They want fatherhood and they want it now. Hester Lacey on the new breed of broody men
Lingering by the racks of adorable miniature clothes in Mothercare, cooing over friends' children, secretly choosing names for an infant as yet unconceived... it's a woman's thing, isn't it? No, says John, 34, a manager whose wife has made it clear that, at the moment, her career is her priority. "I would love to have a child. I want it more than anything. But my wife has to want it, too - I can't force her into it."

John's friends can't understand it: he would rather be taking a John junior or a baby Jane to the park than playing football or going to the pub. "I've felt for a few years that I've had enough of ladding about; I want to move on to the next stage. I suppose this is my biological clock kicking in."

Broody men are less thin on the ground than you might imagine. Tough luck on Julia Carling, 31, ex-wife of former England rugby captain Will Carling, also 31. Last month, she said she no longer expects to have children as she does not want to be an "older mother".

While her unfulfilled biological clock ticks on, Carling, 31, last week professed himself "delighted" at the pregnancy of his newish girlfriend, 28-year-old Ali Cockayne. The Carlings were supposed to be planning a family when they split; it seems once men get the urge for kiddies, you just can't hold a good man down.

Journalist Liam, 35, says the desire for a child feels like a "basic instinct" - for men as well as women." I've always known I wanted children, but the moment has never been right. Then, recently, I went to a friend's baby's christening to be a godfather, and that really reminded me of how I felt.

"Over the past couple of years, a lot of my mates have started having kids - but I need someone to have them with. I'm driven because I don't like the idea of being the 60-year-old father of a 20-year-old. My folks were in their forties when they had me and I'd rather be a father younger than that."

He believes that his family background has made him receptive to the notion of children. "I've always been around kids. I'm the youngest of three, and my older brother had his first child when I was nine. Then my sister followed on. I was changing nappies when I was 10."

Peter Stanford, the Catholic writer and broadcaster, 35, was similarly keen. "When I was a child I desperately wanted a younger brother - someone to look after. I always loved being with small children and I would look at fathers and think 'That's what I want to be' in the same way that other teenagers look at footballers or the local stud." He was delighted when his son, Kit, now four months old, was born. "It's a hundred times better than I thought it would be. He's wonderful. I don't think it was a biological clock exactly that made me so eager, but it was the male equivalent - the sense that I didn't want to be an 'old' father. I'm relatively old as it is, and I want to be able to run along beaches and go riding with him. I wouldn't want to be a pensioner dad."

He believes that male and female urges coincide rather neatly. "Women have their biological clocks, and men have their own kind of clocks. I meet a lot of men who yearn for children. There are a lot of 'maternal' males around; it used to be embarrassing to admit it, but people are a lot more open now. All those silly taboos about macho-ness are going. You'll still find me billing and cooing over other peoples' babies - prams, cots, I love it all." And, he adds, there is also a spiritual dimension. "In your thirties, you become much more aware of death and mortality, and you strive for your own bit of immortality by having children."

The so-called biological clock, says Real Life's Dr Amanda Kirby, is mostly a question of environmental conditioning and psychology. "If a lot of your friends are having babies, then that will influence you to want one too. And if you have made a decision that you want to have one, that decision is very strong - you want to ensure you can do it. It's the fear of not being able to that pushes one on. But for women there is an actual clock ticking - a physical time limit. Women's fertility declines over 35, whereas men can go on having babies for years."

But while women are more susceptible to this "biological clock" effect, there are other imperatives for men. While caring for babies is not seen as a masculine occupation, siring them certainly is. "One component of traditional masculinity is that a man must have children," says John Archer, professor of psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. "It's always possible, in theory, for men to have vast numbers of children, but for women there's a definite limit. Despotic rulers used to prove their virility in harems; the emperor Moulay, who ruled over early Morocco, is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most children, all fathered on women who were held captive by eunuchs." And how many would that be? "In the region of eight or nine hundred. I think the moral is that when men can do it, they will."

Few these days would consider themselves clever if their family ran into hundreds. But Mick Cooper, lecturer in counselling at Brighton University and co-author of The MANual - The Complete Man's Guide to Life (Thorsons, pounds 7.99) agrees that, for a lot of men, the desire to have children is linked to male identity. "Having progeny to show the world contributes to self- worth. Infertility can really hit male self-esteem hard."

He believes that Nineties Man is more child-oriented than his predecessors in every way." As women become more independent and more career-focused, men are becoming more broody. Showing their nurturing side is less embarrassing." He thinks this is beneficial all round. "Fatherhood offers men a chance to express a side that they've hidden. Men often reach an age when they have achieved at work, done well, but feel that there must be something more."

But what if their partners don't agree? As many as 20 per cent of young women are claiming that they don't intend to have children.

Peter Stanford finds the notion unthinkable. "I was much broodier than my wife, but she always wanted to have children eventually. The subject always came up early on in relationships - usually brought up by me!"

Liam intends to hold out grimly. "I have got a very idealised view of how things should be and I want to wait for the right time and do everything perfectly."

John says nervously, "I'm sure that in a few years she will have changed her mind and I will be a dad. I just wish it could be sooner rather than later."

Gavin Hastings OBE, 35, rugby star, whose baby Adam Robert was born in October 1996. Before the birth, he could hardly wait: 'I'm going to be a great dad! Hey, I'm a new man. I can try out this nappy business!'

Pierce Brosnan, 44, actor, whose baby Dylan Thomas Brosnan by his second wife, Keely, was born earlier this year: 'There was quietly in my own heart a desire to be a father again, but I didn't tell this to Keely, since I didn't think she had any intention of having a baby. Then, suddenly, she was pregnant - and it is glorious.'