Summaries of my independent research and my PhD, MSc, and MA
Self-funded independent research project examining if childlessness effected on older people's happiness, wellbeing, mental and physical health compared to equivalent older people who were parents and/or grandparents
Project title: Survey of men and women’s feelings around parenthood and childlessness
Research team: Robin Hadley; John Barry; Chloe Newby
Click here for the press release
For many people, being a parent is an important marker of adulthood and considered central to the normal, expectable life-cycle. However, both childlessness and longevity have increased substantially across many Western countries in recent decades. Although the socio-psychological consequences of chilldessness for women have been thoroughly explored, there is a paucity of research on the impact of childlessness on the experience of men.
This study examined how parenthood or childlessness affected the happiness,
health and wellbeing of men and women, aged 50 years and over. The study used a cross-sectional survey of 394 men and women aged over 50 years old, stratified by geographical UK region from a research panel, and analysed using hierarchical logistic regression. Validated measures of childhood attachment and other psychological and demographic factors were used.
The main finding was that, independent of the impact of other variables (age, sex, education level, marital status, life stress, health related quality of life,mental positivity, and avoidant attachment style), people who were childless scored significantly higher on a measure of anxious childhood attachment.
This study highlights the importance of healthy bonding in childhood, and is the first to identify a potentially significant link between anxious childhood attachment and the likelihood of producing children in one’s lifetime.
This study has two major findings.
First: it is the first study to highlight the possible link between the psychological impact of childhood relationships and childlessness in later life. This finding has implications for our understanding of the impact of early-years’ experience in later life.
Second: The findings support research that shows that men want to be a parent as much as women.
Doctoral research: PhD Studentship funded by the Centre for Social Gerontology, Keele University, UK. September 2010 – December 2016
Thesis title: ‘Life without fatherhood: a qualitative study of older involuntarily childless men.’
Supervisors: Professor Mo Ray and Dr Emma Head
My thesis counters the stereotype that parenthood is not as important to men as it is to women. This element of the patriarchal dividend supports the pronatalist ideal types of masculinity and femininity by stigmatising and denying the existence of men who do not reproduce. By examining older men’s lived experience of involuntary childlessness my research gives voice to a population that are missing from anthropological, gerontological, psychological, reproduction, and sociological research. Research has mainly focussed on family and women, with the fertility intentions, history and experience, of older men being overlooked. Most nations do not collect the fertility history of men and consequently, it is impossible to judge the population level of childless men. Although involuntary childlessness has frequently only been associated with infertility treatment there is growing recognition that there is a latent population that is absent from research literature. Infertility research has shown that failure to fufil both the personal and socially accepted status of parenthood, leads to a complex form of bereavement and a significant challenge to identity.
The global trend of a declining fertility rate and an increasingly ageing population has been extensively reported. This is significant not only because of the impact on the cost and provision of state services but also because adult children provide the majority of informal health and social care for older people. Ageing studies demonstrate that relationships and social support are as important as physical health for personal well being. Moreover, there is an increasing number of solo living older men.
My study is based on an ‘interpretivist’ paradigm comprising of an idealist ontology and a constructionist epistemology. A qualitative approach was taken in order to access the rich thick data of individual experience in the context of the wider socio-cultural environment. The influence of feminist research has led structural approaches, such as life course and gerontology, to encompass individual experience. Consequently, a pluralistic framework was developed founded on biographical, gerontological, and life course perspectives. Biographical narrative semi-structured interviews were used to reveal the formal and informal factors that influenced the participants’ lived experience. A small homogenous purposeful sample of 14 men aged 49 – 82 years old was recruited through a wide range of methods. Three of the participants and their partners had accessed infertility treatment. Two of the men were non-heterosexual, seven were in relationships, seven were single, and two were widowers. The majority of the interviews were conducted face-to-face but other methods used included Skype and email. A broad latent thematic analysis was applied to the transcripts and four main themes emerged: pathways to childlessness; negotiating fatherhood; relationships and social networks; ageing without children. The analysis highlighted that involuntary childlessness for older men was a complex intersection of age, economics, family, health, identity, relationships, socio-cultural structures, and the biological and social clocks, over time.
This study found there was a ‘continuity of discontinuity’ across the life course concerning childlessness. This is related to the factors that influenced the men’s childlessness, for example: infertility, partner selection, and timing of relationship formation and/or dissolution. A key element of the process was the participants’ view of their age in relation to the social expectations surrounding fatherhood. The men’s negotiation of the fatherhood mandate divided into three categories: aspirational, uncertain, and mediated. The first category desired parenthood, the second questioned the likelihood of parenthood, and the final category reported a qualified acceptance of their childlessness. Four of the men, as they aged, negotiated a form of ‘grandfatherhood’ role: adopted, latent, surrogate, and proxy.
My study shows that although a rational ‘acceptance’ of childlessness may have been negotiated, the reminders of not being a parent are ever-present and necessitate the continued negotiation of a complex discontinuity: a continuity of discontinuity. Elements of complex bereavement and disenfranchised grief, both associated with infertility, were evident and can be extended to those not receiving treatment. Losses included the roles and social dividend associated with parenthood, family status, and grandparenthood. The social clock was significant in the participants’ judgement of the appropriateness of actions, abilities, and behaviours, with some men viewing themselves as too old to be a father. Men’s fertility intentions change with age as financial circumstances, their partner’s biological clock and attitude to parenthood, become increasingly important. All the men demonstrated a hierarchy of relationship in which intimate adult relationship was desired more than the parental relationship. Consequently, I found there was a desire for, and significance to, different forms of relationships, from intimate to intergenerational, across the life course. This finding supports the view that social relations are adaptive, creative, complex and fluid.
This study drew attention to the contexts surrounding ageing in general and the nuances of ageing without children. The findings supported the concept of ageing as a complex interaction between biological, economic, social, and chronological factors. The participants’ subjective experience viewed health and relationships as the most important to quality of life, with broadly the single men citing the former and the partnered men the latter. An underlying concern was expressed regarding the financial future as well as access to, and quality of, health and care services in later life.
I argue that the men adjust their ageing identity through utilising available social scripts and other social resources rather than blindly following the ideal of hegemonic masculinity. A significant finding was the fear expressed by all the participants, of being seen as a paedophile. All the participants reported feeling that with age came a greater sense of freedom to express themselves. However, the men’s view of their future was one strongly associated with reduced activity, and predicted decline in functionality. This indicates that the participants’ views on later life had absorbed ageist social constructs that model old age as a period of decline, dependency and loss of dignity.
The findings of this study support the concept of a ‘continuum of childlessness’. It highlights how the participants related to, and managed non-fatherhood, and the influence it had on the their behaviours, attitudes, and identity at different times and locations across the life course.
MSc research: Self-funded and conducted at The University of Manchester, UK. September 2008 – September 2009
Dissertation title: Navigating in an Uncharted World: how does the desire for fatherhood affect men?
Supervisors: Professor Daniel Muijs and Dr Clare Lennie
The rationale for this study originates from the researcher’s previous study, which explored the yearning for parenthood in men (broodiness). Included in the effects were depression, anxiety, and social isolation. One of the central issues raised from the previous study was to find the prevalence of male broodiness. This led to an investigation to assess the level of the desire for parenthood in childless men compared to non-parents and parents. There is little research on this desire for fatherhood. What exists is mostly derived from studies of couples in infertility treatment, fathers to be, or those who are already fathers. Therefore literature surrounding fatherhood, masculinity, intention to parent, and the few works on childless, were examined.
In order to examine the issues surrounding the desire for parenthood a sequential mixed-methods quantitative-qualitative approach was selected. This approach allows the verification of results, generation of new areas of interest, and provides generalisabilty of results. An on-line questionnaire was designed to measure the influences, motivations, and reasons that may affect the decision to parent. Included was a unique item attempting to measure the reactions associated with broodiness. Open questions were integrated into the survey to provide detail of the respondent’s life experience and, in addition, aid validity by providing feedback on the survey. Respondents were recruited by a snowball technique and over two hundred completed replies (n=232) were analysed using descriptive, univariate, and bivariate techniques. The profile of the sample data gave a mode of female with the majority of respondents being White-British, degree educated, professional, and heterosexual.
The results revealed that a higher number of childless men desired parenthood (51.9%) than did not (25.9%). Non-parents showed similar levels of desire for parenthood, with females indicating slightly more than males. Female and male parents demonstrated an equal desire not to repeat parenthood. The decision against parenthood for non-parents showed economic and social factors as the main influences. For the parent group, health, and age were the main influences. Cultural and family expectations were common influences, for both non-parents and parents, as influences on parenthood. Females indicated personal desire against the male’s cultural and societal expectations. Similarities between the two groups included the items ‘feel parent-child bond’ and ‘give love and affection’. Parents highlighted ‘receive love and affection’ and ‘improve on my childhood experience’. Non-parents reported ‘I do want a child’ and ‘children complete a relationship’ as reasons. ‘Yearning’ was the item most associated with the broodiness item. Non-parents were more affected by ‘Yearning’, ‘Sadness’, and ‘Depression’ compared to parents. Females from both groups had mostly similar response levels, with non-parent females indicating higher responses in ‘Isolation’ and ‘Sadness’. Male non-parents had the highest reactions to ‘isolation’ and ‘depression’.
The study has shown that not only do some childless men indicate a desire for parenthood comparable to childless women, but that they may also suffer similar or higher levels of depression and isolation as a consequence.
MA research: Self-funded and conducted at The University of Manchester, UK. September 2007 – September 2008.
Dissertation title: Involuntarily Childless Men: issues surrounding the desire for fatherhood.
Supervisors: Dr Terry Hanley
The analysis findings generated six categories: a core category of ‘Lifescape’s of Childless Men: Enduring Anticipation and Expectation in an Uncharted World’ and five main categories of Consequences of Childlessness, Ideation, Relationships, Socio-environmental and Health.
The attitude to childlessness was related to their life stage; younger men were aware of the unknown but feared responsibility, the older ones more regretful of an opportunity denied or not utilised. Poor experience in formative familial relationships affected all subsequent relationships and for those in relationships, their partners were of great significance. Charting the desire for children indicated a peak in the thirties and that gradually reduced but did not disappear. Fatherhood was seen as a repayment, replacement, re-connection or repeat of his own childhood experience. Those who had experienced the role of father indicated a desire for biological parenthood. As they aged, the men found ways to adapt and reappraise their beliefs about themselves emotionally, psychologically, and in their relationships. A gap between themselves and others was emphasised with suggestions of discrimination in familial, social and work settings. The issues surrounding childlessness reflected the individual’s upbringing and guided and shaped each participant’s unique responses, beliefs, feelings and actions.