Forgotten Fatherhood

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The Holy Family with St Anne - Rubens

About a year ago, I remember tuning into an RTE programme about assisted reproduction and the challenges many couples are facing. Of course, it avoided any of the ethical discussions linked to IVF, surrogacy. Nonetheless, the main point of the programme was that Irish couples, after avoiding marriage and pregnancy, for all of their twenties and much of their thirties, are arriving at the decision to start a family when the odds are stacked against them.

The standout moment in the show was when a Danish clinician, talking to the presenter about policies to address declining birth-rates, hammered home the point: ‘tell your young men to grow up quicker’. He advised that Ireland needs a positive policy approach to getting young men to settle down and have children earlier. It is notable that the emphasis was on men rather than women.

Most often – and this is not a stereotype or a caricature – when there is an age differential in a relationship, the male is older; and when there are delays in commitment, it is the male that is most likely to be delaying. What men often do not know, or take seriously, while women have a biological clock that seems to warn them fairly well in advance that they only have a finite time, men seemed to be deceived by stories of Michael Douglas or some other celebrity fathering children into their 70s. Plus, the male of the species is by nature more cavalier and thinks that he is invincible, less risk averse, and tends to spend less time thinking about the future.

It’ll be grand is the attitude.

And of course, the lads want to have the craic. And when some lads are having the craic, the other lads don’t want to be missing out. And nothing causes you to miss out on the craic more than having to be a responsible adult and look after the kids.

And there are some other issues at play as well. The age differential is important. In today’s society, being footloose and fancy-free for the late 30s male means going to nightclubs, trawling through dating apps and having the endless opportunities of no-strings-attached fleeting relationships without ever really having to worry about the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy.

There is much more that can be said on the subject of why the male of the species delays settling down and avoids planning a family but the changing society – attitudinal, cultural technological – are all disincentives to making that step out of eternal adolescence. With increasing numbers living in urban areas, becoming the ‘nowheres’ rather than the ‘somewheres’ (people without ties to community and family versus those that have) there is no expectation to engage in relationships that have some informal or unspoken scrutiny of the neighbourhood.

All this leads to the male delay. And even with an age differential in the relationship, procrastination leaves the female in a ‘no-mans land’, a limbo, where the body clock is ticking and the urge to motherhood is calling, but the time to reinvest in a new relationship after waiting years in the current one, is rapidly dwindling or almost or certainly past.

And when it is time to get off the fence, the most fertile years of both in the relationship has passed. And no policy maker or government or Minister for Children or whoever is hammering home this message. At a certain stage the chances of having children fall off a cliff and many, many are left looking to artificial reproduction clinics for assistance because, primarily, the ill-informed, selfish, bravado of the male in the relationship who just thought that it would be grand.

Thinking it will be grand is what men do. It is why they tidy up 2 minutes before the wife comes home. It’s why they are less likely to get a pension when it is worth doing it. It is why they are less likely to go for eye-tests, or prostate cancer checks, or dental checks when they may have a preventative value. It is hubris, and they often mistake it for chutzpah. And it is why the IVF business is booming in Ireland. It is time for the government to tell the young men to grow up faster and do this early when it sticks in their minds.