‘I’m scared I’ve left it too late to have kids’: the men haunted by their biological clocks

It was when Connor woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom that he started thinking about it. The 38-year-old civil servant from London got back into bed and couldn’t sleep: he was spiralling. “I thought: ‘Shit, I might not be able to have children. It actually might not happen,’” he says.

“It started with me thinking about how I’m looking to buy a house, and everything is happening too late in my life,” Connor says. “Then I started worrying about how long it would take me to save again to get married, after I buy the house. I was doing the maths on that – when will I be able to afford to be married, own a house and start having kids? Probably in my 40s. Then I started freaking out about what the quality of my sperm will be like by then. What if something’s wrong with the child? And then I thought, oh no, what if me and my girlfriend don’t work out? I’ll be in an even worse scenario in a few years.”

That sounds exhausting, I say. Connor laughs, but it’s clear he is seriously worried. “I’ve always maintained the perspective that if you say that children are the meaning of life, you’re putting your problems on someone else,” He says. “But that night I kept thinking my life would be so empty and I would be so unsatisfied if it didn’t work out.”

We typically associate the so-called biological clock with women, but, thanks to a wider commodification of men’s health anxieties – the booming hair transplant industry, apps such as Hims that offer drugs for erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation – the male biological clock is becoming ever more relevant. A number of sperm-freezing tech startups backed by venture capitalists have responded to the growing anxiety. In the US, the companies Legacy and Dadi offer at-home sperm collection kits that users can return for analysis and storage, while YoSperm provides at-home testing to analyse sperm quality and motility.

It’s not surprising that men are anxious: over the last few years there have been a spate of stories about the decline in sperm count, often linked to trends like cycling or skinny jeans – with reports that the average sperm counts of western men have more than halved over the past 40 years. While these figures have been contested, they have doubtless contributed to fears around male fertility.

Three years ago, Connor visited his GP to discuss sperm freezing. “She said I didn’t need to think about it at the time,” he says, “but if I was in the same situation at 45, then I would. As it stands, I think it’s something I’ll seriously look at if I’m still childless at 40.” He would do so for health reasons. “Obviously it’s not clearcut,” says Connor, “but the idea is that sperm from a younger person tends to be healthier.”

The desire to become a father can creep up on men slowly, and then all at once. Connor first heard his biological clock ticking when his girlfriend, Rosanna, told him she was pregnant two years ago. Although the pregnancy hadn’t been planned, he was overjoyed.

Rosanna miscarried before her 12-week scan. “It gutted me in a way that I hadn’t expected,” Connor says. “I really grieved. The experience totally crystallised for me how much I wanted kids.” Since the miscarriage, Connor hasn’t been able to stop worrying that children may never happen for him. He and Rosanna have agreed it is best to wait until they are more financially settled, and she is emotionally ready, before trying again. But the waiting game poses its own risks. “I’m scared I’ll leave it too late and not be able to have them at all, or that something won’t be right with the child, and I’ll blame myself for it,” he explains.

Connor’s fears aren’t entirely baseless. Children born to men aged 45 and above have a higher risk of premature birth, seizures, low birth weight and being admitted to neonatal intensive care. There is also data linking an increased risk of autism with babies born to older fathers, although the evidence is not conclusive. Male fertility also decreases with age: although men don’t experience a menopause in the same way as women, researchers pinpoint the 35-40 age bracket as the point at which sperm counts typically deteriorate.

Once sperm count starts to drop, “it’s a steady decline”, says Dr Laura Dodge, an assistant professor of reproductive biology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. In 2017, she led a world-first study into the male biological clock. “It’s the one area in health where men have been neglected!” Dodge jokes. “That’s why I started looking into it. As a woman of childbearing age, you often hear that infertility is the woman’s problem. But I was curious – how much are men contributing towards the issue?”

Dodge and her colleagues studied the records of 19,000 couples who had undergone IVF. They found that 75% of couples where the man was aged under 35 would have a live birth after six rounds of IVF. This figure dropped to 60% when the man was 45 or older. This may be due to declining testosterone levels, as well as DNA damage that happens to all of us as we age. Dodge advises men who know they want to be fathers not to get complacent. “It’s something to be aware of, in the same way that women are aware their fertility declines with time,” Dodge says.

Illustration: Steven Gregor for the Guardian.
Illustration: Steven Gregor

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the optimal age for female childbearing is 20 to 35. Having babies after the age of 35 increases the risk of miscarriage, birth defects and other birth-related complications for women. The same doesn’t exactly apply for men. Although sperm quality declines with age, men can and do father children well into old age – just ask Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty or Rupert Murdoch.

But just because men are biologically capable of having children later in life, it doesn’t mean they are immune from the wider social pressures around parenthood and ageing. Many men hit their late 30s and 40s and struggle with the realisation that they may never become fathers, whether due to financial or work constraints, fertility issues related to them or their partner, or because they never found the right person to settle down with.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the fact that I’ve never married and had children,” says Adam, a 51-year-old teacher from the Midlands. His last relationship ended eight years ago and panic has begun to set in. Sometimes he wakes in the night and can’t breathe. “I think: ‘This isn’t just a worry: it’s real. It’s finished. The chances are, this isn’t going to happen,” he says. “And friends won’t look you in the eye and tell you otherwise.”

Adam works in a female-heavy environment, where women often have babies. “It’s horrible to admit this, but you dread it when people bring their babies into work,” he says. “You skulk out of the way and busy yourself elsewhere.” Adam’s colleagues often mistakenly assume that his childlessness was a choice. He doesn’t correct them. “You cover it up,” he says. “You pretend you’re not bothered, like it was all part of the plan … but it’s always there, and it haunts me, if I’m being honest.”

Worse is when people make flippant remarks about how “lucky” men are for theoretically being able to father children into old age. “People make comments like: ‘Look at Charlie Chaplin,’” says Adam (Chaplin fathered a child at the age of 73). “I think, what on earth does that mean? Someone famous was medically able to have children at a certain age, and that means I’m OK to have children? I want to have children in a meaningful way … And to just dismiss it by saying: ‘Well, you can biologically have children, so it’s OK,’ is upsetting.”

Whereas for earlier generations of men, becoming a parent was perhaps not something much thought about or considered, recent years have seen a broader cultural shift towards a more active, hands-on model of fatherhood. “Men are more likely to want to have kids than in the past,” says Dr Kevin Shafer, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University in Utah, and an expert in parenting and fatherhood. “They’re seeing more emotional value in having kids, and identifying more strongly with the paternal role.”

This desire to have children is driven by shifting social dynamics. “Until recently, the paternal role was more about breadwinning and being a disciplinarian than being emotionally involved or engaged in care-giving … men are becoming more engaged with those roles, and so their identification with becoming a father increases,” says Shafer.

But with this move towards conscious fatherhood comes doubt. “I’ve got a bit of an internal conflict,” says Jonathan Kirk, 38, who works in healthcare and lives in Manchester. He has been with his partner for 13 years, and they’re both ambivalent about having kids. “Time is running out a little bit and I’m not really sure,” he says. “And I don’t want to have kids unless I’m 100% sure I want them.” Kirk isn’t sure he’d want to be an older parent, although he worries that this is a decision he may one day come to regret. “I know that the older you are, the harder it is to raise kids and work full time,” he says. “You’re more likely to have health problems, and it’s harder to deal with the sleepless nights. Can you do that so much later in life? Along with wanting to have a long and happy retirement?”

Even if you are willing to have children in your 40s or 50s, there is no guarantee it will happen, particularly if you are a gay man trying to save up for a surrogate – US commercial surrogacy starts at around $100,000 (£76,000). Duncan Roy is a 61-year-old property consultant from Whitstable, Kent. Many of his younger gay friends are ferociously saving up to pay for surrogates. “It’s one of the biggest anxieties for young gay men in my community,” he says. “How am I going to earn enough money for a surrogate? Will I ever be able to afford it?” He knows men who have maxed out credit cards paying for surrogates.

Roy himself wishes he’d considered having children when he was younger. “I feel sad that fatherhood wasn’t encouraged for me in the same way it is for heterosexual men,” Roy says. But it’s too late for him now. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who are bringing up a baby at 60,” he says.

The men I speak with are involved in a constant, exhausting daily mental arithmetic. They look at their existing relationships, and try to assess whether they’ll go the distance. They worry about their financial commitments, and if they’ll ever be able to afford to have children. They fret more with each passing birthday, with each friend or family member announcing a new baby. They are always calculating. But these sums are usually done in silence – it’s hard to speak openly about the male biological clock in a society where women are perceived to have a tougher time of things.

Adam wishes this silence would change. “I would like to see greater awareness that men aren’t just sperm donors,” he says. “We do think really seriously about kids, and when we’re talking about the desire to have children, those feelings are really strong for me.”

Some names have been changed

The Guardian

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