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Father’s Day is dangerous for Robert Nurden. Childless not through choice but, as he puts it, “complacency, bad luck, bad judgment”, he tries to stay indoors and ignore the family celebrations outside.

But one year, he went for a walk. “I met family after family. There were children everywhere,” he remembered. “It was terrible. Just so painful. So many ambushes and triggers for my anguish.”

There is very little research into men who have not had children, although that is beginning to change. Research by Dr Robin Hadley has found that 25% of men over 42 do not have children – 5% more than women of the same age group.

Half of the men who are not fathers but wanted to be described a huge grief and isolation from society. Almost 40% have experienced depression and a quarter feel a deep anger.

There’s lots of publicity, quite rightly, about women and childlessness but men are very mute about this

Robert Nurden

Now 72, Nurden had a sheltered upbringing. Reaching adulthood, there was a lot he wanted to experience. “Having children was a very low priority. I was complacent: I just assumed it would happen,” he said.


It was not until he was in his early 40s that Nurden started to get broody. But by that point, he discovered, women of a similar age had already had children, if they were able or wanted to.

“I went into this 15-year period of not going into relationships or ending relationships quickly because I knew that person wasn’t going to want or be able to have a child with me – or that the relationship wasn’t going to be strong enough to last if we did have a child,” said Nurden.


He said high-profile older fathers breed complacency in ordinary men. “If I’m honest, even when I was in my 50s I believed that it might happen for me. But in real life, the Mick Jagger and Jon Snow-age fathers are actually very rare – and in any case, it’s medically not wise, as regards sperm quality.”

What compounded Nurden’s pain was that there was no public or private discussion about how men feel when circumstance leaves them unable to become fathers.


“There’s lots of publicity, quite rightly, about women and childlessness but men are very mute about this. Married men don’t want to hear it either: I’ve had men with children react with anger, as though they feel threatened, when I’ve tried to talk about my pain,” he said.

“I was mute too until recently because as I aged, I found the regret grew into a great pain,” he added. “Unlike many other forms of grief, this compounds itself as it gets older: I wasn’t a father but now I’m not a grandfather. When I’m even older, I might find myself entirely alone.”

Nurden has published a book, I Always Wanted to be a Dad: Men Without Children, about his story and that of some other men. “It turns out that there is a lot of pain, regret and sadness out there,” he said.

Hadley, the researcher, is childless because although his wife had wanted children, by the time she and Hadley met, her age meant the risk of having one was too great. “I chose love but that doesn’t make the pain of not having children any less,” he said. “When a close colleague had his first child, I was so jealous that I couldn’t be in the same room as him.”


Being a father is a marker of status in many countries, said Hadley, but not in the West. “While there has recently been a lot more public discussion about how to be a good father, we still don’t have any narrative or celebration about how important it is for men to become a father in the first place,” he said.

Paul Goulden, the chair of Ageing Without Children, said that, along with the lack of public dialogue about becoming a father, he was “not convinced that there’s this Game of Thrones genetic push felt by men to have children”.


Instead, he said: “There’s this mistaken belief that men are fertile across their lifespan, so there’s no imperative to get on with it.”

That complacency persists because men without children historically have not spoken about their grief. But, Goulden said: “I hope Robert’s book will trigger a change in public dialogue around this issue. I think there’s an overwhelming sense of loneliness and fear out there about who is going to be there for these men, when they’re old and all alone.”

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