The Fascination of Fatherhood
Why do men become fathers? Is fatherhood simply an unfortunate by-product of a careless and transitory pleasure, or do men actually want children? It’s not a subject men talk about a great deal, and even when they do, there’s not usually much articulate comment. Some men are open in their desire for children, but in our society most seem to be more ambivalent. They do want children—’but not just yet’. Reasons for desiring parenthood differ according to circumstances, and even according to culture.
Children can have great economic value, especially in traditional societies. Among nomads, such as those of East Africa, as a man gets older and more successful his herds of cattle become larger and more difficult to look after. The assistance of sons is crucial to him because sons will work for nothing, just because they are kin, whereas other herdsmen will require some form of payment for their labour. Practical economics such as this often leads to boys being valued more than girls in societies like these. But girls have an economic and political role to play too, although it is less direct. Nomadic societies (and many others as well) are usually organised in family groups, where the family connection is traced in the male line. These groupings are called lineages and are the fundamental political groupings in such societies. Everyone belongs to the same lineage as his father. But it is a general rule that people from the same lineage must not marry. So if I have daughters they must leave my lineage and contribute their reproductive potential to another man’s lineage; helping to build up his group so that it may become more powerful.
Marriages in such societies are usually arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom. Since marriage must always take place outside the lineage, it inevitably involves a relationship between two different families. There is no doubt that an astute man can arrange marriages for his children to provide him with alliances with other families which increase his own power and prestige. So a man may desire children in order to further his political ambitions. Of course, it is not only nomadic societies which make such ‘dynastic’ marriages. You have merely to look at the history of Europe, or the marriage patterns of wealthy families in the USA—or some of the more up-market soap operas—to see similar alliances and power plays being made.
Children may be of benefit to their parents in other ways as well—as a form of insurance for old age, for instance. If I have children then surely at least one of them will look after me when I am old? Many parents today deny this as a motive in their desire for a family—but will they not expect such support when they themselves are old? The ties of kinship are powerful. They involve obligations which are not based on short term considerations such as appear in commercial or legal transactions. Nor are they based on narrow self-interest. But there is usually an expectation that, in the end, things will balance out. At the start of life parents pour time, money, energy and love into their children. At the end of life, most children feel obligated to repay some of this when their own parents need them.
Another part of the desire for children is less practical, but draws on deeper emotions. A man wants children, it is said, so that they can perpetuate his name: an attempt to cheat death. The individual dies, but his name is remembered by his children. They may, as in our society, actually carry his name—but even if they don’t he knows that there will be someone to ensure that he is not forgotten.
In some societies it is believed that unless a man has someone to remember him, perhaps with sacrifices or other ritual displays, his spirit will not be able to rest easily. Such beliefs provide the basis of much that is commonly known as ‘ancestor worship’, although it doesn’t usually involve worship in the sense that we use it.
We don’t have ancestor worship in the West, but the feelings which underpin it speak to us too. Children offer us the prospect of continuity; they are the thread which connects us to the future. Because of this they help to keep us from feeling too isolated and alone. We know that, through them at least, we fit into a wider pattern of society which reaches out through space and time.
This sense of reaching into the future can have a profound effect on a man. The birth of my firstborn, Mark, made a great impact on my attitudes towards the future and towards death. Suddenly the future became more real and important. I began to worry more about the possibilities of a nuclear war. No longer was it enough to hope selfishly for peace to last until my own natural death; I now had another generation to care about. This was one of the most important factors which led ultimately to a radical shift in my political and social views. I have not explored this in any detail with other men, but it would be interesting to know whether the birth of a baby commonly has similar effects on the new father’s world-view.
The suggestion that children provide a type of immortality has recently been revived by evolutionary biologists. Since Darwin it has been generally accepted that the way to judge the ‘success’ of a species is to consider whether or not it continues to exist—in other words, how effectively it reproduces itself. More recently, this approach has been applied by Richard Dawkins to individuals—or more especially to individuals’ genes, those chemical structures which contain the code which determines how the cells in your body are put together.
The argument, briefly, is this. If there was a gene which tended to make its carrier reluctant to have children it would not reproduce itself, and would soon die out. It is therefore most unlikely that such a gene could exist. On the other hand a gene which made any creature carrying it very keen to reproduce would obviously stand a very good chance of being around for many generations to come.
Specific genes to encourage or discourage people from having children almost certainly do not exist. But the argument still applies. If my genes manage to reproduce themselves they are successful; otherwise they will vanish from the earth and other, ‘fitter’, genes will take over. So the very fact that our ancestral genes have already survived long enough to have been reproduced in us means that they must be quite good at reproducing themselves. The chances are therefore that we are all ‘genetically programmed’ to want to reproduce ourselves—or rather to reproduce our genes. Thus men ‘want’ to have children because they cannot help it. Reproduction has become a biological imperative.
It is not the physical structure of the genes which survives from generation to generation, but faithful copies of them. If survival is all that matters, then the more copies there are the better chance the genes have of surviving. So, at first sight we might assume that the more children you have the better your genes’ survival chances. But things are not quite so simple. It does my genes no good to survive in my children unless the children also live long enough to reproduce. So I must try to make sure that at least some of my children do not die before they become mature. There are two possible strategies which I might adopt to help bring this about.
Firstly, I could simply take every reproductive opportunity I find so that I had as many offspring as possible. I wouldn’t bother to waste time looking after them, but would simply hope that at least some would survive to adulthood and be able to reproduce themselves. Alternatively I could have just a few children and concentrate all my resources on trying to ensure that they grow up safely.
In general, biological theory might suggest that men should be more promiscuous than women. Since females have a limited number of ovulations, and do not usually produce children more frequently than one every nine months (although a woman could have two sets of premature quintuplets in a year!) they have less to gain by having many different mates. It is probably better for a woman to concentrate her resources on looking after the children she does have. Men, on the other hand, produce millions of sperm per ejaculation and could father several new babies every day. Why should they ever bother to do anything else?
There are, however, several biological reasons why men do not simply adopt a promiscuous reproductive strategy. In most cases, a child will have a better chance of survival if it has two people to look after it than if there is only one. So a mother, who as we have seen is likely to invest in her children’s survival, has a vested interest in trying to keep a man around to help care for her children. She may offer sufficient inducements to him to persuade him to stay with her and help bring up the children.
It is often in the man’s own reproductive interest to invest in his children too. Consider a population where none of the men did anything to help look after their children. Any man who decided to go against the normal state of affairs and invest in his offspring would immediately gain an advantage over the others. More of his children would survive to adulthood than those of the other men, and so more of his genes would go into the next generation’s gene pool. If his children adopted the same strategy they too would have his success, and this set of genes would gradually dominate the whole population.
There is a limit to this, though. Suppose we had a population where all men helped to look after their own children. Any man who decided to go against this norm and cuckold other men would now gain. He would be able to invest all his energies in trying to persuade women to have his babies, while being secure in the knowledge that all these babies would be looked after by the partners of those women. In this case his genes would do better than everyone else’s and they would gradually come to dominate the population.
Clearly, in simple biological terms, if everything else is equal neither of these two extremes provides a stable strategy. Richard Dawkins has calculated that in certain circumstances a ratio of eight promiscuous types to five faithful ones will allow each kind to do equally well. In real life things are more complicated. None of us consciously adopts either strategy, and we all know men who try bit of each—although not usually in any conscious attempt to increase their reproductive success!
Biological arguments like this can give us valuable insights, but they are inadequate to explain all the complexities of human behaviour. Many men do not want children and remain childless all their lives. Are their genes defective in terms of reproductive drive? And if so, how did they ever get to be born themselves? In human beings culture and biology interact in such complicated ways that simple theories are almost always wrong. The importance of biology is that it can tell us about some of the innate tendencies which may underpin our behaviour and which may restrict the range of choice we have, and show the limits within which we can try to modify our behaviour.
Biological and economic reasons may help to explain why men want to be fathers, but they by no means exhaust the possibilities. The man who feels that his own life has been spoiled by lack of education or social advantages may wish for children so that they might pursue the career he was never able to have. ‘My kids will have all the opportunities I never had’ he says, and he devotes the rest of his life to their welfare, trying to re-live his own life vicariously through his children. Most men do not go so far, but it can be hard to resist this particular temptation.
Having a child may be important to a man’s self-image in other ways—for instance, it demonstrates his sexual competence in a way that nothing else can. No matter how good a man might be in bed, no matter how many women he has slept with, unless he has actually sired a child his potency remains only potential and not demonstrated. Men are notoriously insecure in their sexuality, but a man with a child is able to relax a bit. Few men express this feeling openly, but I think it lies deep for many of us.
This takes us back to that basic meaning of the verb ‘to father’: to sire, to be the producer of the spermatazoon which fertilises the egg which becomes the child. I said at the beginning of the book that this implies a single act requiring little effort, and absolutely no commitment over a period of time. Yet it does not mean that the act of fathering is without any other significance. For John, as for most men, it was not the primary reason for wanting a child. But for some men in some cultures it is enough—just as there are women who want a child simply in order to demonstrate their femininity.
Other men want children, not principally for themselves, but for their wives. We live in a society where many women expect to find their main fulfilment in the bearing and nurturing of children. Men are aware of this, and many feel it their duty to have children for this reason. They would not take the step of their own accord, perhaps; but under pressure from their partner, or out of consideration for her desires, they acquiesce.
It is still hard for a woman to be accepted as a success if she has not had children. Even if childlessness is a voluntary decision, she is accounted unfortunate or even selfish—not a proper woman. The same does not apply to a man. A man can go through life childless without anyone else openly noticing his lack. He may feel it deeply himself, but there is little social stigma. Thus it is usually the woman who takes the initiative in decisions about children. Furthermore, the major share of childcare responsibilities is still taken by women and seen as ‘women’s work’, and many men feel that it is only right that women should have the major say in decisions about children.
Another relevant point is that the nature and control of contraception has changed. Traditionally, when the sheath was the principal form of contraceptive, men were responsible for birth prevention. But they did not always find it convenient or conducive to pleasure (one man described it as being like washing your hands while wearing rubber gloves) and were often lax in their precautions. Since a man can ‘kiss and run’, women gradually took over responsibility for contraception.
At first this seemed like a great development to most men. Contraception had always been seen as a chore. The newer methods of cap, pill and coil seemed to offer liberation for men as well. Women were now more accessible, and there was nothing—however well lubricated and ‘super-sensitive’—to interfere with pleasure. It even saved money! But there was a catch.
What was not always recognised—by men anyway—was that whoever is in control of contraception is also in control of conception. Some men leave decisions about babies to their partners simply because they have little choice. How easy it is for a woman ‘accidentally’ to forget to take the pill one day. And how easy too, to assume that everything will probably be alright—especially if you don’t mind if it isn’t. Sometimes the deception is blatant, but much more often there is a conspiracy of silence; one of those little games we play to save face and make life more interesting.
I had always wanted to have two children, long before I married Shirley. She also wanted children, but never really said how many she wanted (or perhaps I never listened when she expressed different ideas from my own). Our first two children were both boys, which was a bit of a disappointment to me as I was very keen to have a daughter. Nevertheless I still did not want to go beyond my ‘ideal’ number of two. But Shirley had by now decided that she wanted more children; two were not enough. Despite the possibility of getting my much-wanted daughter, I still refused to agree.
One day (or was it more than one?) Shirley forgot to take her contraceptive pill. She now says that she mentioned this to me and that I agreed that there was little risk of her getting pregnant. I have no recollection of this at all, and the inevitable pregnancy came as a surprise to me. This was nine years ago and it is now no longer possible to discover whose version is correct. But perhaps we were both right: perhaps there was a silent conspiracy between us, and this was the best way for each to save face. Real life decisions are often made this way.
Anyway, the story had a happy ending, for the new baby was the little girl I wanted and I have no regrets at all about being proved wrong. Shirley now claims that she was always sure it would be a girl, and that she had always wanted two boys and a girl (so that the girl would be able to go out with the friends of her older brothers)!
Another reason why men want children came up the other night when I was talking with Mark, my elder son. “Don’t have children when you grow up,” I joked, “they’re too much trouble.” He laughed. “I’m going to treat my children properly when I grow up, Dad.” How many children have said or thought that? I know I did. Perhaps this is one of the earliest influences on our decisions to have children—a desire to avoid the mistakes (real or imagined) that our own parents made.
I wanted to have children because it seemed an important and creative thing to do. Many men feel this way, even though it is not fashionable to admit it in some circles. But, from my experience of talking with parents, I would say that one important difference between men and women is that women tend to want babies, while men are more likely to want children. Of course there are exceptions, but in general when men think of fatherhood they tend to think of spending time with older children.
Fatherhood means playing cricket on the beach, taking Johnny to his first football game, helping Julia with her maths homework. Before they have children, many men think of fatherhood as if it were being like a favourite uncle: full of indulgence and good humour, but with little real commitment. It is an attractive image—the benevolent side of the traditional father stereotype—which no doubt contributes to some men’s desire to have children.
The ‘uncle’ image is an appealing one for many men, especially in its lack of commitment. The uncle can hand the child back and clear off when the going gets tough. A father cannot (should not?) do that. Commitment frightens many young men; more so perhaps than young women.
A book written for fathers in the 1950s lists seven ‘standards’ to which a young man must measure up before he can do an adequate job of fathering. These include having a sense of reality, the capacity to stand disappointment without sulking, being consistently engaged in doing something worthwhile, being co-operative, able to think of someone other than himself, and being willing to surrender present advantage for the sake of long-range goals. At the end of this impressive list the authors conclude that “Prospective fatherhood tests your emotional maturity”! (English & Foster p.12) It is little wonder that some men hesitate before having children.
Yet paradoxically, this can also be a major factor in a man’s decision to have children. He may see it, consciously or unconsciously, as a necessary step in growing up. Having children ties you down, makes you accept your responsibilities. The responsibility factor is connected with the manhood one too. Having children means that you’re a real man, not a boy any more.
This can extend to attitudes towards the relationship between partners. Children, it is said, cement a marriage in a way that nothing else can. Certainly, in many societies a marriage is not completed or finally accepted until the birth of the first child. We do not formalise this in the Western world, but divorce before any children are born is considered a less serious break than afterwards. Having children adds to the responsibilities of the couple. They ought now to try more seriously to ‘settle down for the sake of the children.’
An interesting perspective on why men want children can be found in David Owens’ study of men’s reactions to the fact that they were unable to have children. Owens interviewed some British working class men shortly after their first visit to an infertility clinic. When he asked them why they wanted children, most found it difficult at first to give any clear answer. It was just ‘natural’ to have children. Further questioning began to provide rather more detail.
Children were seen as a potential source of enjoyment and companionship when older and as ‘fun’ when babies. Boys were particularly sought after as companions in sport or recreational activities, but daughters, too, were felt important for a complete family. There was more stress on this, emotional, side of fatherhood than on more traditional values such as wanting an heir, or someone to care for the father in old age, or to provide any form of ‘immortality’. Coupled with this was lack of real concern about the effects of having children. The men acknowledged that children would be expensive and would cause a change of lifestyle, but this was just accepted as an inevitable consequence of parenthood. There was no idea of ‘investment for the future’ or any real investigation of the true impact of such changes.
Children were also seen by these men as being essential to a proper marriage, and especially important in providing an opportunity for their wives to become mothers. Becoming a mother would inevitably be fulfilling, and was perceived as being crucial to a woman’s development. When the men were questioned about their feelings towards their own possible infertility they were much less concerned with their performance as men than as husbands. There was some concern with masculinity—one man denied any worries about his own virility or manhood, but his wife said that he had taken to heart his brothers’ remarks that, “you haven’t proved yourself yet like we have”. Yet overwhelmingly the men were worried that they might have let their wives down, depriving them of the chance of motherhood. One man summed it up:
The desire to father is complex. Biology, economics, social expectations and desire for personal growth can all contribute. But even those men who openly admit to wanting children have very little idea of the implications of their decisions. With the new ideology of involved fatherhood presenting itself as an option, many men find this period, when the thought of fatherhood becomes a fact, very stressful and challenging. [Next]
 See Bloch for the notion that kinship ties provide the basis for a morality of long-term reciprocity.
The quotes from Andy, John, Ian, Stuart and Chris in this and other chapters are taken from a group discussion I led for two Open University courses on pregnancy and birth (1985a & b). Many of them are included in the edited highlights provided on audio cassette with the published courses.
 Ideas about the purpose of marriage also seem to be in a state of flux at present. In the Book of Common Prayer the following reasons for marriage are given: First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, ... Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; ... Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other...
In the 1960s and 70s a wave of new services and approaches to marriage appeared. The Church of England’s Alternative Service Book is a typical example. It effectively reverses the order of the old Prayer Book’s three reasons for marriage: Marriage is given that husband and wife may comfort and help each other, ... It is given, that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, ... It is given, that they may have children and be blessed in caring for them...
For the liturgical reformers, marriage was no longer to be thought of as primarily for the procreation of children. But I wonder whether those outside the Church agree. Increasingly, young couples seem to live together for companionship and physical fulfilment, and only take the step of getting married when they want to have children. Perhaps marriage is all about having babies after all.