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.
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.”
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.”
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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