It was when Connor awoke in the middle of the night, to go to the toilet, that he began to think about it. He was a 38-year-old London civil servant. I thought, Shit, it might not be possible to have children. He says it might not happen.
I started thinking about how I wanted to buy a home. After I bought the house, I began to worry about how much I would need to save to get married. When will I be able afford to get married, buy a house, and have children? I think it will be in my 40s. I began to worry about the quality of my eggs and sperm by that time. What if there is a problem with the child? Then I thought, Oh no! What if my girlfriend and I don't get along? In a few years, I'll find myself in a worse situation.
It sounds exhausting, I think. Connor laughs but it is clear that he is very worried. I have always believed that children are the purpose of life. That night, I thought my life would be so empty, and I would feel so unhappy if it didn't work out.
The biological clock is often associated with women. However, the growing popularity of the hair transplant industry and apps like Hims, which offer drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and other health concerns, has made it more relevant for men. Venture capitalists have backed a number of sperm-freezing tech startups to address this growing anxiety. The US companies Legacy and Dadi offer home sperm collection kits, which users can return to the company for analysis and storage. YoSperm offers at-home testing to determine sperm quality, motility, and quantity.
It's not surprising that men feel anxious. There have been many stories over the years about a decline in sperm counts, often tied to fashion trends such as cycling and skinny jeans. Reports have suggested that western men's average sperm count has more than doubled over the last 40 years. These numbers have not been undisputed, but they are certain to have contributed to male fertility fears.
Three years ago, Connor visited his GP in order to discuss sperm freeze. He said that although I didn't have to think about it at the moment, she suggested that if I were in the same position at 45, I would. It is something I will seriously consider if I am still without children at 40. Connor says that although it is not easy to see, sperm from younger people tends to be more healthy.
Men can feel the desire to be a father slowly or all at once. Rosanna, Connor's girlfriend, first told him that he was becoming a father two years ago. He was thrilled, even though the pregnancy wasn't planned.
Rosanna miscarried just before her 12-week scan. It was a devastating experience that I didn't expect, Connor said. It was a very difficult time. It was a very difficult time. Rosanna and Connor have decided to wait until they are financially stable and emotionally ready before trying again. Waiting can be dangerous. He explains that I am afraid I will leave it too late to be able have them all or that something might not be right with the child.
Connor's fears may not be completely unfounded. Children born to 45-year-old men have a greater risk of having premature babies, seizures, low birthweight, and being admitted into neonatal intensive. Although there is no conclusive evidence, data suggests that babies born to older fathers are at greater risk for autism. Age also affects male fertility: Although men don't experience menopause the same as women, researchers identify the age range of 35-40 as the age at which sperm counts tend to decline.
As soon as sperm counts start to decline, it is a slow decline, according to Dr Laura Dodge, an assistant professor in reproductive biology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston. She was the leader of a groundbreaking study on the male biological clock in 2017. Dodge jokes. It was why I began to investigate it. You often hear that infertility affects women who are pregnant. However, I was curious to know how much men are contributing to the problem.
Dodge and her colleagues analyzed the records of 19,000 IVF couples. After six rounds of IVF, 75% of IVF-treated couples would experience a live birth. The figure fell to 60% for men 45 years and older. This could be due to declining testosterone levels and DNA damage, which all of us experience as we age. Dodge warns fathers who are certain they want to become fathers to not get complacent. Dodge states that it is important to recognize the fact that fertility decreases over time.
Illustration: Steven Gregor
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that women should have children between 20 and 35 years of age. The risk of miscarriage, birth defects, and other complications associated with childbirth increases if a woman has babies before the age of 35. Men are not affected by the same risk. While sperm quality decreases with age, males can still have children. Just ask Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty, or Rupert Murdoch.
However, just because men are biologically able to have children later in life does not mean that they are immune to the social pressures of parenthood and aging. Many men reach their 40s in their 30s and are faced with the realization that they may not be able to become fathers. This could be due to financial and work constraints, fertility issues, or the fact that they have never met the right person.
Adam, a 51 year-old Midlands teacher, said that he doesn't forget about the fact that he has never been married or had children. Panic has set in after his last relationship ended eight year ago. He sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe. It's not a worry, it's real. It's over. He says that there is a good chance that this won't happen. Friends won't even look you in your eyes and tell you otherwise.
Adam works in a male-dominated environment where women have children. Although it is hard to believe, you hate when other people bring their children into work. Adams' colleagues mistakenly believe that Adams chose to have children. They don't get it right. He says, "You cover it up." It's easy to pretend you aren't bothered.
Worse, people will make ignorant remarks about how fortunate men are to be able to have children into old age. People say things like "Look at Charlie Chaplin," Adam (Chaplin was 73 when he had his child). What does that even mean? Is it possible to have children if you are medically capable? I want to have meaningful children. To dismiss it with the statement: You can biologically have children so its okay, is upsetting.
While becoming a father was not something that many men thought about in the past, it has become more common for them to do so. According to Dr Kevin Shafer (a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah and an expert on parenting and fatherhood), men are more inclined to want children than ever before. They see more emotional value in having children and identify more strongly with the father's role.
Social dynamics are changing and this is what drives the desire to have children. Shafer says that the paternal role used to be more about being a disciplinarian and breadwinner than it was about being involved in caring for children. Shafer believes this is changing and men are more comfortable being identified as fathers.
However, this shift towards conscious fatherhood is not without its challenges. Jonathan Kirk, 38, a Manchester-based healthcare worker, admits that he has an internal conflict. He's been married to his partner for 13 year and is ambivalent about having children. He says that time is running out and he's not sure if he wants to have children. Kirk says he doesn't want to have children unless he is certain he wants them. However, he fears that this could be a regrettable decision. He says that it's harder to have kids while working full-time and raising them. You are more likely to develop health problems and it is harder to cope with sleepless nights. Is it possible to do this so late in life? You also want a happy and long-lasting retirement.
You can have children even if your 50s are not the best time to do it. This is especially true if you're a gay man looking to save for surrogacy. The cost of commercial surrogacy in the USA starts at $100,000 (76,000). Duncan Roy, a Whitstable property consultant aged 61, is from Kent. Many of his gay friends younger than him are saving hard to afford surrogates. He says it is one of the greatest fears for gay men in his community. How will I make enough money to pay for a surrogate. How will I be able afford it? He has seen men with maxed-out credit cards who pay for surrogates.
Roy wishes he had thought about having children when he grew up. Roy said that he regrets not being encouraged to fatherhood in the same way as heterosexual men. It's too late now. He says he doesn't want to be like the 60-year-olds who have to bring up a child.
Men I have spoken to are engaged in daily, exhausting mental math. They evaluate their relationships and assess whether they can last. They worry about their finances and whether they will ever be able afford children. With each new baby announcement from a friend or family member, they worry more. They are always thinking. These sums are often done in silence. It is difficult to talk openly about the male biological clock when women have more difficulty.
Adam hopes that this silence will change. He says he would like to see men recognized for more than just being sperm donors. Children are something we take seriously, and those feelings are strong when we talk about wanting to have children.
Some names have been changed