"Did you really want kids?" I asked.
My dad briefly took his eyes off of the road and threw me a stare of disbelief. We were minutes away from the train station—an awkward time, I admit, to ask if my existence had been premeditated. But with several of my friends having recently passed on their genes (a few quite accidentally), fatherhood had been on my mind. My dad was only 26 when I was born. I was coming up on my 38th birthday, and I still felt no desire to have children of my own.
"Of course," he said. "It was sort of…instinctual." I'd inherited a lot of things from my dad, but a paternal instinct wasn't one of them. I'd been wondering if that hurt the old man's feelings—if he saw my life's meandering path as a rejection of sorts. Not just of Brad Stoddard's choices, but of the "normal" life script.
"No," he said, with a shrug. "You've got to do what feels right for you." What felt right was to ensure that an outcome I didn't want wasn't brought about by the activity I enjoy the most. That's why, a few months after my visit home, I'd had a vasectomy. My sterility was confirmed 12 weeks later, and I still take a great deal of satisfaction in my decision to own my reproductive destiny.
Not having a hard-wired urge to procreate, it turns out, isn't something that anyone should feel bad about—especially, according to some experts, the average guy. "I doubt the urge to have children—as opposed to sex—is entirely innate in men," says Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History and author of Masters of the Planet. Tattersall argues that men may not inherently want children, but learn to want them. And in recent years, it seems like a lot of guys—like me—have decided to skip that lesson.
Millions of guys are suddenly beginning to reconsider the "biological imperative"—favoring career and self more than family, says Stewart Friedman, founding director of The Wharton School's Work/Life Integration Project and author of Baby Bust.
According to data collected by the CDC between 2006 and 2010—one of the most recent data sets available—nearly 25 percent of American men had not fathered a child by age 44, an all-time high. It'd be easy to point to our uniquely American obsession with work as the primary culprit—and if you ask many experts, they'll do just that. "Men are anticipating that their spouses will be fully engaged in their own careers and they want to be more involved as fathers than their fathers were," Friedman says. "Given that scenario, both partners fully engaged at work, it's hard for them to see how they can be great dads with great careers. They are abstaining from parenting in larger numbers than a generation earlier."
Furthermore, the percentage of men who characterize themselves as "career-oriented" more than doubled between 1992 and 2012, Friedman discovered, while the percentage of men who characterize themselves as "family-oriented" fell by more than a quarter. That trend shows no sign of letting up, either.
For other people, it's simpler than that—kids get in the way of having a good time, and enjoying the lives people have made for themselves. There's less guilt these days around being a little selfish. "Having kids just isn't for me," says Clayton, 45, a New York City-based fashion photographer. "I've never had a sense that anything is missing from my life. I can't imagine how I would fit children in with my relationships, my work, and the life that I've worked so hard to attain."
Finally, of course, the decision to have kids can also come down to cold, hard economics. Men today are less inclined to think of themselves as breadwinners, with all the responsibility that entails, Friedman says. Faced with the prospect of economic instability and loads of debt, young men are becoming less likely to invest in children. (According to a report from the US Department of Agriculture the average cost of raising a child born in 2015 is expected to run more than $233,610—and that's before college tuition.)
That's not to say there isn't hope, however, for wannabe parents: In June 2015, the CDC revealed that the so-called "baby recession" in the United States—during which birthrates fell for seven consecutive years—appeared to be over. (Though in 2016, the birthrate unexpectedly dropped again by a little less than 1 percent.)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new data was that women in their 30s and early 40s were the primary demographic responsible for keeping the birthrate stable. With the economy in better shape recently, couples might finally be having the babies they were putting off having in more economically uncertain times, says Brady Hamilton, the study's author.
So perhaps men aren't resolute about giving up on fatherhood—just as women aren't giving up on motherhood. Maybe we're all just delaying it, and in doing so, thinking about it more deeply. "[Waiting] allowed me to realize that I probably wasn't cut out for having kids," says Alex, 50, a married creative director in New York. "I lived my twenties and thirties differently from my peers—moving to London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and then New York. I think that if you tinker with the 'normal' order in which you're supposed to do things—settle down, put down roots—you think harder about which decisions you make next."
In fairness, it's easier for guys like Alex and me to say that; we don't feel the same societal pressure to have children that women do. But that doesn't mean there's no price to pay: For instance, research has shown evidence of a bias against men who aren't fathers in the workplace. For more than 15 years, University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig has focused her research on how parenthood affects your career. Among other things, she found that potential employers are more likely to hire a man if he has kids, as well as pay him more after he's become a Dad.
Part of the reason that fatherhood is so synonymous with maturity may be due to the lack of a widely accepted roadmap for being a childfree adult. While I see myself transforming into a jet setting, silver-haired bon vivant, my friends are more likely to see visions of a lonely, loveless future, and a sparsely attended funeral. It's heartening, then, to discover that the research doesn't support such a grim outcome.
Childlessness, for one thing, does not significantly increase the prevalence of loneliness and depression in men beyond the age of 70, according a University of Florida study. And a related Norwegian study found that even childless 85-year olds showed no difference in wellbeing compared to octogenarians with kids. Elderly people who don't have that support network in place, the study authors found, tend to find other ways to cope.
The feelings of loneliness and social isolation that tend to be associated with childlessness are much more likely to manifest themselves when your friends are off multiplying, says Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of Going Solo. And that's okay, he argues—the narrative so familiar to my dad and generations before him is quickly changing. He urges me to build my community and tend to it, to make friends my family, and care for them as I would a sibling or a spouse. It may not be the most detailed blueprint for how to live without kids, but it's a pretty good start.
"We live in a time of incredible social experimentation," he says, just before we hang up. "There's no longer a preset path for living or settling down."
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