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The untold grief of childless men

February 14, 2016 7:35pm

The untold grief of childless menFor many men the desire to hold a newborn in their arms is just as strong as it is for women.

CHILDLESS blokes may have trouble expressing their unmet yearning for kids — but the pain is real. This is the conclusion British sociologist Dr Robin Hadley has come to after studying more than 100 involuntarily childless men, including himself, over nearly a decade.

“It’s an unexpressed grief, it’s a sadness in your pocket,” Dr Hadley says, and moments later adds: “It’s always with you.”

Speaking straight from the heart in his hefty Manchester accent, Dr Hadley, 56, repeatedly uses the word “black” to describe the turmoil of facing up to a childless life.

“I don’t see the future. And if there’s one thing that kids give you, it’s a sense of the future,” he says.

If you are a man who doesn’t have a child, Dr Hadley says a legacy dies with you. Family heirlooms, anecdotes and recipes or other precious items can’t be passed on to the next generation.

Dr Hadley’s voice cracks as he recalls the story of a childless man interviewed during his research, who told him: “My dad loved being a dad. He enjoyed being a dad. And I always thought I would enjoy that as well.”

For Dr Hadley, who got in touch after reading my previous article on women who were unsuccessful at IVF, his mission to shed light on the plight of involuntarily childless men is intensely personal.

He describes himself as a “working class lad” who comes from “a big family of eight children”.

“We were all just expecting to follow my parents, get a job, find a girl, get married, and have children,” he says.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Dr Hadley’s first marriage split up. In his 30s he met another likely lass, and candidly says: “I really was broody then.”

That relationship also failed, leaving him yearning for children.

“One of my colleagues and somebody I had known from school, he became a father and I was just so jealous of him. I could hardly speak to him, I’d avoid him,” Dr Hadley confesses.

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Dr Robin Hadley and his wife Maryan weren’t able to have children purely due to circumstance.Source:Supplied

By the time he met his second wife, Maryan, in 1995 the pair were unable to have children due to their age.

Even so, Dr Hadley did not set out to become an expert in this area. He simply went looking for research to explain his own unfulfilled broodiness — and found none.

“There was very little about men’s experience and the desire for fatherhood but there’s an awful lot of research around women and motherhood, and it seemed incredible to me,” he says.

Since then, Dr Hadley’s own research has shown something which negates the timeworn narrative that the desire to procreate falls into the lap of women.

According to an online survey of 232 people conducted in 2009 by Dr Hadley at Manchester University, 59 per cent of men and 63 per cent of women desire to be parents. This means the sexes feel roughly the same yearning for children.

And perhaps unexpectedly, the emotional impact of not having those desired children seems to hit men harder than women.

Dr Hadley says involuntarily childless men, “seemed to be more depressed and more angry”.

“There was a much more emotional reaction than there was for similar women,” he says.

The same research also found childless men felt more isolated and sad than their female counterparts.

The older childless men Dr Hadley interviewed all expressed fears of “being viewed as a paedophile by others if they found themselves in social situations with children”.

This reflects both “society and the media’s coverage of men and ageing,” Dr Hadley says.

While Canberra man Nigel, 62, says he doesn’t grieve for a lack of children, he does sometimes have a “fear of loneliness”.

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Canberra man Nigel is one of the 530,000 Australian men over 45 who are childless. Picture: Ginger GormanSource:Supplied

In his younger days Nigel, a former elite athlete, says he didn’t long for children. But as he got older things started to change.

At about the age of 45, Nigel says he noticed “biological thinking” kicking in. He started to feel that being childless meant “Yes, I was missing out on something” and also that, “I would regret this”.

“I had a relationship in [my] late 40s with a younger woman and I had my vasectomy reversed. I did want a child at that stage,” he explains, but unfortunately “the relationship fell through and so it was never on the cards”.

Nigel says these days he sponsors children from less fortunate circumstances than himself and suggests this might be in order to “compensate, I suppose, or to fill that [fathering] need”.

Statistics derived from Melbourne University’s ongoing Household, Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey show that in 2014, about 530,000 of Australian men aged 45 and older are childless. It translates to about 13 per cent of blokes in this age range. Compared to this, only nine per cent of women (391,000) aged 45 and older are childless.

Like Nigel and Dr Hadley, many men are childless purely for circumstantial reasons. Others face fertility issues.

Frank* and his wife Sue*, both 53 and living in Sydney, unsuccessfully tried IVF for eight years. The pair started the process in their early 30s back in 1997.

Frank says he always wanted children and yearned to have them with the woman he describes as his “soulmate”.

“I came from a very dysfunctional family. My father was emotionally abusive to my mother and to myself. I suppose in an idealistic sense I thought I could have been a much better father than what he was,” Frank says.

After 10 failed cycles and four different IVF clinics, Frank says the moment the couple decided to give up on the dream of having a child is burned into his memory “as if it was yesterday”.

Sitting across the table from a fertility specialist in 2003, Frank and Sue were told the latest IVF round “hasn’t worked, but there’s nothing wrong in giving it another go”.

“That was about the ninth or tenth time that we heard that,” Frank says.

He recalls that the couple turned towards each other and while they didn’t say anything at the time, an understanding passed between them.

“We got in the car on the way out as we left and we both said exactly the same thing…. ‘Enough is enough’. That’s the line in the sand.

“We’ve got to start living for us, and not living as a couple who are waiting for something to happen,” Frank says.

Despite the decision to move on, the grief of being childless was twofold.

“There was a grief at the point of every failed cycle,” Frank says, “Then when we eventually gave up … there was a grief that: ‘This is it.’ There’s not going to be any other opportunity. Kids are out of the question. Children aren’t in our future at all.”

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It is hard to get a sense of the future when children are not in the picture.Source:istock

Dr Hadley’s research points to a sense of “outsiderness” felt by childless men. To both Nigel and Frank, this is familiar.

Frank explains this as “a sense of exclusion in our lives”.

“When people start talking about their kids you’ve got nothing to bring to the table … you are completely shut out from that. All you can do is participate in the conversation as an observer,” he says.

Frank is also unsurprised by the notion that childless men may be more depressed and angry than women in the same situation.

“It’s the women who get the emotional and physical support from the people around them and it’s the men who don’t,” he says.

Reflecting on his life now, Frank says that despite coming away from IVF empty-handed, he and Sue have built a good life together.

“We found that experience brought us even closer as a couple,” he says.

Frank and his wife both work in education. Frank says he’s glad to have the opportunity to shape young lives, even though he will never be a father.

* Names have been changed

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