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‘It's most of my life – going to the pub or the group’: the social networks of involuntarily childless older men

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 July 2019

Robin A. Hadley*
Independent Researcher, Manchester, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:
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The social networks of older people are a significant influence on their health and wellbeing. Adult children are an important element in their parent's network and provide the majority of informal care. The morphology of personal networks alters with age, employment, gender and relationships. Not having children automatically reduces both vertical familial structure and affects the wider formal and informal social links that children can bring. Childless men are missing from gerontological, reproduction, sociological and psychological research. These fields have all mainly focused on family and women. This paper reports on an auto/biographical qualitative study framed by biographical, feminist, gerontological and lifecourse approaches. Data were gathered from semi-structured biographical interviews with 14 self-defined involuntarily childless men aged between 49 and 82 years old. A latent thematic analysis highlighted the complex intersections between childlessness and individual agency, relationships and socio-cultural structures. The impact of major lifecourse events and non-events had significant implications for how childless people perform and view their social and self-identity. I argue that involuntary childlessness affects the social, emotional and relational aspects of men's lived experience across the lifecourse.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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The worldwide decline in fertility levels and increase in the age of mortality has serious implications for all levels of society (Roser, Reference Roser2017). For many countries, the increase in life expectancy and uncertain economic conditions has raised alarms concerning the financial sustainability of state and private pensions (Attanasio et al., Reference Attanasio, Banks, Blundell, Chote and Emmerson2004) and of health and care services (Myck, Reference Myck2015). By 2041, public expenditure on social care in the United Kingdom (UK) is projected to rise by 329 per cent (Wittenberg et al., Reference Wittenberg, Pickard, Malley, King, Comas-Herrera and Darton2008) and those needing care are estimated to grow by 90 per cent. Over the same period, carer numbers are predicted to rise by approximately 27 per cent (Pickard et al., Reference Pickard, Wittenberg, King, Malley and Comas-Herrera2009), leading to a ‘carer gap’ (Pickard, Reference Pickard2015). Adult children predominantly provide informal care for an ‘oldest-old’ relative, while married older people primarily receive spousal care (Hoff, Reference Hoff2015). Childless adults are commonly seen as unfettered from the burden of parenthood (Hadley, Reference Hadley and Westwood2018a) and are 20–40 per cent more likely to provide support than non-childless adults (Pesando, Reference Pesando2018). Nonetheless, childlessness is often defined as a deficit identity and the childless are ‘at risk for [sic] social isolation, loneliness, depression, ill health and increased mortality’ (Dykstra and Hagestad, Reference Dykstra and Hagestad2007: 1288). The Institute for Public Policy Research (McNeil and Hunter, Reference McNeil and Hunter2014) estimates that by 2030 the UK will have at least two million people aged 65 and over without an adult child to support them if needed.

In the majority of societies, biological parenthood is considered fundamental to the ‘normal, expectable life cycle’ (Neugarten, Reference Neugarten1969: 125) and a highly valued social status. Approximately one in seven couples in the UK seeks medical help because of problems in conceiving (National Health Service, 2017), whilst around half the people with infertility issues do not seek any form of medical intervention at all (Boivin et al., Reference Boivin, Bunting, Collins and Nygren2007). Exact figures for those who experience involuntary childlessness are therefore difficult to calculate (Greil et al., Reference Greil, Slauson-Blevins and McQuillan2010). Analysis of two British cohort studies found that at age 42, 25.4 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women had no biological children of their own (Berrington, Reference Berrington2015). Stonewall's (UK) survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people over the age of 55 years reported, ‘just over a quarter of gay and bisexual men and half of lesbian and bisexual women have children’ (Guasp, Reference Guasp2011: 3). Recent figures for LGBT people in the United States of America (USA) report 92 per cent as being childless (Metlife Mature Market Institute, 2010). Research into this population of adults highlights concerns surrounding accommodation, social connectedness, care, health, prejudice and discrimination in later life (Westwood, Reference Westwood2016b).

Childlessness is a complex subject that has often been reduced to a generally held belief that if there was no biological cause, then at some level childlessness was a choice (Beth Johnson Foundation/Ageing Without Children (BJF/AWoC), 2016). Research into the effects of infertility (Fisher and Hammarberg, Reference Fisher, Hammarberg, Simoni and Huhtaniemi2017) has shown that failure to fulfil the status of parenthood is a significant disruption to both social and self-identity (Becker, Reference Becker1999). The routes to childlessness are not limited to choice or biological reasons (Albertini and Kohli, Reference Albertini, Kohli, Kreyenfeld and Konietzka2017). Many factors contribute to childlessness (and parenthood): age, class, culture, education level (Simpson, Reference Simpson, Stillwell, Coast and Kneale2009), economics, gender, timing of education exit and entry in to the workforce (Parr, Reference Parr2007), own and partner's attitude to parenthood, intimate relationship and sexual skills, and timing of relationship formation and/or dissolution (Roberts et al., Reference Roberts, Metcalfe, Jack and Tough2011). In addition, parents of predeceased children (Murphy, Reference Murphy2009) or those estranged from their adult children often view themselves as childless (BJF/AWoC, 2016). Allen and Wiles (Reference Allen and Wiles2013: 206) propose that the ‘Pathways and meanings of childlessness vary so much that it is unwise to assume that people have similar experiences of non-parenthood, especially in later life.’ Therefore, a number of authors propose the childless are a heterogeneous group that form a continuum of childlessness with distinct groups at either end (Monach, Reference Monach1993; Letherby, Reference Letherby, Earle, Komaromy and Layne2012). Others locate themselves at different points at different times, as personal circumstances change (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Crawshaw and Balen2010). Albertini and Kohli (Reference Albertini, Kohli, Kreyenfeld and Konietzka2017: 355) argue that to account for changes across the lifecourse, parenthood and childlessness may be viewed ‘as a continuum of parental statuses’.

Parenting and childlessness are predominately associated with women (Veevers, Reference Veevers1973), and in the majority of cultures women are expected to grieve their lack of motherhood (Gillespie, Reference Gillespie2000). Those not participating in the dominant heteronormative pronatalist ideology of the ‘motherhood mandate’ (Russo, Reference Russo1976: 144) for women, and for men, the ‘package deal’ (Townsend, Reference Townsend2002) of work, relationship and fatherhood, have often been ‘othered’ (Letherby, Reference Letherby2002) and subject to stigmatisation (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Earle, Komaromy and Layne2012). Many involuntarily and voluntarily childless (Blackstone and Stewart, Reference Blackstone and Stewart2012) men (Hadley and Hanley, Reference Hadley and Hanley2011) and women (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Earle, Komaromy and Layne2012) report a sense of ‘outsiderness’. Consequently, many people have hidden their experience and status to avoid stigma (Miall, Reference Miall1986) and/or protect themselves or others (Basten, Reference Basten2009). This sense of ‘outsiderness’ reflects Simmel's concept of ‘the stranger’ (Wolff, Reference Wolff1950). Simmel demonstrates how an individual can be in a range of networks and at different times feel central, partial and/or outside a group (Exley and Letherby, Reference Exley and Letherby2001). Therefore, they may be ‘othered’, ‘scapegoated’, or otherwise stigmatised or excluded, depending on group dynamics at any particular time (Letherby, Reference Letherby1999: 369). Many studies have reported the stigmatisation of childless women as children-hating (Veevers, Reference Veevers1973), greedy, selfish and as having privileged freedom (Park, Reference Park2002). Likewise, a large range of deleterious stereotypes (e.g. crones, hags and witches) has been applied to many older lesbian and non-lesbian women for not attaining motherhood or grandmotherhood (Westwood, Reference Westwood2016a). Similarly, men who challenge prescriptive stereotypes also ‘find themselves under suspicion from both hegemonic men and women’ (Sargent, Reference Sargent2001: 19). For example, gay men (Rosenfeld, Reference Rosenfeld2003), househusbands (Smith, Reference Smith1998) and male primary school teachers (Sargent, Reference Sargent2001) are often subject to discrimination, exclusion, isolation and mistrust. Older gay men report being avoided (Simpson, Reference Simpson2015), invisible (King, Reference King2016) or pitied because of their age (Robinson, Reference Robinson2017). Lone older men are frequently viewed as ‘dirty old men’ (Scrutton, Reference Scrutton, Quadagno and Street1996: 147) and as ‘sexually driven but also sexually inappropriate and/or sexually impotent’ (Walz, Reference Walz2002: 100).

Historically, the bulk of socio-cultural discourse surrounding reproduction has centred on women (Lohan, Reference Lohan2015). Women's reproductive issues are a core element of feminism (Tong, Reference Tong2009) and the focus of substantial, wide-ranging, theoretical and experiential scholarship (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Evans and Hemmings2014). One outcome of this feminist canon of research is the recognition of the invisibility of men's experience (Throsby and Gill, Reference Throsby and Gill2004; Inhorn et al., Reference Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg, la Cour Mosegard, Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg and la Cour Mosegard2009). Consequently, the meanings (Marsiglio et al., Reference Marsiglio, Lohan and Culley2013) and experiences of male reproduction remain mostly unexplored (Culley et al., Reference Culley, Hudson and Lohan2013). Throsby and Gill (Reference Throsby and Gill2004: 333) highlighted the lack of information on men's experience of IVF, fatherhood in general and how ‘not being a father has received so little attention’. In addition, until recently men have been inaccurately labelled ‘disappointed but not devastated’ by not attaining fatherhood (Fisher and Hammarberg, Reference Fisher and Hammarberg2012: 122). Men's absence from infertility research had often been, groundlessly, ‘condemned to be meaningful’ due to difficulty in both participant recruitment and retention (Lloyd, Reference Lloyd1996: 451). Strikingly, men either undergoing (Throsby and Gill, Reference Throsby and Gill2004) or post-infertility (Webb and Daniluk, Reference Webb and Daniluk1999) treatment have expressed how the process had a profound effect on their mental (Fisher and Hammarberg, Reference Fisher, Hammarberg, Simoni and Huhtaniemi2017) and physical health (Throsby and Gill, Reference Throsby and Gill2004), and identity and social status (Petrou, Reference Petrou2018). Inhorn et al. (Reference Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg, la Cour Mosegard, Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg and la Cour Mosegard2009) argue against the widely held hypothesis that men are not interested in reproductive intentions and outcomes. They contend this uncritical acceptance has led men to become the ‘second sex’ in all areas of reproduction scholarship.

The absence of men's experience in the social sciences has been well established, ‘men were there all the time but we did not see them because we imagined that we were looking at mankind’ (Morgan, Reference Morgan and Roberts1981: 93). Similarly, Mykhalovskiy (Reference Mykhalovskiy1996) critiqued social science scholars for excoriating the texture and variety of men's experience. Moreover, Hearn (Reference Hearn1998: 786) demonstrated how men's experience has been erased in the social science theory and practice, ‘men are implicitly talked of, yet rarely talked of explicitly. They are shown but not said, visible but not questioned’. There is a significant absence of men's experience of ageing (Knodel and Ofstedal, Reference Knodel and Ofstedal2003) and reproduction in studies of masculinities. Arber et al. (Reference Arber, Davidson, Ginn, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003) and Inhorn et al. (Reference Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg, la Cour Mosegard, Inhorn, Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, Goldberg and la Cour Mosegard2009) point out that scholars have concentrated on younger men in crime, education, employment, fatherhood (recently), the body and violence. Inhorn (Reference Inhorn2012) argues that the absence of men's procreative experience has led to a concomitant absence in both scholarship and policy. For example, statistics on the level of childlessness are ambiguous (Sobotka, Reference Sobotka, Kreyenfeld and Koneitzka2017) because they are, almost exclusively, based on the collection of a mother's fertility history (Berrington, Reference Berrington2004) at the registration of a child's birth (Hadley, Reference Hadley2018b). A number of factors can be related to the lack of available data on men's fertility. Firstly, the embedded attitude that fertility and family formation is relevant only to women (Greene and Biddlecom, Reference Greene and Biddlecom2000). Morison (Reference Morison2013: 1140) argues that the evolution of gendered roles positions male involvement in procreative decision-making as a taken-for-granted non-choice and a non-topic. Secondly, men's reports of their fertility history have been judged as intrinsically unreliable (Berrington, Reference Berrington2004). Nonetheless, men are viewed by researchers and professionals as being socially reticent (Russell, Reference Russell2007; Leontowitsch, Reference Leontowitsch, Pini and Pease2013) and difficult to access (Lloyd, Reference Lloyd1996; Suen, Reference Suen2010). Although there has been an increase in material on fatherhood in recent years, infertility, childlessness and ageing seldom feature in masculinities’ research, including the influential books by Connell (Reference Connell1995) and Kimmel et al. (Reference Kimmel, Hearn and Connell2005).

In Western societies during the 20th century (Dykstra and Fokkema, Reference Dykstra and Fokkema2010), social factors such as the increase in divorce, co-habitation, and smaller and reconstituted families (Chambers et al., Reference Chambers, Allan, Phillipson and Ray2009), have resulted in a change in family structure (Bengtson, Reference Bengtson2001). The formation of families now tends to be by increased vertical ties (grandparent–parent–grandchild), with fewer horizontal ties (siblings and cousins) (Dykstra and Fokkema, Reference Dykstra and Fokkema2010). Consequently, there has been an increase in the length of intergenerational relationships because of the rise in the number of grandparents and the decrease in the number of grandchildren (Timonen and Arber, Reference Timonen, Arber, Arber and Timonen2012). Therefore, it is possible for a child to ‘have relationships with eight grandparents’ (Hoff, Reference Hoff2015: 15). Nevertheless, Tarrant (Reference Tarrant, Arber and Timonen2012) observed that following familial disruption, grandfathers have been increasingly active in maintaining intergenerational relationships. Contemporary perspectives of family practices acknowledge the fluidity and diversity within the ways of ‘doing family’ (Finch, Reference Finch2007: 66). Familial forms and networks include bio-legal, genetic, claimed families, families of choice (Jones-Wild, Reference Jones-Wild, Hines and Taylor2012), fictive, reconfigured and personal community (Wellman and Wortley, Reference Wellman and Wortley1990). Furthermore, contemporary research has highlighted issues in later life for non-heterosexuals concerning isolation, exclusion, prejudice and discrimination (King and Cronin, Reference King and Cronin2016).

The importance of social interaction and social networks on health and wellbeing of older people has been well established (Baars and Phillipson, Reference Baars, Phillipson, Baars, Dohmen, Grenier and Phillipson2013; Stewart et al., Reference Stewart, Browning and Sims2014). Older people generally have small personal networks that consist of a few very close support contributors (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson, Phillipson, Allan and Morgan2004). Although many networks are categorised as family-centred, they often consist of couples (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson, Phillipson, Allan and Morgan2004), and men are more likely to have very small networks of one person or less: 5 per cent compared to 2 per cent for women (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson2013). The reduction in network size has been linked to men's move from instrumental support (through employment) to emotional support (post-retirement) in their later years (Thompson and Whearty, Reference Thompson and Whearty2004). Typically, older married men have better health and social interaction outcomes than never married and divorced men (Davidson, Reference Davidson2004, Reference Davidson, Vincent, Phillipson and Downs2006). However, contemporary research from the USA (Wong and Waite, Reference Wong and Waite2015) identified that the link between health, marriage and social networks is more nuanced than previously recognised. Wong and Waite (Reference Wong and Waite2015) argue it is the quality of the relationship and the quality (rather than the size) of social networks that is critical to any positive or negative effect. Analysis of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe study (Dykstra and Fokkema, Reference Dykstra and Fokkema2010) found that family were signficant positive factors in the health and wellbeing of older people. The majority of European later-life families are characterised by having a child nearby; being in frequent contact with at least one of their children; having strong family care obligations; and regular exchange of help-in-kind from parents to children (Dykstra and Fokkema, Reference Dykstra and Fokkema2010). Typically, adult daughters are viewed as the main carers for older relatives, although Carers UK (2015) reported that 42 per cent of carers were men. Adult sons provide substantial help in accessing health and social services, as well as emotional and financial support (Davidson, Reference Davidson1998) such as assisting in accessing services and financial help (Chambers, Reference Chambers2005). Consequently, care for parents by adult children is more nuanced than often reported. The importance of family interactions on the health and social connectedness of older people highlights the case for looking at people ageing without family. Given that in Europe approximately 25 per cent of men are life-time childless compared to 20 per cent of women (Tanturri et al., Reference Tanturri, Mills, Rotkirch, Sobotka, Takács, Miettinene, Faludi, Kantsa and Nasiri2015), a deeper understanding of how childlessness affects older people's health and social networks is needed.

Compared to parents, older childless people have been viewed as vulnerable because they lack the social support, health and wellbeing provided by adult children (Dykstra and Hagestad, Reference Dykstra and Hagestad2007: 1288). Nonetheless, older childless people are not disadvantaged when their health is good, but as health deteriorates with age, informal support declines and formal care does not compensate for the shortfall (Albertini and Mencarini, Reference Albertini and Mencarini2014). However, gender and early kin and non-kin relationships are significant factors in older childless people's social support networks and health care (Wenger, Reference Wenger2009). Older women's networks, irrespective of marital status, have a wider range of kith and kin than similar older men (Davidson, Reference Davidson2004). By comparison, older men viewed their partner as their primary source of care and support, while childless older married men were particularly dependent on their wives’ social networks (Wenger et al., Reference Wenger, Dykstra, Melkas and Knipscheer2007). A study in the Netherlands (de Jong Gierveld, Reference de Jong Gierveld, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003) found solo-living men were more likely to be lonely than similar women. Likewise, never-married men had the higher rates of loneliness compared with never-married women who had the lowest. The difference was attributed to relationship history, social and socio-economic resources. In Europe, lateral kin (Albertini and Mencarini, Reference Albertini and Mencarini2014), extended family and non-kin frequently provide informal help for childless older people (Deindl and Brandt, Reference Deindl and Brandt2017). Post-bereavement, Wenger et al. (Reference Wenger, Dykstra, Melkas and Knipscheer2007) found strengthened relationships between surviving siblings and nieces or nephews. The most important non-kin relationships have been found to be neighbours followed by friends, associates in organisations, acquaintances and former work colleagues (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson, Phillipson, Allan and Morgan2004). However, while the older childless may have a more diverse support network than parents, ‘they are more likely to experience a care gap when becoming frail … especially when there is no formal support available’ (Deindl and Brandt, Reference Deindl and Brandt2017: 1562).

Research literature clearly shows the significant impact feminist scholars had in demonstrating the relationship between ageing, class and gender (Krekula, Reference Krekula2007). Since the 1990s, gerontological research has tended to focus on the lives of older women for three main reasons (Arber et al., Reference Arber, Andersson and Hoff2007): firstly, the structural disadvantage of women in terms of economics, health and care (Arber et al., Reference Arber, Davidson, Ginn, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003). Secondly, the earlier age of mortality for men (Arber et al., Reference Arber, Davidson, Ginn, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003). Finally, the political-economic theoretical underpinnings of critical gerontology were focused on disadvantage and ageing as residual categories (Thompson, Reference Thompson and Thompson1994, Reference Thompson2008). Older men were stereotypically viewed as being economically stable, married with no mortgage and recipients of spousal care (Calasanti, Reference Calasanti2004). Consequently, older men were not considered as worthy of investigation or as a group in need of emancipation (Leontowitsch, Reference Leontowitsch, Pini and Pease2013). Accordingly, there is an absence of research literature reporting men's lived experience of ageing (Thompson, Reference Thompson and Thompson1994, Reference Thompson and Arrighi2007, Reference Thompson2008). Thompson contended not only were gerontologists and social scientists not interested in older men but they had also ‘inadvertently homogenised elders to make older men genderless’ (Thompson, Reference Thompson and Thompson1994: 8). However, the gender profile of the ageing population is changing as men's age of mortality increases and grows closer to that of women (Dunnell, Reference Dunnell2008). Recently, scholars have started to examine men's lived experience of ageing and the impact economic and relational transitions have on their sense of identity (Leontowitsch, Reference Leontowitsch, Pini and Pease2013). Moreover, scholars have argued that the relationship between ageing and gender (Calasanti and Slevin, Reference Calasanti, Slevin, Calasanti and Slevin2001) has a more nuanced and unstable effect on identity (Simpson, Reference Simpson2015) than previously expressed (Leontowitsch, Reference Leontowitsch, Pini and Pease2013).

The study aim

The aim of the study was to explore the lived experiences of men aged 50–70 years of age who did not have children, but who currently, or in the past, wanted to be a father. The age range was selected to cover the increase in live births in the UK between the Second World War and the early 1960s (Goldstein, Reference Goldstein and Uhlenberg2009: 9). Excluded from the study were men who considered themselves as biological fathers or any form of social fatherhood, e.g. stepfather, or were involved in infertility treatment. The sample was not stratified by measures such as ethnicity or social class as these may have impeded recruitment. Keele University Ethical Review Panel approved the study in October 2011. The pseudonyms used were approved by the participants. To retain anonymity, ages given are in the region of the participants’ actual age. My paper draws on the auto/biographical tradition of being written in the first person (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Earle, Komaromy and Layne2012).

Research design

This article drew on my doctoral auto/biographical qualitative study (Hadley, Reference Hadley2015) which examined the impact of involuntary childlessness on self-defined involuntarily childless men. A qualitative approach was adopted in order to understand the interactions between involuntarily childless men's life experience and their cultural, economic, political and societal contexts (Patton, Reference Patton2002). A quantitative methodology was rejected for two main reasons: firstly, lack of data to form the measures and instruments typically associated with this approach; secondly, such approaches tend not to reveal the depth of understanding of the subjective and contextual dynamics of lived experience (Patton, Reference Patton2002). Following Pat Chambers’ (Reference Chambers2005) argument that no single perspective would allow an in-depth understanding of later-life experience, my study drew on auto/biographical, biographical, lifecourse, critical gerontology and feminist approaches (Chambers, Reference Chambers2005). I am a childless man who at times desperately wanted, and expected, to be a father.Footnote 1

The auto/biographical approach recognises the relationship between the respondent and the researcher, and identifies that researchers are not detached, neutral observers (Stanley, Reference Stanley1993). Stanley (Reference Stanley1993: 41) argues that the ‘auto/biographical I’ demonstrates ‘the active inquiring presence of the sociologists in constructing, rather than discovering, knowledge’. Morgan (Reference Morgan1998: 655) proposes that auto/biography is not ‘simply a shorthand representation of autobiography and/or biography but also [a] recognition of the inter-dependence of the two enterprises … In writing another's life, we also write or rewrite our own lives’. Letherby (Reference Letherby, Evans and Hemmings2014: 52) argues for researchers ‘to be explicit about the significance of their personal, as well as intellectual (Stanley Reference Stanley1993) autobiography to the ‘academic labour process’ (Stanley Reference Stanley1993: 45)’. Mykhalovskiy (Reference Mykhalovskiy1996) holds that the auto/biographical approach adds character, depth, engagement and resonance to research. By acknowledging my intellectual and personal subjectivity, this paper becomes ‘value-explicit’ rather than ‘value-free’ (Letherby, Reference Letherby, Evans and Hemmings2014: 51).

The biographical approach, through the use of Wengraf's (Reference Wengraf2001) Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM), provided a method of understanding the individual and social context of the participants’ experience. By contextualising experiences in relation to past, present and future, the BNIM approach complements the lifecourse perspective (Chambers, Reference Chambers2005). The lifecourse perspective examines the context of biographical experience, utilising the key principles of human agency; historical time and place; social contexts of transitions; timing; and linked or independent lives (Holstein and Minkler, Reference Holstein, Minkler, Bernard and Scharf2007). Until recently, critical gerontology concentrated on how structural disadvantage was produced through political and socio-economic factors. Holstein and Minkler (Reference Holstein, Minkler, Bernard and Scharf2007: 18) argued that critical gerontology's focus on socio-structural forces neglected the ageing experience of individuals and contended that ‘agency unnoticed is agency denied’. Furthermore, Holstein and Minkler (Reference Holstein, Minkler, Bernard and Scharf2007: 18) argued for the use of different perspectives and methodologies in ageing research. Drawing on the feminist approach, they acknowledged how social actors perceived the organisation of their social world and hence their subjective experience (Blaikie, Reference Blaikie2010: 171). Feminist scholars recognise that men's and women's experience of ageing are shaped in relation to each other, as well as intersecting with the power issues of other social categories such as gender and class (Calasanti and Slevin, Reference Calasanti, Slevin, Calasanti and Slevin2001: 3). Hearn (Reference Hearn2000: 352) emphasised that men cannot be feminists but that they can be pro-feminist. Pro-feminist researchers recognise patriarchy, and research by men using feminist theoretical insights and methodology should acknowledge their male privilege and experience (Pease, Reference Pease2000: 6).

The participants

The study was based on a small fortuitous sample (Davidson, Reference Davidson1998: 235), made up of 14 participants whose ages ranged from 49 and 82 years (mean = 63.5 years). One participant self-identified as Anglo-Celtic Australian, the rest as White British, two self-identified as gay, and the remainder as heterosexual, seven were partnered and seven single (see Table 1). Two of the men were widowers. The majority of participants were located in urban and rural communities across the UK. One man was working in Thailand at the time of the interview. Ten interviews were conducted in the men's homes. Two interviews were conducted via Skype, one on Keele University campus and one via email, all at the participants’ request. The longest single interview was 4.46 hours and the shortest 59.33 minutes. Twenty-seven interviews were carried out in total. One participant declined the second interview but agreed for the first interview material to be included in the study. Childlessness is a sensitive subject (Liamputtong, Reference Liamputtong2007) but I drew on my counselling background to be authentic and genuine in my interactions with all respondents (Etherington, Reference Etherington2004). For the majority of the participants, this was the first time they had discussed their experience. On first contact, all the participants enquired about my parental status, which I willingly shared. I believe sharing my involuntarily childless status helped build rapport in the interview.

Table 1. Participants’ demographic information

Notes: HNC: Higher National Certificate. HND: Higher National Diploma. GCE: General Certificate of Education. 1. National vocational qualification.

Data collection

The initial recruitment strategy was through personal and organisational networks, posters and leaflets. However, lack of respondents in the first three months resulted in a review of the strategy (Hadley, Reference Hadley, Tarrant and Watts2014). For example, the wording and layout of posters and leaflets was changed to a more informal presentation. The ‘snowballing’ method was unsuccessful because participants and third-party recruiters reported great difficulty in broaching the very sensitive subject of other people's fertility. Later, participants reported a similar difficulty. Consequently, the age criteria was loosened and recruitment methods expanded to include advertising in local print media, social media via Twitter, radio interview and distribution of research-specific business cards. A simple website was created to support the Twitter feed and the other recruitment methods. The website had an average of 20 visitors per month during the recruitment phase (March to September 2012). It is significant that all of the participants accessed the website before making direct contact, as a way of verifying the research: ‘I looked at your website before contacting you. Just to make sure, you know?’ (Alan). Following initial contact, all respondents that fitted the study criteria were sent an invitation-to-participate letter and information sheet. The information sheet gave the background to the study, interview details, right to withdraw, benefits and risks of participation, informed consent, the complaints’ procedure, and the management and storage of data. A system of ‘rolling informed consent’ was instigated, where participant agreement to take part was confirmed at the start and end of every contact. The majority of interviews were recorded digitally and transcribed strictly verbatim; the exception being the interview via email, which was transferred directly to a Word document.

A biographical interview method was employed using two semi-structured in-depth biographical interviews (Wengraf, Reference Wengraf2001). The first interview followed a semi-structured topic guide that contained two broad questions: (a) ‘Tell me a little about yourself’ and (b) ‘I would be grateful if you could just tell me about when you first became aware of fatherhood – of being a father’? The semi-structured element of the interview was framed by three short questionnaires on, respectively, Quality of Life, Social Networks, and Ageing. In order to understand the participants’ intimate, close and wider relationships and social networks, I created a semi-structured questionnaire (Table 2). This item drew on the results of the pilot study (Hadley, Reference Hadley2015) and the works of Antonucci (Reference Antonucci1986), Wenger et al. (Reference Wenger, Scott and Patterson2000), de Jong Gierveld (Reference de Jong Gierveld, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003), Crystal et al. (Reference Crystal, Akincigil, Sambamoorthi, Wenger, Fleishman, Zingmond, Hays, Bozzette and Shapiro2003) and Amieva et al (Reference Amieva, Stoykova, Matharan, Helmer, Antonucci and Dartigues2010). The item explored the participants’ social embeddedness (de Jong Gierveld, Reference de Jong Gierveld, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003) by asking about their social life (Amieva et al., Reference Amieva, Stoykova, Matharan, Helmer, Antonucci and Dartigues2010), communication frequency (Crystal et al., Reference Crystal, Akincigil, Sambamoorthi, Wenger, Fleishman, Zingmond, Hays, Bozzette and Shapiro2003) and relationship quality (Wenger et al., Reference Wenger, Scott and Patterson2000; Hadley, Reference Hadley2015). Antonucci's (Reference Antonucci1986) well-established hierarchical mapping technique uses three categories – ‘closest’, ‘inner’ and ‘wider’ – to understand the significance of others in social networks. Relationships catergorised as ‘closest’ are typically intimate adult relationships where complete trust is assumed. The ‘inner’ category emphasised trust as a priority. This form of relationship often involves a formal aspect or duty, such as godparent. ‘Wider’ associations are more informal connections, such as people with a shared interest or colleagues. However, the item was not presented as a diagram (Antonucci, Reference Antonucci1986: 11) for three main reasons: first, the potential for distress that a participant would experience seeing he had few or indeed no members in his social network; second, the logistics of deploying the material during the interview; and, finally, the risk of the disruption breaking any rapport built up during the interview.

Table 2. Social network interview guide

Following the first interview, the participants were sent a copy of the full transcript of our meeting in order for them to read and check they had been accurately represented. The second interview focused on the transcript of the first interview. This allowed the development of the original narrative and the introduction of new material.

Data analysis

The qualitative data analysis software NVivo 9 was used for the management of all material and for coding and related analysis. A latent thematic analysis was deployed in order to understand each participant's experience in relation to the broader social context (Braun and Clarke, Reference Braun and Clarke2006: 81). The analysis was an iterative process and involved familiarisation with the data, followed by line-by-line open coding and the generation of initial codes. Provisional themes were created from exploration of the relationships between initial codes, links and themes. The provisional themes were then analysed to shape the candidate and structure the main themes (Braun et al., Reference Braun, Clarke, Terry, Rohleder and Lyons2013). The creation of candidate themes was not a linear process, but one that developed as codes and themes were re-engaged and revisited throughout the analysis and during writing (Braun et al., Reference Braun, Clarke, Terry, Rohleder and Lyons2013). Four main themes were formed through the analysis: (a) pathways to childlessness; (b) negotiating fatherhood; (b) relationships and social networks; and (d) ageing without children. The trustworthiness and plausibility criteria (Patton, Reference Patton2002) of the study included member check of the first interview transcript, field notes, reflexive researcher diary, thick description (Geertz, Reference Geertz1973), audit trail, NVivo 9 modelling tool, memos, freehand graphics and mind maps (Hammersley and Atkinson, Reference Hammersley and Atkinson2007).

This paper concentrates on the main theme, ‘relationships and social networks’. Recognition of the impact of childlessness on men is important, not only because of actual and projected demographic change but because of the lack of material examining ageing and male involuntary childlessness (Dykstra and Keizer, Reference Dykstra and Keizer2009).


Family practices and social relationships

The analysis highlighted a number of factors that influenced the social networks of the participants across the lifecourse: familial structure and relationship quality, location, employment and exiting employment.

Familial circumstances

The influence of the participants’ familial circumstances had an important effect on all levels of social relations, but more so on the closest and inner relationships. In later life, siblings become significantly more important in social networks than friends (Chambers et al., Reference Chambers, Allan, Phillipson and Ray2009). Of the seven participants who had partners, Colin had the largest social network, John the smallest and Edward was in the middle. Both Colin and John were aged 59 and had similar backgrounds: working-class upbringing, eldest of three brothers and both had serious chronic medical issues. Edward, aged 60, the youngest of four children and from a lower-middle-class background, had no health issues. Although the family was close, he had a particularly strong connection with his brother. Colin was living with motor neurone disease (MND) and his vertical ties were upwardly depleted through the death of his parents. However, his horizontal ties were strong with his brothers and partner in the closest category:

I have a great relationship with my partner and my brothers, they are most important. My family was, and is, extremely close. Very happy and fun childhood. (Colin)

Colin's upbringing reflects the view that close bonds in childhood continue, or re-kindle, in later life (Chambers et al., Reference Chambers, Allan, Phillipson and Ray2009). Colin's closest and inner network gave him access to more forms of support. Included in those were members of formal and informal MND groups. Colin's social network challenges the view that men have small social networks post-retirement (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson2013). In addition, his ‘convoy’ of long-term acquaintances from his former employment and sporting activities formed his large wider network.

By contrast, John was estranged from one brother and that brother's family. John's health (heart disease, late-onset diabetes and limited mobility due to cellulitis in his lower left leg) had directly affected his ability to socialise. John's vertical ties were depleted as only his mother was still alive. Consequently, his social network was formed by his relationship with his partner and occasional contact with his youngest brother, his mother and a few friends:

My childhood – I was not abused as such, but it was aversive in ways. Even now, my Mum, it's still a bloody monster. My middle brother – I can't have any respect for him at all. So now relative strangers. (John)

John's poor formative experience was reflected in the continuity of ambivalent familial relationships. Clearly, the quality of John's relationship with his mother demonstrated that having a vertical tie did not necessarily mean that the participants’ personal community was stronger. On the other hand, Edward's role of uncle to his siblings’ children and grandchildren was a continuity of the close bond he had with his siblings:

It's not as important as being a grandparent but, you know, in terms of socialising and just having a family, not quite as good as your own children. (Edward)

Edward's testimony highlighted the primacy of the biological imperative in familial structures and practices. Colin's, John's and Edward's experience demonstrated how the quality of sibling relationships influences quality of life and social relationships. George and his sibling sister were both childless by circumstance. Consequently, his intergenerational connections were through horizontal ties: his wife's nieces and nephews. While he enjoyed their relationship, it highlighted the end of the familial line and an absence of future familial support:

I'm going to grow old without having children around or grandchildren. You know, the family is not carrying on. There is nobody going to be around for me, as I get older. I don't think I would really want children in order to make me feel better when I got older. So you realise is all quite mixed. (George)

The complexity of the issues surrounding a childless later life highlighted the common narratives of not being a ‘burden’ to one's children and the need for not only close relationships in later life, but the knowledge one is not going to be alone. However, the dynamic in-law familial vertical tie positioned George and his wife as available to care for her ageing parents:

We are supporting my wife's parents now. We're the main support and we don't have children. My wife's brothers have children. (George)

Fictive kin

The elevation of friends, or non-relatives, into equivalent kin status – non-kin conversion (Allen et al., Reference Allen, Blieszner and Roberto2011) – was demonstrated by Alan's relationship with his fictive son, Simon. Alan had the strongest network in terms of inner and wider social networks of the participants. Adopted as a baby and with his adoptive parents and siblings now dead, his biological and adoptive vertical ties were truncated. His contact with his horizontal ties – great nieces and nephews of his adoptive family – were intermittent. Alan's closest was with Simon, whom he had known for 15 years, and was 24 years younger. Their relationship had changed from friendship to one of a negotiated form of fictive father–son kinship following Alan's separation from his long-term partner:

Simon – he's probably the only real family I ’ave now. ’E was the most closest to me. He's my Power of Attorney. I said, ‘You know, you're like the son I never had. You do things for me like a son would for a father.’ I said, ‘So you might as well be, like, you know.’ (Alan)

Significant factors in Alan's social network were the contacts he had built through his long-term activism for LGBT rights. He was an active member of a LGBT over-fifties support group, and members of that group were included in the inner category of his social network. Alan's experience highlighted the inequalities in social and cultural resources LGBT people face. Heaphy (Reference Heaphy2007: 208) argues that ‘agency in relation to gender and age’ is complex and leads to ‘unevenly reconfigured’ intimate and wider social relationships in later life. Furthermore, Alan described another form of fictive kin: grandfatherhood.

Fictive grandparents

Four participants described roles of fictive grandfatherhood, which consisted of four categories: adopted, latent, proxy and surrogate. The categories reflect the different sources and dynamics of the respective relationships. The men's practice of grandfatherhood ranged from the covert to the overt. Raymond's (latent) and Alan's (adopted) experiences were related to their social networks. Raymond worked part-time in a local bar and had treated his employer's children as grandchildren: baby-sitting, reading to them, and buying them birthday and Christmas presents. However, the family had relocated and his role had diminished. Significantly, Raymond believed that being a gay man meant he could not declare his latent grandparent role for fear of being seen as a paedophile. Alan was invited by a father of two teenage boys to become their adopted grandfather in response to a school project, ‘I became their honorary granddad. That lasted three years.’ The relationship between Alan and the two boys, now men, has continued but takes place on an informal and ad hoc basis:

They still always talk; he always comes down, the young one that still goes [to the football match] … ’e waves, yells, and ’e always yells, ‘Granddad.’ … That makes me feel belonged. Makes me feel I'm part of something … that's what I miss … Grandkids I would've loved. (Alan)

Alan's and Raymond's grandparent roles had been generated from their wider social network. In contrast, James's (proxy) and Martin's (surrogate) experience was directly connected to their partners’ family ties. James experienced an unanticipated proxy grandparent role via his partner's children. A combination of circumstances led James to spend a significant amount of time during the perinatal period with his ‘grandchild’.

It's just recently … ‘X's’ grandchildren appeared on the scene that I discovered what a pleasure that is … I'm keenly interested in them, as I would be if they were my genetic grandchildren, I think. (James)

James's experience reflects the fluidity in family formation and the flux in the boundaries between kin and fictive. Also, his experience allowed him to engage with peers who were grandparents, ‘We do talk now … sort of, a new topic ’as entered the conversational gambit, you know?’ Both Alan's and James's social experience of grandfatherhood was unlooked for. Martin actively sought the role, and when his partner's niece became pregnant, he approached the parents:

I said to the parents … ‘You know, this, baby when it comes, hasn't got a paternal grandfather. Can I be a surrogate grandfather?’ Which I am. (Michael)

Both James's and Martin's role of grandparent had increased the quantity and quality of their interactions with their respective partner's familial network. Martin drew attention to an existential dimension of these vicarious intergenerational relationships – an aim to see his granddaughter achieve adulthood:

To be quite erm, brutal, death is the future. I reckon if I've got 15 years, that'll be alright. I'd like to see my surrogate granddaughter grow up, she's three, 15 years will take her to 18. So, that's about right, you can see them be an adult then, can't you? (Martin)

The men's experience highlighted the flux and fluidity in both the social and relational environments surrounding the men. Raymond's and Alan's experience was related to social environments and not connected to their family ties. James's and Martin's experience was directly connected to their partners’ extended family ties.


The significance of familial ties on social networks was emphasised by those with no siblings: singletons. For people with no siblings, horizontal ties were dependent on either their own distant relatives, such as cousins, or through fictive kin. Martin's social networks were vertically depleted, as both his and his wife's parents were no longer alive. Martin's horizontal ties were a consequence of his partner's large family.

I think my wife and I are very much for each other, so we tend to be our own social field. How do we socialise? Family. Of course, it's my wife's family, ’cos I've not got any. And that's really just her siblings saying, ‘Let's visit.’ We've still got that loose network of cousins: it's never been a support group. (Martin)

Martin's social network highlighted the importance of fictive family. The distant parts of his own family were located on the periphery of the social network. Martin's use of the pronoun ‘we’ indicated a collective view of his partner's social capital. This supports studies which reported that in long-term heterosexual relationships men benefit from the social connections generated by women (Davidson, Reference Davidson2004). The other singletons (Harry and Stephen) indicated they did not have anyone closest to them. Although Stephen had shared accommodation with his mother for the past 28 years, she was his ‘inner’ tie because of historic trust issues: ‘She's got a nasty little habit of opening my mail.’ Both Harry and Stephen had ex-colleagues in their wider circles. The significance of work-based relationships for men has been well-documented (Phillipson, Reference Phillipson2013). The quality of relationship with colleagues and peers is variable and dependent on many factors such as class, education, gender, location and relationship skills (Spencer and Pahl, Reference Spencer and Pahl2006). Contrary to most of the participants, Stephen described how he had little social contact with his current colleagues:

I tend not to socialise with the people I work with anyway. I tend to try and avoid it. I've had people saying to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were gay’ because I live with my mother. (Stephen)

Not fitting the expected social pronatalist heteronormative for Stephen's gender and age, peers ‘othered’ him. This example of ‘othering’ discourse gives an insight into identity narratives erroneously deployed to stigmatise men who do not conform to heterosexual normatives (Simpson, Reference Simpson2015).


Older men tend to have smaller social networks than equivalent women do and are more likely to be estranged from family (Arber et al., Reference Arber, Davidson, Ginn, Arber, Davidson and Ginn2003). Kate Davidson (Reference Davidson2004: 38) found that for older men relationship termination – through either bereavement or separation – leads to a ‘permanent contraction in their personal network’. Furthermore, loss of a partner has been shown to be a highly gendered experience. Davidson (Reference Davidson2001: 297) found that widows did not re-partner following bereavement for intrinsic reasons, not wishing to ‘relinquish a new-found freedom’. However, widowers viewed their age and health as issues that constrained any new partnership. Bereaved men struggle without the routine of married life (Bennett et al., Reference Bennett, Arnott and Soulsby2013) and often curtail external activities (Davidson, Reference Davidson, Vincent, Phillipson and Downs2006). While in their early sixties, both Harry's and Raymond's respective partners died. Harry's experience, following the death of his partner in 2010, illustrated the impact of bereavement on the shape of social networks:

My partner's sister employed a lawyer and the mere fact that I'd only lived with her [my partner] for 30 years, meant that she was entitled to this house! (Harry)

Harry's deep feeling of rejection by his partner's siblings was apparent. What is more, the subsequent familial schism truncated his valued contact with his partner's nieces and nephews. Marriage in the UK automatically makes the spouse the beneficiary when the other spouse dies. This does not apply to unmarried couples. With both his parents dead and no siblings, the estrangement from his partner's siblings and their children severely affected Harry's close and inner networks. A contributing factor was Harry's withdrawal from local social activities:

There's no inner circle, no. Loads of activities around here from people we knew. I've dropped out of that because I hate going on my own. A problem – I'll solve it. I'm the only one. I don't know anyone. (Harry)

A number of factors affected Raymond's personal social network: his sexuality, small family network and the death of his long-term partner, Paul, in 2002. Both had worked as waiters and the seasonal nature of the work and unsocial hours affected their social network. Consequently, they did not socialise or participate in the gay community. Following Paul's death, Raymond had high alcohol consumption and suicidal ideation:

When Paul died I thought ‘Well that's it, I've lost the lot now’, nothing mattered. So I were just getting sloshed every night. (Raymond)

Recognising his isolation, Raymond took a part-time job at a local pub in order to improve both his social and financial position. He then joined a local dedicated LGBT 50-plus social group. Both the pub and the group had a significant impact on Raymond's social network. Members from both the pub and the group were included in his inner circle. Significantly, two LGBT 50-plus group members were in his closest relationships:

I've the people at the pub and I've got the group. It's most of my life – going to the pub or the group. So, I mean, you take that away from me and just sit here forever? Then might as well curl up and die now, you know? (Raymond)

Raymond had found, in common with many widowers, that the loss of their partner profoundly altered their life. The importance of both groups to Raymond's sense of self was apparent, when he considered that life would be not be worth living if the opportunity to socialise was withdrawn. Piatczanyn et al. (Reference Piatczanyn, Bennett and Soulsby2015) reason that bereaved gay and straight men and women had similar difficulties in adapting to widowhood. Raymond and Harry demonstrated the importance of being able to socialise outside the home and the effect on identity and health of not being able to do so. Both Harry and Raymond feared being viewed as a paedosexual:

I don't want people saying, ‘Oh, he's a bit of a paedophile, this one, looking at the kids.’ You know? (Raymond)

Some of the [neighbours] kids like to come in and play with the dogs. And you have to say, ‘No! Look go and get your Dad!’ I'd hate someone to look saying, ‘Watch that old man, always got kids round him.’ I don't want anyone looking at me thinking that. (Harry)

All the participants expressed fear of being viewed as a paedosexual, with widowers and single men expressing this most strongly. The negative portrayal of older people has been long-established (Byetheway, Reference Byetheway, Jamieson, Harper and Victor1997), with, critically, lone older men particularly viewed as predatory (Simpson, Reference Simpson2015) and dirty old men (Walz, Reference Walz2002).


Involuntary childlessness involves navigating a complex form of bereavement (Lechner et al., Reference Lechner, Bolman and van Dalen2007) that encompasses existential challenges to the inner- and social-self (Lee, Reference Lee, Haynes and Miller2003; Letherby, Reference Letherby, Earle, Komaromy and Layne2012). The common misrepresentation that men are unaffected and uninterested in reproduction are ‘false and reflect out-dated and unhelpful gender stereotypes’ (Fisher and Hammarberg, Reference Fisher, Hammarberg, Simoni and Huhtaniemi2017: 1307). For men, the losses surrounding fatherhood include the potential father/grandfather–child relationship, the role of father/grandfather (Hadley and Hanley, Reference Hadley and Hanley2011), access to social scripts, exclusion from the intimate parent–child–family bond (Earle and Letherby, Reference Earle, Letherby, Earle and Letherby2003) and wider social relationships and community (Hadley, Reference Hadley2018b). The fluidity in relational dynamics, illustrated by the inclusion of non-familial members into the inner and closest categories, was not limited to partner networks but included circumstantial association. Although participants with siblings had the capacity for support through their horizontal ties, this was dependent on the quality of the relationships. The quality of both enduring and family relationships also had a great influence on the personal network. The majority of participants had noted the effect grandparenthood had on the lives of peers and family members. This awareness of difference between the participants and contemporaries demonstrated that the disruption of involuntary childlessness has implications across the lifecourse, the accumulation of otherness.

The impact of events linked to the lifecourse, such as bereavement, retirement, and entry and exit of relationships, was seen in the changes in individual social network structures. The size of vertical and horizontal ties was useful in highlighting those who would be seen to be at risk of social isolation and exclusion. Having no children automatically reduced the vertical structure, and for those whose parents had died, the vertical ties were further reduced. However, observing the size alone could not account for the quality of the relationship or the influences that shaped any given network. The configuration of the participants’ personal convoys altered with Davidson's (Reference Davidson2004: 38) major determinants of age, employment, gender and relationship. The impact of major lifecourse events and non-events had implications for how the participants reflected and performed their social and self-identity. Personal social networks were seen to reflect the continuity of both positive and negative personal competencies that can affect all forms of relationship. The sibling relationships reported in this study ranged from the supportive to the obstreperous. The former were viewed as an important resource, giving a sense of connectedness and a barrier against loss of autonomy; the latter were seen as contributing to social withdrawal, and avoidance, with a concomitant increase in the likelihood of social isolation (Wenger et al., Reference Wenger, Dykstra, Melkas and Knipscheer2007; Chambers et al., Reference Chambers, Allan, Phillipson and Ray2009).

All the participants’ relationships involved the negotiation of family friction, health, and role loss or adaption across the lifecourse. The participants’ narratives supported the views of doing family (Finch, Reference Finch2007: 66) and family practices (Morgan, Reference Morgan2011). Consequently, the complexity and diversity involved in their ‘personal community networks’ (Wellman and Wortley, Reference Wellman and Wortley1990: 559) recognised the concepts of fictive kin and adapted family networks. Membership of organisations revealed how familial, relational, occupational, sexual orientation and assisted reproductive technology experience affected the quality of social interactions across the lifecourse. The positive effect of support groups on Raymond's and Alan's close and wider relationships was indicative of others’ experience of support from outside family norms. Moreover, inclusive strategies, such as the LGBT 50-plus group, demonstrated how policy could positively influence individual agency.

There is a relative absence of men's lived experience of ageing and non-reproduction from academic studies, despite the volume of discussion surrounding masculinities. Morgan (Reference Morgan and Roberts1981: 96) identified how men's lived experience had been taken for granted, ‘Thus taking men into account’ and not treating them – by ignoring the question of gender – as the normal subjects of research’ (Morgan, Reference Morgan and Roberts1981: 95). In much discussion on gender, heterosexual men are judged in relation to ‘hegemonic masculinities’ (Connell, Reference Connell1995). However, the concept of hegemonic masculinities has been criticised for essentialising men into a static and limited typology and not reflecting the ‘ever-changing social strategies’ of men's performance of gender (Inhorn, Reference Inhorn2012: 45). For example, Moller (Reference Moller2007: 266) argues hegemonic masculinities restrict the understanding of masculinity to a specific framework of ‘domination, subordination, and oppression’. Studies reporting on hegemonic masculinities have often focused on power and structure, and not accounted for the ways physicality and embodiment (Calasanti and King, Reference Calasanti and King2005) interact with gender practice over the lifecourse (Inhorn, Reference Inhorn2012). Furthermore, Bennett (Reference Bennett2007: 350, original italics) argues that most men ‘often feel powerless rather than powerful’ because so few achieve the ideal. Hearn (Reference Hearn2004: 59) proposed a move from hegemonic masculinity to ‘go back from masculinity to men’. Kaufman (Reference Kaufman, Brod and Kaufman1994: 152) advocated ‘there is no single masculinity or one experience of being a man’. All the men referred to their experience of involuntary childlessness as ‘something missing’. This key phrase revealed the depth of the emotional and relational absence in the men's lives. It also highlights the lack of social narratives available for involuntarily childless men to draw on. What is more, male involuntary childlessness is also ‘something missing’ from the social sciences. Failing to account for the existence of men who do not reproduce highlights a significant absence of critical insight by scholars, policy makers and other stakeholders.

Limitations and implications

The study was based on a small sample that was not representative of involuntarily childless men. Consequently, the findings are not generalisable to the wider population. However, the study produced in-depth accounts that gave insight into an experience that has been mostly absent from research and wider literature.


Most adult children in the UK are unaware of the reliance placed on them to support older relatives, until they have cause to access the statutory care services (BJF/AWoC, 2016). For example, in England, approximately 85 per cent of older people with disabilities living in their own homes ‘receive care from an adult child or spouse’ (Pickard, Reference Pickard2015: 97). Ageing Well Without Children (BJF/AWoC, 2016) was one of the first activist groups in the world to raise awareness of the structural invisibility of people ageing with childlessness. Nonetheless, there is no policy accounting for those ageing with childlessness in any health, social care and wellbeing institution or charity in the UK. Similarly, in academia there is a paucity of research examining the impact of childlessness in mid- and later life: ‘Childlessness is a shifting identity within various storylines across time and circumstances’ (Allen and Wiles, Reference Allen and Wiles2013: 208). By following the approach developed by Chambers (Reference Chambers2005), based on biography and underpinned by feminist research practice, the study demonstrated the complexity inherent in older childless men's life interactions. Pronatalism and heteronormativity are default positions in much of the social sciences and gerontology (Westwood, Reference Westwood and Westwood2018) which non-heterosexual materials are framed against (Sandberg and Marshall, Reference Sandberg and Marshall2017). This study, by using a lens of reproduction, has highlighted an intersection of ageing, gender and sexualities. I strongly recommend academics, politicians, policy makers and other stakeholders recognise childlessness as an important category in people's experience of ageing.

Author ORCIDs

Robin A. Hadley, 0000-0003-4254-7648.

Ethical standards

Keele University Ethical Review Panel approved the study in October 2011.


1 I am a childless man who has been desperately affected by the desire to be a biological father. All my academic work has been influenced by the work of feminist scholars. As a male researcher, I acknowledge the influence feminist research and feminisms have had on qualitative research in general, and my work in particular (Pease, Reference Pease2000: 203). Drawing on that background, and in common with the sociological concept of reflexivity, I will now locate myself within this paper by supplying a brief autobiography (Birch, Reference Birch, Ribbens and Edwards1998). I am a White British, heterosexual male, 55 years old, divorced and re-married, with a non-genetic life-long hearing impairment. I am the seventh youngest of eight children. I was born, raised and educated in Old Trafford, a working-class area of Manchester, UK. I had been particularly broody in my mid-thirties; I wondered if other men had similar feelings. I am defining ‘broody’ as the behaviours, feelings, thoughts and urges that constitute the emotional and physical desire to be a parent. My reactions to my ‘broodiness’ have included: anger, depression, elation, guilt, isolation, jealousy, relief, sadness, yearning and withdrawal. I worked for 31 years as a scientific and technical photographer before training, and qualifying, as a counsellor. My academic background follows my multi-modal counselling style in that it draws on the knowledge, experience, myths and legends of different tribes. As such, and much like some childless people, I define myself by what I am ‘not’ – I am not solely a photographer, counsellor, educationalist, gerontologist or sociologist. However, I drew on all those fields, and more, in the undertaking of this study.


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Figure 0

Table 1. Participants’ demographic information

Figure 1

Table 2. Social network interview guide