or apologetic about it, but the older I get and the more I think about it the more offended I’ve become when I hear the question. If someone asks if you have children, in a way that person is basically asking about your sex life, or at least your reproductive life. I don’t see why it should be more socially acceptable for a stranger to ask you that than for some stranger to ask you how often you have sex. To my mind it’s basically the same territory.

    I think as a male I get asked that question much less often than if I were female, and at least no one has ever asked WHEN I’m going to have kids, just IF I have them. I haven’t kept track of all the moments I’ve been asked (I swear I don’t!), but I would guess 99% of those who ask me are people who have children.

    • I don’t get offended if people ask me if I have kids. I do not see it as a inquiry into my sex life. Yes, sex causes kids but Its mostly people looking for a common subject for small talk with folks they don’t know. Much like my computer geek mate often gets asked how about them Braves or Hawks and he doesn’t care about either. We simply say we opted out anfd may ask if they read any good books or took any good trips latelly.

      I get offended when people tell me I’m selfish, or whose going to look after me in my old age, or when I was younger (I’m 55) that I would change my mind, too young to make that decision, etc. God bless greying hair!

  8. My girlfriend is a miracle baby, her dad got a vicectomy after his first marriage and then got it reversed with my girlfriends mom. That was in the early 80’s, so it’s still possible to do that. But it’s true Men don’t get enough attention when it comes to these things, I guess because it’s obviously rarer but still should be talked about.

  9. Interesting and well-written! Everyone should have just the family– biological and otherwise– that they want, whatever that looks like. Good uncles and aunties (and teachers and coaches and friends and caregivers and healers) are ALWAYS awesome!

  10. I think the reason men’s voices are missing from this and the reason men don’t get as much grief on this issue as women is because, by and large, much like abortion, this is an issue decided by women. I have met very few men who when faced with a teary eyed red faced woman they are deeply and madly in love with and want to spend the rest of their life with begging for a child who will say “no, can’t do it” and walk away. Even if that woman previously professed to be as childfree by choice as they were. I’ve also met relatively few men who when presented with a woman they are deeply and madly in love with and want to spend the rest of their life with who says “never no way will not cannot” regarding children who will then leave her to find a woman who will have children. (Until his mid 40s or so, which is when men freak out about kids, if they are going to, in my experience anyway). I’ve also met several men who professed to be happily childfree, would expound on the philosophy of it, were very big promoters of it, who then divorced, remarried, and in two cases even had vasectomies reversed as condition of marriage to their new partners, and are now happy and involved fathers who have no idea wtf they were thinking beforehand. Ironically, in the two vasectomy reversal cases, their ex wives are also happily mothering with their new husbands, despite being the instigators of child free status in the previous marriage. Go figure. In one case she went through years of painful infertility treatments and ended up adopting several times.

    The simply fact is opinions and tastes change over time. I had to laugh at the very young 20something who knows exactly what her career is and where it will go and what she will be doing and how kids will ruin her whole life above. Most people change their major several times just in college and come out looking for entirely different work than they intended upon first entering. Many people change careers several times over a lifetime of employment . And ask people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s today if they are working in the field they intended in the way intended as a 20 year old and they’ll most likely laugh. Tastes change, political affiliations, morals, religious beliefs, views on just about anything change over a lifetime. I thought I knew it all at 20, at 27, at 35, and now at almost 40 I realize the only thing I know is I don’t know a darned thing and I may be wrong about anything.

    So yes, people will balk when a young 20 something wants permanent surgical birth control. No it’s not some secret plot to impregnate you. It’s not some child centric insistence to keep populating. It’s that older people know times change and doing surgery for something you’re quite likely to change your mind about or regret later when there are plenty of non-hormonal safe and accurate methods of birth control (condoms used correctly –correctly is the key part– and copper IUDs for example) that are a far less life altering choice for someone so very early into their life.

    People who don’t want children shouldn’t have them. There’s nothing wrong with not having children. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Whether you have one child, three, four, or none, someone is ALWAYS going to comment on your family size. Childfree people need to stop the persecution complex; we all get it.

  11. Every time I see an article about childless-by-choice men/women/couples, it feels like I can breathe a sigh of relief. Ahhhhhhhhh!

  12. crystal says:

    It’s nice to see commentary not criticising those who choose not to have children. I am 25 and have been with my husband for 8 yrs (married for 5). I have known since I was a child I didn’t want kids. Oh course I have always gotten the “youll change your mind someday” crap from everyone and it annoys the heck out of me. Kids are fine but I can only take them in small doses. I applaude anyone who does have kids and give them my full respect but please don’t look down on me for not making the same decision. It doesn’t make me selfish or a bad person.

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