Since I am, of course, wonderfully in touch with my feelings (and since they asked!) I recently wrote an article for SundayLife about male cluckiness. In particular, my increasing suspicion that parenthood might be rather a pleasant addition to my life. In the end they had to cut it down a bit, so here is the full version, complete with additional research and, most importantly, jokes.
I’m living the dream. At 33, I have practically no responsibilities, and a fun job that supports my need for overseas holidays and shiny gadgets. Working as a writer, I can stay up late and generally have no reason to emerge from bed before mid-morning. It’s a pretty nice life, except for the minor point that the dream I happen to be living bears a striking resemblance to the one I had as a twelve-year-old boy.
And yet, as pleasantly uncomplicated as my life is, I can’t quite shake the sense that there should be something more. Something like a baby, perhaps. I haven’t made much progress with finding a prospective mother or anything concrete like that, but I’m fairly confident that it’s time for fatherhood. So, while my lifestyle is certainly enjoyable, I’m increasingly certain that I’d happily trade it for a kicking, screaming bundle of joy. Well, I don’t know that I’d trade my iPad – but everything else, certainly.
Even the thought of having to get up at the crack of dawn and change a filthy nappy doesn’t put me off the whole thing, the way it used to. Not when I picture myself dandling my son indulgently on my knee, or fondly wiping the drool off my daughter’s face. I imagine myself dispensing helpful advice that they’ll ignore, or making somewhat erroneous claims about how the world works, or kicking a ball around in a backyard I’ve yet to acquire.
I remember how much my parents meant to me as a child. When I was a boy, I was so excited about seeing my dad when he arrived home from an extended work trip that I used to make Welcome Home signs, and hang them up around the house. But now, I rather like the idea of somebody making a cutely misspelt Welcome Home sign for me. Because as I’ve found, making them for yourself isn’t quite the same.
I used to be comfortable with the idea that all this would happen in the distant future, because childrearing seemed to involve so much compromise. Our society views bachelorhood as a desirable, glamorous state, like Mr Big’s life in those blissful moments when he doesn’t have to put up with Carrie Bradshaw. I didn’t want to give up my capacity to drop everything and head to Vegas for a night on the tiles, like a character from Swingers. But now I’ve come to realise not only that I never did much partying, but that having a family would probably be a significant trade-up on my current social life.
But here’s the thing – as Sathnam Sanghera wrote in The Times when articulating his own desire for fatherhood, “single, straight, 33-year-old men aren’t allowed to confess to broodiness.” The stereotype is that women are the clucky ones who entrap us free-spirited men into settling down, and that we spend the whole time staring wistfully out the window, wishing we were at the pub with our mates.
The thirty-something childless woman who is racing against her biological clock has become a cliché in popular culture thanks to movies like The Back-Up Plan, in which Jennifer Lopez gives up and undergoes artificial insemination, but meets the man of her dreams the same day. (Oh, the irony!) The male norm, by contrast, is Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up, who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into responsibility. A male character who shared the same worry would seem absurd, especially in Hollywood, where every second pram is being pushed by a septuagenarian.
Sanghera notes that single men expressing an interest in young children is something of a taboo in our society, because of our heightened consciousness of paedophilia. As a result, we single men have to tread extremely carefully around children, lest we be suspected of having problems that run rather deeper than bad luck in finding a partner.
While the image of the irresponsible man who’s not ready for fatherhood is pervasive, a study by the women’s NGO Catalyst (quoted in USA Today) found that the men of Generation X are less willing to compromise having families for career goals than their forefathers. According the researcher Paulette Gerkovitch, 79% of men born between 1964 and 1975 rated having a family as very important, while only 25% rated workplace success as highly. USA Today also noted several famous examples of men in this demographic who decided to leave women who weren’t ready for childbearing, such as Brad Pitt and Benjamin Bratt. After leaving Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts, both men quickly became fathers.
This sense of broodiness is particularly difficult given the absolute avalanche of babies that have recently arrived in my life. Somewhat counterintuitively, my peer group has chosen to greet the financial uncertainty of last year’s global economic crisis by taking on the vast additional cost of parenting. Since August last year, there have been more than twenty arrivals in my broader group of friends, to the point where the new mothers having been gathering weekly in a park to enjoy hanging out during their maternity leave. The new parents of this tiny army include my old school friends, close colleagues and my brother – my younger brother.
The parents are in the majority now. Every time I open Facebook, I’m inundated by a flood of some friend’s baby pics, and where I used to think they resembled alien autopsy photos, now I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I find every single one adorable. And while of course I’m delighted to greet each new arrival individually, and will happily bowl up to the hospital clutching the requisite stuffed toy, taken together they’ve produced a level of peer pressure I haven’t experienced since the heyday of the Hypercolour t-shirt.
I did try to fight it, this baby urge. Shortly after turning 30, I acquired a group of friends in their mid-20s, but now they’ve all settled down. I even joined 751,873 other people in a Facebook group called “Everyone I know is getting married or pregnant, I’m just getting drunk”. But I left almost immediately because – who’d have thought – it was all a bit shallow.
So now I’m on the verge of middle-age, at that scary point where if I don’t take a Contiki 18-35 tour soon, I’ll never be allowed to. And I’m already convinced that I can’t beat the parents, it’s just that I can’t quite see a way to join them yet. And it’s not like they let single fathers adopt.
It’s not just my mates who’ve been undergoing a baby boom, though. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from November last year show that in 2008, the country hit a 38-year high in its birth rate, with 296,000 registered. The stats for 2009 aren’t available yet, but anecdotally, it’s shot up even higher. I just hope the Government has gotten its modelling right, and the Australian economy won’t be bankrupted by the baby bonus.
The ABS stats were somewhat reassuring – they gave the median age of the fathers at 33.1, with mothers at 30.7. So if I get a wriggle on (if that phrase isn’t too graphic), I won’t even be that much of a statistical outrider. I’m more motivated than ever, since I discovered one study which found that childless men had lower life expectancies and higher rates of addiction.
As I’ve spent time with some of the newborns I now know, I’ve come to realise that we’re programmed to find babies fascinating, even though by any objective measure (such as those I used to apply before my cluckiness set in), they do little besides feeding, making loud noises and interrupting your sleep. To look at them rationally, they’re milk-powered vuvuzelas with an overactive bowel.
But now, when I hold a baby, and especially one who belongs to parents who mean a lot to me, I find myself taking an interest in the kid’s happiness, even given my complete inability to influence it. I’m ashamed to say that I even caught myself lecturing one new father about not letting his child sleep when he was clearly exhausted – which was totally ridiculous of me, since my current level of baby expertise revolves around hoping I won’t drop them.
While wrestling with a particularly acute case of parenthood pangs recently, I rather naively posted on Facebook that I wished there was some kind of timeshare scheme for being a dad, where you could spend quality time with babies without completely nuking your lifestyle. One single dad I know rather tartly observed that such schemes existed, in many cases by court order. And I was inundated with messages from parents saying that they’d be grateful of any way of getting rid of their offspring, for any period between a couple of hours and permanently. All of which quelled my enthusiasm somewhat.
But the pangs never entirely go away, particularly when I spend time with a baby. I’m sure it’ll happen for me eventually, and I’m certainly fortunate that my fertility has a slower rate of decline than it does for women in their thirties. But until guys like me get our acts together, we’d appreciate it if society acknowledged that not all single blokes view the prospect of parenthood as an unwelcome incursion into their precious footy-watching time.