Health

A new study into men who choose not to have children looks at the third-party scrutiny and judgement – and communication difficulties – that accompany the decision. By Michele Tydd.

Childless men

Deakin University’s Imogene Smith.
Credit: Donna Edwards

Socialising for David Lund often descends into tiresome inquisitions when the subject of children arises.

“It’s kind of a touchy subject,” he explains, “and you end up getting grilled by people – even strangers – when you say, ‘I don’t want to have kids.’ It’s then about 20 questions on something that really isn’t their business.”

Lund, 32, married and from Melbourne, is among a growing number of men in developed countries who have decided against fatherhood. He was willing to share his experiences in a recent study on voluntary childlessness among men by researchers at Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

Involving in-depth interviews with him and 10 other men from different backgrounds, the study’s findings shoots holes in society’s “selfish bastard” default to expose a fluid and complicated process of influences and pressures involved in a man’s decision to not have children.

Head researcher Imogene Smith says an estimated 5 to 9 per cent of men in most Western countries are choosing voluntary childlessness. Couple that with Australia’s declining fertility rate and, she says, it becomes an interesting topic to explore. It is also the first study of its type to include three gay men.

“There’s a sizeable body of literature on women who choose to remain childless,” says Smith, noting that studies of the same standpoint from men are scarce. “People choosing not to have a child in a society where it is framed as normative are often stigmatised, which can lead to psychological or social stress.”

The study cites earlier research that has found childless men, compared with fathers, face increased risks of injury and addiction, ischaemic heart disease and higher rates of suicide.

“We wanted to capture men in that traditional transition period to fatherhood between 28 and 34 and say, ‘This is what is expected of you at this moment in time’, and ask them how they felt about it,” says Smith.

Some participants, she says, had told her the interviews had been the first time they had discussed their views on parenthood without feeling judged.

Smith noted that nearly half of the men used the word “selfish” as part of their reasoning in their interviews, “but it felt like they’d heard somebody else say it to them and they owned it”. When probed further, the participants revealed a variety of reasons and conflicting emotions.

“The idea that they were in some way different and unconventional was very strong in the men I interviewed, which is something I haven’t seen in female study participants. It almost seemed a pre-emptive rationale,” says Smith.

“I got a sense that over the years they’ve felt on the backfoot a little bit about this decision. Most of the men in the study said much of that pressure had come from their mother, aunties or somebody like that who expected them to have children.”

David Lund is an exception. He finds friends less accepting than family.

“Friends are the ones who when you say, ‘We don’t want children’, they dismiss it and say things like, ‘Oh, you will though.’ Initially, it got my back up that I’d always have to explain why, but now, as I’ve gotten a bit older, I just say to anybody who asks, ‘That’s what we’ve decided’, and no longer explain or take offence.”

The predominant themes throughout the interviews were the realisation, the rationale, the talk (with partners) and the pressure.

Melbourne psychologist Dean Janover says men tend to deal with pressure and stresses by “just getting on with things without complaint” – not by avoiding issues but by not necessarily wanting to talk about it.

“That behaviour tends to bottle up emotions,” he says. “A lot of men come to me often not knowing how to identify emotions and, even if they are able to do that, there are certain emotions that seem to be a bit of a taboo, like sadness, loneliness and fear. Eventually the stiff-upper-lip approach can lead to breaking point: men find they are not able to function as well as they could because they are tired, stressed, isolated and lonely.”

He says despair sets in when they can’t continue to live up to traditional but unrealistic standards of manhood, yet they don’t understand why.

“The last thing they see as a solution is a willingness to talk about their emotions but, when they do, I find there is an enormous sense of relief and release, especially when they realise they are not alone,” says Janover.

Nine study participants were in a committed relationship, and while all indicated they valued the idea of an honest conversation regarding their intention not to have children, that conversation did not always occur.

Seven of the nine men reported they had either never had, or had delayed having, a serious conversation about parenthood, adding that it had come up regularly as a passing comment or banter. The study also explored the participants’ feelings about the future and found not one had totally closed the door on parenthood. Researchers found this sometimes added a layer of anxiety to a frank discussion on parenthood.

One participant, Jon, who had a long-term girlfriend of 15 years, said he recognised the gravity of this conversation, but explains why it made him and his partner nervous:

“It’d be a pretty big problem if we weren’t on the same page … that’s something we’ve really only felt comfortable discussing lately. I think she was afraid that I would have really strong feelings about wanting to have children. We had a few drinks, we talked, it’s sort of funny to think about it that we were both so nervous. I guess it was like that might be the start of [long pause with interviewer asking ‘a rift?’] yeah, if like, we were on different pages.”

Smith says this excerpt highlights that the wishes and expectations of a romantic partner appear to play a crucial role in the decision-making process for these men.

“The discomfort and anxiety that accompanies this conversation appear to be a motivating factor in avoiding it,” she says.

Five of the men spoke of an absent father, either literally or emotionally. The remaining six praised both parents but there was a distinct lack of interpersonal stories about the role of their father in their childhood.

“I got a sense many of them felt they did not have a suitable father model, which left them with a question of, ‘How do I do it, what does it even look like?’ ” says Smith.

“We’ve put a lot of pressure on men going forward at the moment, even in terms of fatherhood. It’s no longer a part-time job and they are feeling the pressure that now exists to not only be a father but a really good one.”

Smith says the insights she got from the interviews – the study has just been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships – are significant in understanding the complex pressures on men and fatherhood in a modern world, particularly regarding the issue of couples discussing openly whether they wish to have children.

“It’s important we understand how men are feeling because, when we do, we don’t judge as much,” she says. “Even though men didn’t describe what they were feeling as pressure, they did describe it as taxing expectations from everybody from family to the media.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Father fissures". Subscribe here.

Michele Tydd
is an Illawarra-based freelance journalist.