The Case for Forgoing Fatherhood

A few minutes after I posted a review of my latest book on social media, I received a message from my former partner, from whom I hadn’t heard in nearly three years. He congratulated me and, practically in the same breath, informed me that he was now the proud and recent father of twins, a boy and girl. He attached a picture of two adorable tots who looked so photogenic, the mean part of me thought he doctored it. He has craved fatherhood for much of his adult life and — thanks to advances in reproductive technology, progressive thinking on surrogacy, and a very accommodating lesbian friend — he and his current partner can finally call themselves daddy and papa.

Naturally, I wished them all well even as I found the timing of this announcement peculiar. I never wanted to start a family with him (or anyone else) and this may well have been a factor in our eventual breakup. Yet the implied equivalency between releasing a book into the world and giving life to a child rankled me for reasons that go beyond the specifics of our relationship. It spoke of a worldview in which parenting is seen as a more worthwhile human endeavour than most other creative, political or scientific accomplishments. You could be the person who cured cancer and your mediocre sibling with five unruly kids would still be seen as the pillar of the community.

I’d be lying if I said the thought of starting a family never crossed my mind. Whenever I pass Mabel’s Fables, a beautiful children’s bookstore in midtown Toronto, I fantasize about the titles I would buy my unborn. But these moments of wistfulness for a progeny I’ll never have are usually fleeting. By the time I make it back to whatever project or book I’m immersed in, I’d forget about them and resume wondering how parents ever find the time for personal or intellectual pursuits.

Such confidence in my life choices stems mostly from my gender identity as a man. I always thought that having to choose between parenting and career, between selflessness and self-love, was something that only women had to wrestle with. It belonged in that big pile of “feminist issues” that I’m familiar with but not directly affected by. With that message from my ex, I was forced to confront not just the fact that having a child or not is also a man’s issue — but the dearth of books and public conversations about it.

When it comes to fatherhood, most of the literature I’ve come across lately outside the parenting-advice shelves focused on letters from father to daughter or son in the context of racial discrimination: I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Vancouver’s David Chariandy or Between the World and Me from Ta-Nehisi Coates come to mind. Compare this to the slew of high-profile books published this year alone that question or interrogate accepted wisdom on motherhood: Like a Mother by Angela Garbes, The Motherhood Affidavits from Laura Jean Baker or Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything.

“Men who are not interested in or ready for fatherhood lack the vocabulary to examine their feelings or make the right choices — for them, for their partners, and for their offspring.”

The most glorious example of this conversation among women takes place on the pages of Toronto-based Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood, a finalist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Full disclosure: I was the chair of the jury.) Over the three years leading up to her fortieth birthday, Heti’s unnamed narrator debates whether to have a child with her current partner or focus on her intellectual and inner life. At a time when thinking on sex and gender is constantly being challenged, why does the biological and social imperative of motherhood remain sacrosanct, the book asks?

If Heti’s novel hit a nerve, it’s because whenever I come across a book or magazine article about men and parenting, fatherhood is already a done deal — sometimes even an afterthought. I call it the “You’re a Father, Now What?” genre. What about men like me, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, who choose not to father a child? This reluctance to engage in this debate strikes me as perverse, since fatherhood carries as big an emotional price as motherhood. Recent research suggests that as many as one in four fathers suffer from anxiety and despair close enough to postnatal depression, which was commonly understood to be caused by hormones in women. Men who are not interested in or ready for fatherhood lack the vocabulary and cultural context to examine their feelings or make the right choices — for them, for their partners, and for their offspring.

None of this is to suggest that fatherhood and motherhood are mirror images of each other. Biology is not destiny, but it underlines some of the important differences of how men navigate, and benefit from, some basic physiological (not having a womb) or socially determined (the ticking biological clock) differences. It’s equally true that most men, even in developed Western democracies, approach career and parenting as competitive sports in which they must emerge as the winners of both games. Aside from a few examples of stay-at-home dads or gender- neutral paternity leaves, childcare remains a woman’s work. (How many male nannies have you or your friends hired lately?)

My ex and I weren’t necessarily competitive, but my career as a writer went a lot further than his in the performing arts — mainly because I invested heavily in my development as a journalist and nonfiction writer, and at times obsessively so. His choices often privileged his extended family and friends, from whom I kept a distance. In the end, we both achieved what we wanted but, even in the progressive circles we travel in, his path in life gets social and political approval while mine is relegated to a cautionary tale. I’ve reached a tipping point with friends who tell me “You don’t want to die alone,” or ask “Who will look after you when you’re old?” As if that will scare me into running to the nearest fertility clinic to talk about my under-utilized seminal fluid.

I’d rather focus on what gives my life meaning. I’ve never felt that perpetuating my genes was all that noble or necessary. I’m not programmed that way. A more meaningful existence is one where I help shape the minds of numerous young students, which as a university professor I do for a living. When I think of the legal and emotional costs of adopting a child from the developing world, as some friends suggest on occasion, I immediately crunch the numbers in my head and come to the realization that I can help more lives by donating to charities that invest in schooling and feeding thousands of children instead. Why single out one for the lottery of a lifetime when you can help many?

And yet I continue to be in awe of friends or family who do have children. It takes a certain faith in humanity and a level of optimism I lack to bring new life to a planet that’s overheating, and where such basic human functions as breathing clean air and drinking clean water will become challenges before this century is over. I can’t think of anything more devastating than the suffering or death of a child. The British author Zadie Smith once said that the joy of having children is inextricably  linked to the potential tragedy of losing them. I know this firsthand: my mother easily survived the death of my father but never recovered from that of my sister. Inviting that possibility into my life is a burden I choose not to carry, even theoretically speaking.

That’s what it comes down to: the choices my former partner and I have made of our lives since we parted ways. I may never know the joy of watching my children sleeping blissfully or the agony of their cries when they fall off a swing or get bullied at school. Many other things in my life give me equal joy and cause as much pain. My emotional register doesn’t depend on fatherhood. All I’m asking is that men reflect on and encourage the different choices we make in life — and to talk, talk, talk about them.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a journalist and professor at Ryerson University, and the author of the award-winning books Intolerable and Brown.