First came penis envy ... Now there's womb envy

Half of all fathers spend less than five minutes a day with their kids. But for childless men the longing to have a baby can be desperate. David Cohen reports on male broodiness

David Cohen
Thursday 15 June 1995 23:02

This is a story about an unfulfilled yearning, an obsession for which no adequate word exists. It begins with a confession in a London pub by a 32-year-old guitarist by the name of Alamin. He is talking intensely, oblivious to the man eavesdropping at the adjacent table. "My desire - it's nothing intellectual - more in the gut, like a wave of emotion that swamps me. There are times when I become overwhelmed by it."

Is Alamin talking about Arsenal? Alcohol? Wrong again. "When I see other people with their babies, it makes me want to love and nurture one of my own. I suppress these feelings because I'm not in a stable relationship, but since I turned 30, I find myself putting the cart before the horse, worrying more about having children than I do about finding the right partner."

Alamin is broody. Very broody. Except broody is a "girl's word". The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary definition is "a hen wishing to incubate eggs" or "a woman wishing to be pregnant". The term, according to some feminists, is derogatory, used to undermine the experience of women who are "afflicted" with an unexplained yearning for babies by equating them with mindless barnyard beasts. Men who share this desire have been parodied in snide articles about the empathy belly, turned into joke figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior. "Womb envy" the pop- psychologists called it.

But is it possible that such views are out of touch and that normal, red-blooded men really can become (for want of a better word) broody? Or is it still simply a case of a handful of men unusually in tune with their maternal, feminine side?

"Feminine side? Nonsense!" exclaims Andrew Samuels, a Jungian analyst. "These men are getting in touch with being male in 1995 Britain. But let's be clear. First, there are not millions of them - yet. Second, there have always been fathers who wanted children. What is new about the broody man is that he wants them in a different way, for different reasons. The old-fashioned father - let us call him Type A - wants children as proof of his status and potency and in order to provide the familial base over which he rules, from a distance. The broody father - Type B - wants children because he looks forward to intimate contact, to playing with them. He is not wanting to be pregnant himself, but he senses that being with children will impact on him directly and change him."

Anthony, 40, a London-based financial consultant and former merchant banker, is a case in point. "Unlike my father, who probably had high hopes that his seed would yield a future England cricketer, my desire for a child is more intimate and sensual," he says. "For years, my wife was disinterested in babies and it was a source of unhappiness to me. Now that she's pregnant," he laughs, "I keep on wanting to sit on top of her in order to hatch her. Her only complaint is that she claims I am more interested in speaking to the baby in her womb than I am to her."

But broody men who are single or gay face a painful problem. Unlike their female counterparts, who can opt to have a baby which they raise as single parents, these men cannot act upon their broodiness. Alamin says that if he fails to find a woman to bear his child, he'll consider paying someone to be the surrogate mother. What is so counter-stereotypical about the broody man is that when he sizes up a prospective partner, he is thinking not of sex, but of whether she is suitable to be the mother of his child.

But what do we really know about "feeling broody"? Is it a biological, emotional or social condition? The popular, but unsubstantiated, belief is that at some point in a woman's life, her ovaries stand up and yell: "What about me?" Spermatozoa just don't seem to have that kind of presence.

In fact, according to Dr Pierre Bouloux, a consultant endocrinologist at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, there is no medical definition of broodiness, nor has any research been undertaken to enlighten us as to what biochemical changes, if any, are experienced in the body - whether male or female. The only evidence he has, which is anecdotal and somewhat tangential, supports the idea that it is the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, that provide the chemical basis for broody behaviour.

"There is a rare condition called testicular feminisation in which individuals are born with the genetic make-up of a male [XY chromosomes], but grow up looking like a female," he explains. "These people lack a key protein which renders them insensitive to their own testosterone. The result is that they develop breasts and even a shallow vagina instead of a penis, but they have no womb and no ovaries and consequently cannot bear children. There are only about 200 such people in the UK, but the fascinating thing is that they are often exceedingly broody. Why? The only biological difference between them and normal men is that they have no testosterone to swamp the female hormones which are present, albeit in small quantities, in every male body. It indicates a link between the female reproductive hormones and broodiness, and suggests that we would expect male broodiness to be much less intense than female broodiness."

But Dr Yehudi Gordon, a London-based consultant obstetrician, believes that the source of broodiness is more primal and less gender-specific. "The conductor of the endocrine orchestra, responsible for the release of the reproductive hormones, is situated in the same primitive part of the brain, namely the pituitary gland, for both males and females. We may be ingrained with a biological drive to reproduce, irrespective of our sex," he says.

Others insist that there is nothing natural about broodiness, but that it is a condition that has been culturally implanted. "Are women that don't feel the urge to have children unnatural? Do they have no hormones? Have they had an operation?" asks Mr Samuels. "If we see the maternal instinct as a potential which women have culturally been encouraged to develop, then it explains why it is only now, when it is socially more acceptable to be a nurturing father, that the broody man is emerging for the first time."

But men are still embarrassed to admit to feeling broody. Most of the men I interviewed were unwilling to have their surnames published, for fear, as one put it, of "collecting a bunch of fives". The paranoia of being branded a paedophile, or of being thought of as effeminate or gay, feeds into the taboo. For men like Phil Taylor, however, managing director of a computer software company in Liverpool, the yearning for children is an obsession that has taken over his life.

Phil, 36, and his wife have been trying for a child for six years, but Phil has a "diabolical" sperm count and although they have tried in vitro fertilisation, they are still childless. "There isn't a day, an hour that goes by when I don't think about children," he says. "The oddest things trigger it off: walking past a school, watching a child who has fallen over running to their daddy for comfort. Everything in the world seems geared towards children. Yesterday, we went shopping at Sainsbury's and there's a whole aisle we can't go down - the one full of nappies and baby food, which spells instant depression. It's ironic. I spent my teenage years desperately trying to avoid getting my girlfriend pregnant. You just expect that when you want children, you'll be able to have them. But my broodiness has not come about because I can't have children. It's that I've come to that point in my life in which that was the natural thing to happen."

Mary-Claire Mason, author of Male Infertility - Men Talking (Routledge), says that the pain experienced by Phil is typical of the rising number of men attending infertility clinics. "The difficult thing for them is that all the emotional support is for the woman and they do not even have a word to express their feelings. One man had terribly sad daydreams for example, in which he watched his imaginary child playing in the garden. These men don't describe themselves as broody, but many of them are desperate for children in the same way as their partners."

Two years ago, Phil and his wife started a support group for infertile couples in their area. "We get about 15 couples at a meeting but it is always the women sharing their feelings in one room and the men watching telly in the other," says Phil. "It's pathetic. Many of us men can't sleep, can't concentrate. Our businesses have suffered, we're stressed out, but no one will risk being laughed at, so it all remains unsaid."

Back in the pub, Alamin talks about missed opportunities for children with all the passion of a Match of the Day post-mortem. "Did I tell you about the nearest I got to having a child?" he says. "It was last year, my girlfriend was late for her period. We both knew she might be pregnant and it was like, oh my God, what about my income, will our relationship work, where will we live and all the time this voice inside me was going, 'I don't care - I'm going to be a father!' She went for a pregnancy test

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