Why Fatherhood Isn’t The Only Way To Leave Your Mark On The World
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
Recent research published in the Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships identified three main reasons given by childless Australian men when asked why they don’t want to have children. Many say they don’t feel they’ll ever feel fully ready for such a life-changing commitment as fatherhood. Others say they fear the world is too dangerous a place to bring a child into. For others, it is the concern they would not be as available emotionally to a child as they would like.
I would add some other, broader reasons I’ve picked up anecdotally from my male clients over the past few years. In our individualistic Western culture, not conforming to the expectation of fatherhood reveals an independent spirit and a willingness to tread our own path in life. And for many of us, the expectations of our families and religious backgrounds no longer hold the same power as they did for our parents. Some men feel strongly the world’s population is too big. And for others, like me, who grew up with distant or even absent fathers, their lack of positive role model means that they struggle to imagine themselves as fathers.
When I was a child, I asked my father why he’d chosen to become a dad. “To leave my mark on the world,” he said, looking a bit thrown by the question. His words left me puzzled because – as I realise now – what I was really asking was “Why are you such a part-time parent”?
My dad was away at sea for much of my upbringing. He was a captain in the merchant navy who sailed all around the world six months at a time. For the first 10 years of my life, for my brother and I, Dad was no more than a gruff, beardy stranger trailing an aroma of whisky and tobacco. He would stride back into my and my brother’s lives twice a year before disappearing again a few weeks later.
My father was not what you’d call a hands-on dad. He never seemed comfortable with cooking dinner or reading his kids bedtime stories. In fact, he preferred spending time in bars, watching Match Of The Day, eating out and, unfortunately for mum, having affairs. He did make us laugh a lot, though, with his bawdy jokes and tall stories. My dad was a character.
I don’t remember any of my friends having such an absent dad, and I took a weird kind of pride in this. My dad was mysterious. But on reflection, it no longer seems so unusual. Today, nearly a quarter of children in the US grow up in families without a father.
Perhaps my dad may have decided not to have children at all if he was a young man today. This idea came to me when I started working with Fabio, an Italian teacher.
“Instead of struggling with what we don’t have, we realised we could celebrate what we do have – much broader life choices and to be more comfortable financially”
Fabio and his girlfriend, Chloe, aren’t able to have children. They’d been trying for five years and had had two rounds of fertility treatment without luck. And they had never been tempted to adopt or foster children. “We’ve been struggling for years to become parents ourselves,” Fabio said when we first met.
Soon after we started working together, Fabio and his girlfriend had an epiphany while hearing about couples who make a positive choice to not become parents.
“Instead of struggling with what we don’t have, we realised we could celebrate what we do have – much broader life choices and to be more comfortable financially,” he said. “By giving up on being parents, it’s beginning to feel as if the world is our oyster after all.”
Fabio told me how he and Chloe were now describing themselves to their friends and families as “child-free” rather than “childless”.
“Calling a couple childless does of course suggest something is missing from their lives,” he said. “So, we call ourselves child-free. Chloe and I are putting a much more positive spin on what is ultimately our choice not to now adopt a child. We’re feeling much happier, too – we feel that we’ve fully embraced this choice and are moving forward with our lives.”
Fabio and Chloe are among those who have, through biological circumstance, accepted a child-free way of life. My own reasons for not having children are more psychological. Given my own father’s absence, it’s perhaps unsurprising that neither my brother nor I have chosen to become fathers ourselves. We are all, to a certain extent, products of our upbringing.
Saying that, I’m not likely to be found propping up bars or having affairs either, so perhaps I would have been a different kind of father to my dad after all. But, like my client Fabio and the many other men choosing to live child-free, I have no regrets. I know there are many ways to leave a mark on the world.