This is a genderflip of this article in The Atlantic. Lately I’ve started to get pretty frustrated by the fact that “Parenting” seems to be synonymous with “Motherhood” in our media. Parenting groups are labeled “Mom’s” groups, completely leaving out and marginalizing committed fathers. Many magazines and websites have Parenting sections under the “Women’s” section. This kind of language around parenting hurts everybody - it leaves out men and assumes parenting duties are a woman’s domain.
This flipped article explores what it might look like if our culture accepted fathers’ yearning for children as much as mothers’, and if we lauded the care-taking, nurturing side of masculinity.
Childless men have found other ways to nurture—including adopting pets and providing guidance to young relatives and school-age boys.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of American men without children has risen to an all-time high of 1 in 5, a jump since the 1970s when 1 in 10 men ended their childbearing years without having a baby. But many men without kids still have what we think of as a “paternal instinct”—an innate desire to love, care for and nurture someone or something.
There’s a new kind of parenthood that many men in their late 30’s and early 40’s are gravitating to—one that doesn’t involve tucking a little one in bed at night, or nursing him through a cold—but that is fulfilling nonetheless. We have found a way to be fathers without actually being parents.
My choice to try and parent a group of boys who weren’t my own was a very conscious decision. The beginning of my relationship with a group of seven smart and precocious fourth- and fifth- graders began one afternoon when I was sitting on the toilet. I had just seen the results of yet another negative pregnancy test. It had been nearly two years of trying and this last round of IUI (intra uterine insemination) had failed, just like all the rest. I picked up the test and gave it a good shake. I knew it wasn’t a Magic 8 Ball—I couldn’t just expect a different result to appear. But I would have taken a Try Again or even a Too Soon to Tell over the harshness of a simple, non-negotiable no. The tears were welling up in my eyes and I was gearing up for a good cry of the Sally Fields in Steel Magnolias caliber when the phone rang. It was Alan from the Boy Scouts’ New York City headquarters asking when I could come in for a training session.
I had filled out an online volunteer form a few weeks prior, after a soul-searching talk with myself during which I tried to determine why I so desperately wanted to be a father. I was always into Boy Power, but more in a Spice boys-listening type of way than in an actually-doing-something way. I thought, maybe if I couldn’t have a baby of my own, I could have several sons. I could teach them how to pitch a tent, make complicated knots or start a fire with two sticks. Okay, so I didn’t actually know how to do any of those things, but still, maybe I had something to offer.
The higher-ups at boy Scouts assumed I was a parent of one of the boys in my newly-forming troop. Why else would I devote the time and energy to such an endeavor? My friends and family seemed perplexed that in the midst of starting a round of IVF I was spending so much time arranging trips to places like a local vet hospital and buying supplies so that my boys could decoupage autobiographical posters. The boys in my troop assumed I was a teacher. It seemed odd to everyone that I wanted to mentor them—after all, what was in it for me?
Alan, 46, of New York City found an outlet for his unconscious desire to nurture closer to home. Like many men his age, he had a moment when he realized that kids were absent from his otherwise full life.
"I never made having kids a priority," he says, reminiscing on past relationships and would-be fathers to a child that never was. "At 39 I thought—maybe I should have kids. I thought about having them with a gay friend, or adopting or using an egg donor, but I wasn’t seriously considering it. I wished a relationship had happened that would have made it possible. If I had met the gal I’m with now 10 years ago we would have had kids," he says.
Instead, Alan has had a strong, lifelong relationship with his nephews—now ages 22 and 25. “I saw my nephews through all their milestones.” When Alan’s nephews both chose to attend his alma mater, he was very gratified. “It was like the way a kid might follow in their parents’ footsteps—but they wanted to follow my path,” he says. “They are like surrogate children to me.”
While women certainly experience more societal pressure to procreate than women, a recent British survey revealed that men actually feel more depressed by childlessness than women do. Perhaps that’s because men are more likely to seek out alternate ways of parenting.
(NOTE: this previous line was not gender flipped, since it’s a statistic that seems relevant still)
For Martin, 38, of Dallas, TX, the chance to adopt a rescue pet was a ray of hope after a medical condition forced him to undergo a full mastectomy. He admits that at first he was angry, and later sad, that biological children were no longer a possibility for him. His life changed when he saw a picture on an email listserv from a pet rescue organization.
"I found I had an instant connection with him and had the room both in my heart and in my home," Martin says. "Mr Duke became my furry child in every sense of the word as he filled my home with unconditional love." He soon found himself changing his own routine to accommodate his pet.
"I would carefully make arrangements for vet appointments, baths, trips to PetSmart, the dog park, and even playdates."
Much like any other doting daddy, Martin celebrates milestones with his faithful companion. “On the anniversary of our first year together, I threw a birthday party with a doggy cake and doggy cupcakes as take home gifts for attendees.”
As a longtime sufferer of migraine headaches, Martin initially worried about a dog causing trouble when he was ill. In fact, what happened was just the opposite. “Mr. Duke knows when I am not well and stays close, usually standing over me on the bed with a paw on my shoulder. Somehow, I had been saved in return for saving this little boy from impending doom in a kill shelter.”
The stigma of a man pushing 40 who dotes on his pet hasn’t disappeared. But unlike that stereotypical image of the lonely, crazy cat gentleman, men like Martin show that being dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean you have to fold.
For some, bonds with younger family members can offer more rewards than a “World’s Coolest Uncle” card. At one point in their lives, Alan’s nephews felt closer to him than to their own parents.
"When the boys’ parents divorced they looked to me for guidance. I was very careful to stay neutral in that situation," Alan says. "But I always told them they could tell me anything, even stuff they couldn’t tell their parents. They knew that if it was something serious, that I would have to tell their parents, but amazingly, they were still comfortable talking to me." When one of the boys confided in his uncle about a situation involving first-time sex and worries over an STD, Alan described it as "the highest compliment."
For me, that moment came during a Monday after-school meeting with my troop. I had passed around index cards and asked the boys to write a positive quality for each of the other boys in the troop. That way, each scout would get to hear to six different positive reinforcements from the other members.
When the boys started reading aloud the index cards they had written about me, it took all my willpower to keep the tears in my eyes from spilling down my cheeks.
What did I get out of being a boy Scout leader? The chance to experience parenthood, when I didn’t think that would ever be possible. The confidence-building that comes only through firsthand experience. The perspective on the world through a child’s eyes that I would use in every aspect of my own life from there on out.
Alan says that being a surrogate to his nephews also gave him the confidence to entertain the notion that he could actually be a good parent.
"I always thought I’d be bad at parenting," he says. "I was a tomgirl growing up, not at all paternal. I don’t really cook. I got to the point where I thought—I could be good at this. I was very patient and even-keeled with them. I enjoyed being paternal with them."
When the twins were born, I took what I hope will be a temporary leave of absence from my boy Scout leader duties. But my son and son aren’t a replacement for “my boys.” Troop #2301 showed me that whether or not I had babies, I was already a father.