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Sonless Fathers

by Hugh Joughin

Is not having sons still an issue for a 21st century male? Hugh Joughin asked around.

Father & son. It conjures up all sorts of images. Some real, some imaginary, some nostalgic, and some downright corny. This article started out as a general study of the topic of sonless fathers. I am not a journalist however, so didn’t know what to expect or even how to approach the subject.

Having two girls myself (and not having any more children thanks to modern, stitch-free technology), I wondered whether it would become purely my story in disguise.

However, the more I talked to fathers, and the more I read, the more I realized that subtle feelings of loss and disappointment exist. It’s not overt usually, but it’s there nevertheless.

Historically, clans depended on sons to continue lineage. Some Asian cultures with family size restrictions can be seen to value sons over daughters. It was noted in several publications I read that son preference still exists quite strongly in East and South East countries (China, India and Korea).

There are only so many boys to go around however. What exactly do men do with their feelings when biology dictates that they won’t ever have a son, and gender bias is not tolerated ? For some men, it appears that there is nowhere really to turn.

Years ago, long before I had my kids, I remember reading with mild amusement in Matthew Ridges biography “Take no prisoners” about his reaction when his wife Sally gave birth to their second child, their first one being a girl.

“When Sally had Boston [a boy]… I did…I lost it…because I really wanted a boy. I really, really wanted a boy”. I thought at the time ‘Excuse me ? You’re not allowed to think like that, let alone state it in print’. Ridge has been known to be somewhat outspoken at times, and he is a household name in New Zealand (mostly), so maybe this explains his candour.

In the book, Ridge continues with the usual qualifying clichés, explaining that he would quite naturally be delighted with another girl.

Fellow rugby league star Andrew Ettingshausen, “the face of rugby league in the ‘90’s” is father to four girls. These two sportsmen played arguably the most physical game of them all, in arguably the toughest competition in the world.

The very peak of macho male sporting endeavour. It would be interesting to get Ettingshausen’s thoughts straight after each birth.

In “Fatherhood Reclaimed (The making of the modern father)” Adrienne Burgess states “A real man can declare ‘I want a son’, but is not often heard to say ‘I’d like a baby’. He must rely on his partner for the expression of these unmanly words and perhaps, even, of this unmanly thought” (Page 109).

It’s hard these days for any man with three girls already and a baby on the way to feel comfortable saying “I’m desperate to have a boy this time” or “I want a son badly”.

It’s not terribly well accepted.

A recent copy of a big selling woman’s magazine even ran a major story about Australian celebrity “crocodile hunter” couple Steve & Terri Irwin. They also have one daughter, and are not shy about their desire to have a boy next time around.

The feature story went into great length about Terri’s intricate “boy diet” along with the usual pregnancy theories designed to increase the chances of giving birth to a boy. Full moon, spinach only on Thursdays at precisely 2.15 p.m. and definitely no blue top milk. Steve was on call 24/7 to do the deed at exactly the right time. Will it all work? We will wait and see.

There has been a lot written about Fathers and Daughters. A quick look at the library shelves indicates that not much of it is about the subject of sonless fathers however.

We have recollections of women down the ages talking about their fathers (heavy on the nostalgia usually), books about how special that father-daughter relationship really is (and how to strengthen it even further), as well as a plethora of ‘manuals’ about how to raise healthy and confident girls.

There is also some material on teenage fathers and inmate fathers, quite a bit about step fathers and immigrant fathers, and quite a lot about absentee fathers, fatherless sons, solo fathers, custodial fathers, older fathers, and the importance of fathers generally. Overwhelmingly, the literature focuses squarely on the parent (or father)/child relationship.

One study of expectant fathers, which appears in “Fathers Son & Daughters, exploring fatherhood, renewing the bond”, uncovered seven major fears for new dads: queasiness with the actual birth process, impending increased responsibility, medical attention for mother that excluded the father, uncertain paternity (am I really the biological father?), death of mother or baby, thoughts of being “replaced” by baby, and the fathers general role in life after baby.

Concerns about gender preference didn’t feature in the survey results at all.

Going the extra mile for this article, I talked to twenty fathers on the street one day. For the sake of my informal survey, they all had to have at least two girls in their family, no boys, and had to have finished reproducing. Most were a bit cagey, but a lot of the dads felt exactly like Ridge to differing degrees. Some really wanted a boy (and preferably more than one).

A few took it for granted while growing up that they would have boys of their own one day, particularly the men who had brothers themselves. Others felt initial disappointment immediately after the birth, when the gender was confirmed, but said this quickly vanished as the whole birth moment took over.

Two boys and a girl seemed like the ideal amongst the blokes. Boston gets a brother, and there’s a girl to satisfy mum’s craving for a daughter.

Grant and Denise, for example, are in their mid- thirties, and have just given birth to their 3rd girl (and are having no more). Grant had some gut feeling throughout the pregnancy that the unborn child was a girl, so was not unduly surprised. He mentioned many positives, most of which were repeated by other fathers I talked to, such as

    Familiarity with girls, so felt more confident around baby.

    A perception that girls are more successful at school

    Earlier speech and language development of girls

    Less gender pressure on girls (“girls can do anything” attitude)

One of Grant’s more interesting comments, was that having girls could potentially free up more time for himself later on. The assumption I got from this was that male offspring and male parents inherently have more in common, so will spend more time together.

Without prompting, he also mentioned that his brother had sons, so the clan name was safe for another generation. Men do still think about these things in 2003!

It was actually Denise who asked Grant if he was disappointed that the baby wasn’t a boy. A loaded question if ever there was one! There was a feeling from her that she hadn’t provided a boy for Grant.

That was her disappointment, but it wasn’t shared by him.

Maybe this is my story. My mother gave birth to three boys. My mother’s only sister (my aunty) gave birth to four boys. My mother’s only brother (my uncle) fathered three girls! I often had this feeling that he never quite got over the fact that, among all those boys sitting around the Christmas dinner table, none of them bore his set of chromosomes.

I can’t help thinking that we are so used to “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative” that this can cloud our real heartfelt emotions, however ugly they may be. My wife warned me that our daughters might read this article one day, and object to its contents.

I immediately recalled a night earlier in the year when I asked her how she would have felt if she had given birth to two boys. Quick as lightning she replied emphatically, “Absolutely devastated.”

So how do I feel about not having a son? Tough Question! I know my feelings became a lot more acute after I had my vasectomy – it’s so permanent. My girls are amazing kids, and there is a gap there for sure, and a sense of loss at times.

I think I owe it to myself and my family to acknowledge those feelings in order to be the very best Dad I can be.

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