Some conversations are like London buses: you don’t have them for ages, then suddenly they pop up three times in the same week. The only real difference these days is that with the conversations there’s no app to warn you that they’re about to appear; all you can do is frantically gather your scrambled thoughts and try to respond.
Her: Do you ever want to have kids?
In fairness, it’s an easy, throwaway question to ask when you’re 23 (thanks Dawson!), and on that first occasion I was the one who raised the subject. I was telling Ella about my weekend plans, which involved visiting my best friend from university. He’s just become a father, and on Saturday morning I travelled to Birmingham to bear witness to his virility.
I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but on the train up from Euston, I made a mental list of the men my age who I’ve considered close friends over the years, from school right through to my first couple of serious jobs. It’s a small group – people generally have to work pretty hard to get close to me – but of the 10 guys in it, I realised that nine are (or have been) married, and eight have at least one child. The one chap who falls into neither category recently bought a house with his girlfriend, and I’d put good money on him ticking at least one of the two boxes in the next couple of years.
The same pattern broadly applies across my female peers. At 33 – and six weeks to the day from turning 34 – I stand, if not alone, then certainly out at the margins of my various friendship groups, simply by virtue of being unmarried and childless.
For the most part, I’m ok with that – I like being everyone’s surrogate uncle! As I told Ella – and the other two people who asked me about it recently – if fatherhood happens, it happens, but I’m not going to make having kids a priority. I struggle with the notion of a child as an abstract goal, and always have done; I instinctively connect it to a wider set of aspirations, though that’s undoubtedly rooted in my own fairly conventional upbringing.
The funny thing is that 10 years ago I was sure that I would have kids by my early 30s. I was born shortly after my Dad’s 28th birthday, and for years I viewed that as the ‘right’ point in life at which to start a family. At 23, I envisaged meeting someone, getting married, and having two – or maybe three – children together. I was far clearer about that than pretty much anything else in my life; even as I dithered about what sort of job to get, or whether to go travelling, or where to live, I could have told you with complete confidence that by 34 I definitely wanted to be a happy, settled, married father…because that was the happy, settled model I’d grown up with. My dad was 33 when his third child – my brother – was born, and for years I just sort of assumed that in that area, at least, my life would follow a similar trajectory.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when that changed (or evolved) but my previous certainty on the subject definitely makes my current situation feel just a little bittersweet. Maybe I’d been slightly softened up by the London bus-like questions, and by my Birmingham visit on Saturday, but when I saw this tweet from the lovely Malin James today, my heart sort of clenched and bruised and ached, all at the same time.
Informal poll! I’m writing an article & need opinions. What’s 1 essential piece of sex / sexuality advice you would give your teen daughter?
— Malin James (@MalinMJames) May 27, 2015
My sister is a Daddy’s girl. Or rather, she’s my Dad’s favourite. The one song guaranteed to make him cry just a little bit is ABBA’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ – though I suspect he’s not alone in that among fathers of his generation. He loves me and he loves my brother too (for all their horrendous fights), but my sister will always hold an extra-special place in his heart.
I look at their relationship sometimes and wonder what it would be like to have a daughter of my own. How I’d raise her, and what I’d teach her, and the fierce pride I’d feel in watching her grow up to be a strong, confident, independent woman. The (sex) advice I’d give her as a teenager.
The thing is though, it still feels like a fantasy, rather than something tangible or imminent; in some ways it’s even less clearly defined than it was 10 years ago, because at least then I had broad timings in mind. Now I sort of shrug my shoulders and say “yeah, maybe – or maybe not”. More than anything, it feels like my own time that’s slipping through my fingers. I feel guilty saying it, but I don’t want to be an ‘old Dad’ – unable to play football with my kids, or too tired to keep up with them in their active teenage years.
What very few people know is that it could have been different. It nearly was different, in fact, on a couple of occasions. Those are hard to write about, if I’m honest. Abortion isn’t easy on anyone involved, even when it’s clearly the right option for one or both of you. I’ll never forget the day my ex and I sobbed in each other’s arms in her kitchen, after making the decision to terminate our (unintended) pregnancy; nor the sombre silence in which we drove from Oxford to Reading a few days later; the numb, floaty, slightly surreal feeling when we walked out of the cinema that afternoon, after killing the time between appointments in a screening of the latest X-Men movie. I’ll never forget the sex afterwards either; sex we shouldn’t have had, but sex we needed to have, in the same bed where a few weeks earlier we’d set those painful events in motion.
I thought about that day when I saw Malin’s tweet, and about the déjà vu I felt a couple of years later, sitting in a different clinic with a different partner, going through the same horrible process – for the same good, practical reasons.
It’s much easier for men to take a long-term view when it comes to parenthood. We’re less bound by either biology or social convention, and the physical implications of having a child – or not – are obviously much less serious, especially as we get older. Nevertheless, I wonder sometimes whether I’ll reach my 40s – my 50s – and regret not taking a different approach to the whole subject. I look at how happy my 8-out-of-10 friends are with their sons and daughters, or how wonderfully well the people I’ve met through Twitter and my blog combine parenthood with an active sex/kink life, and I worry that I’m missing out somehow. That I’m allowing my upbringing – and my instinctive caution when it comes to big life decisions – to rob me of an experience that I’ll find myself craving in later life, long after it’s passed me by.
I thought about Malin’s tweet later on today as well though, in the pub with my colleagues. One of them was talking about a university friend of hers, who made it almost six months into her pregnancy before realising that she was carrying a child. She had the news confirmed just a few days too late for her to have the abortion she would otherwise have wanted, and is now the mother of an eight-year-old daughter. “Yeah, but she must be so glad now that she went ahead with it,” someone ventured. The colleague telling the story paused for a few seconds, before starting to speak…and pausing again. “It’s been…difficult,” she said. And we moved swiftly on.
It’s easy to miss what you don’t have, especially when you see how happy it makes other people. The reality is that until it happens to you, you can’t know for sure the kind of impact it’ll have on your life. As I advance further into my 30s, the likelihood of fathering a child will slowly – but steadily – decrease. People will stop asking me the question, and I’ll stop equivocating when I answer. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe a part of me will always want kids, and maybe – just maybe – at some point it’ll happen.
Maybe…or maybe not.