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Some men and women do not want to be a parent and some women and men are uncertain about becoming a parent. However, many studies have shown that the majority of people expect or expected to become a parent. Renske Keizer’s (2010)* doctoral study of the causes and consequences of childlessness in the Netherlands found 80% of her sample were ‘childless-by-circumstance’. The remaining 20% consisted of 10% ‘chosen childless’ and 10% ‘infertile’.
My MSc** study found that there was a similar level of desire for parenthood among childless men and women in the survey, and that men had higher levels of anger, depression, sadness, jealousy and isolation than women and similar level of yearning. For further information see my poster here and academic papers here and here.
*Keizer, Renske. 2010. ‘Remaining childless. Causes and consequences from a life course perspective’. PhD, Utrecht University, Netherlands
** Hadley, Robin A. 2009. ‘Navigating in an Uncharted World: How does the desire for fatherhood affect men?’ MSc Dissertation, The University of Manchester, UK
The belief that men are fully fertile from puberty until death is incorrect. It is important this myth is corrected because it reinforces ideal male stereotypes of invulnerability and denies men the opporunity to express their nurturing and caring nature. There are four main reasons why the ‘men can father a child at any age’ is wrong:
- Any species that required a male and female to reproduce would not survive long if the majority of either sex were ‘not interested’ in reproduction.
- Sperm declines in efficacy after the age of 35 years. *
- All societies have socio-cultural rules (‘social clock’)** on the acceptable age to become a parent.
- The vast majority of men do not become a parent after 50 years of age.
The efficacy of sperm has been shown to decline from the age of 35 years with research linking older fathers
with genetic issues in babies (Yatsenko and Turek 2018)*. Similarly, Ana-Maria Tomova and Michael Carroll (2019)*** identified risk factors for infertility include lifestyle habits like alcohol, caffeine, recreational drug and tobacco consumption are. Likewise, environmental and occupational contaminants such as air pollution, natural toxins, and chemical compound have a detrimental effect on sperm quality and egg development and are linked to abnormal fetal development, infertility, miscarriage and poor pregnancy outcomes.
* Yatsenko, Alexander N., and Paul J. Turek. 2018. ‘Reproductive genetics and the aging male’, Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics.
** Hadley, Robin A. 2019. ‘Deconstructing Dad.’ in John Barry, Roger Kingerlee, Martin Seager and Luke Sullivan (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health
*** Tomova, Ana-Maria, and Michael Carroll. 2019. ‘Lifestyle and Environmental Impacts on Fertility.’ In Michael Carroll (ed.), Clinical Reproductive Science
Men do talk. Unfortunately, when it comes to personal and sensitive subjects men are not used to being listened-to in a non-judgemental or positive manner. Although men and women have the same emotional experience, men are socialised to see the expression of feelings as weakness*. Men fear embarrassment, humiliation, shame and stigma**. Recent research shows that shame and guilt are significant factors in why men have difficulty in identifying and describing their feelings ***. Consequently, men are reluctant to reveal their emotions.
* Hadley, Robin A, and Terry S Hanley. 2011. ‘Involuntarily childlessmen and the desire for fatherhood.‘, Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 29: 56-68
**Wong, Joel Y, and Aaron B. Rochlen. 2005. ‘Demystifying Men’s Emotional Behaviour:
New Research Directions and Implications for Counseling and Research,’ Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 6: 62-72.
*** Rice, Simon M., David Kealy, John L Oliffe, Matt. S Treeby, and John S Ogrodniczuk. 2020. ‘Shame and guilt mediate the effects of alexithymia on distress and suicide-related behaviours among men.’ Psychology, Health & Medicine, 25: 17-24
It is estimated that by 2030 there will at least two million people aged 65 and over without an adult child
to support them if needed (McNeil and Hunter 2014; Pickard et al. 2012)*. Older childless people are not disadvantaged when their health is good but as health deteriorates with age, the informal support declines and the formal care does not compensate for the shortfall. Older people ageing without children are more likely to enter into care at an earlier stage and stay for longer than equivalent older parents (Albertini, and Mencarini 2014; Albertini and Pavolini 2017)**.
It is important to know about the impact of childlessness in later-life because in the UK and many other countries, family (adult children) perform the vast majority of informal care for their parent(s) and older relations. Many people say ‘I did not have children to look after me in old age!’ Unfortunately, almost all care systems rely on family members to carry out the majority of informal care whether they want to or not (Hadley 2019)***. They also communicate their family member’s needs and preferneces to the health and care service providers.
The importance of social interaction and social networks on health and well-being of older people has been well established. Significantly, family heavily influence the health and well-being of older people. After the spouse, adult children are the most likely to provide care and support to older people. The majority of European older people’s families are characterised by having a child nearby and being in frequent contact with at least one of their children; having strong family care obligations; and regular exchange of ‘help-in-kind’ from parents to children (Dykstra and Fokkema, 2010)****. For childless older people, their spouse is the most likely to provide care and support followed by neighbours, friends, associates in organisations, acquaintances, and former work colleagues.
*McNeil, Clare, and Jack Hunter. 2014. ‘The Generation Strain. The collective solutions to care in an ageing society’. London: Institute for Public Policy Research
*Pickard, Linda, Raphael Wittenberg, Adelina Comas-Herrera, Derek King, and Juliette Malley. 2012. ‘Mapping the Future of Family Care: Receipt of Informal Care by Older People with Disabilities in England to 2032’. Social Policy and Society, 11: 533-45
** Albertini, Marco, and Letizia Mencarini. 2014. ‘Childlessness and Support Networks in Later Life:
New Pressures on Familistic Welfare States?’, Journal of Family Issues, 35: 331-57
** Albertini, Marco, and Emmanuele Pavolini. 2017. ‘Unequal Inequalities: The Stratification of the Use of Formal Care Among Older Europeans’, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 72: 510-21
*** Hadley, Robin A. 2019. ‘‘It’s most of my life – going to the pub or the group’: the social networks of involuntarily childless older men.’ Ageing and Society: 1-26.
**** Dykstra, Pearl A, and Tineke Fokkema. 2010. ‘Relationships between parents and their adult children: a West European typology of late-life families.’Ageing & Society, 31: 545-69.
There are more childless men than women. In Europe it is estimated that approximately 25% of men are lifetime childless compared to 20% women (Tanturri et al. 2015)*.
A British cohort study found that, at age 42, 25.4% of men and 19% of women had no biological children of their own (Berrington 2015)**.
The lack of data on men’s fertility outcomes is down to a number of factors (Hadley 2018; 2019; 2019)**:
- the non-collection of men’s data;
- the embbeded attitude that family and fertility are only relevant to women;
- the view that men are unreliable and/or difficult to access.
Most countries as a matter of course collect the fertility history of women. Typically, when a baby is born the fertility history of the mother is recorded but the fertility history of the father is not.
Consequently, fertility statistics are for the most part based on women’s reprocuctive outcomes.
* Tanturri, M. L., Mills, M., Rotkirch, A., Sobotka, T., Takács, J., Miettinene, A. et al. (2015). State-of-the-art-report: Childlessness in Europe (Working Paper Series 32). Families And Societies. Brussels: EU Seventh Framework Programme.
** Berrington, Ann. 2015. “Childlessness in the UK.” In Working Paper Series, edited by Teresa McGowan. Southampton: Centre for Population Change, University of Southampton.
*** Hadley, Robin A. 2018. ‘Ageing Without Children, gender and social justice.’ in S Westwood (ed.), Ageing, Diversity and Equality: Social justice perspectives (Routledge: Abingdon).
Hadley, Robin A. 2019. ‘Deconstructing Dad.’ in John A. Barry, Roger Kingerlee, Martin Seager and Luke Sullivan (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health
Hadley, Robin A. 2019. ‘‘It’s most of my life – going to the pub or the group’: the social networks of involuntarily childless older men.’ Ageing and Society: 1-26