What If Men Were Mothers, Too?

Let’s ditch this identity based on dubious ideas about genetics, and define all parental relationships as active bonds of care.

by Ruby Russell

“Are you sure you don’t want kids?” I ask the man in my bed one morning. I’m not asking for me; this isn’t a question of our future compatibility. In satiated intimacy, faces close enough to touch and too close to look at one another, we’re deliberating what constitutes a life well-lived. On his Tinder profile, he says he loves children but doesn’t want any of his own.

We’re the same age: 40. He’s thoughtful, self-aware — feminist even. But I’m suspicious of the way he’s stepping out of the scrum of biologically desperate women, as so many men his age do, enjoying their social and professional peak only later to surprise themselves by falling for a younger woman and finding they do want families, after all. (Some probably are genuinely surprised. No one else is.)

“Yeah,” he tells me, “I just never felt that need to pass on my genes.”

His genes! From where I’m standing — lying, our limbs laced so I can feel his smooth skin and hard muscle from every angle — he’d make excellent breeding stock. But that wasn’t what I was talking about.

What does my relationship with my daughter have to do with genes?

There’s a lengthy report in the New York Times that opens with the story of a Choice Mother of two who used the same privately arranged sperm donor twice. She wasn’t the only one. This guy used multiple sperm banks and online networks to father, by his own admission, some 250 children. Some of those investigating his activity think the real number could be anything up to 1,000. The article quotes mothers who are campaigning to have him stopped, but he hasn’t broken any law. Two met by chance and saw an uncanny likeness between their children. The ethical worry is unwitting incest.

I’m two-thirds down the page when a phrase he’s used to describe himself — “a musical Viking” — recalls a conversation with my friend Lisa and makes my chest tighten.

Does Lisa know? I don’t think so. I hope she knows. I pick up my phone — but what will I say? Are you sitting down?? — and find myself calling my friend Johanna instead. Johanna doesn’t know Lisa. But she doesn’t think this is such a big deal: “I assume she’s been let down by men before, right?” Also: “Most half- siblings share less than 20% of their chromosomes” and “at least he didn’t rape anyone,” she offers, making a favorable comparison with Genghis Khan, who ravaged his way to fore-fathering millions “and that seems to have worked out OK.”

Just a Viking then, not a Mongolian warlord? Still, when I do get Lisa on the phone, I fumble for words and she has to coax it out of me. She doubts this has anything to do with her. Until I read out his name.

Lisa lets out a long sound between a squeal and a moan, an extended vowel that doesn’t quite resolve into the “u” in f*ck or the “o” in oh or God or no! But this is not the sound of someone who has just been dealt a life- altering blow. “F*ck!” she finally manages. “Jesus! This is why vasectomies — like, a woman just cannot make 100 babies!” The audacity. “Maybe I’ll be upset later,” she wonders.

Is it terrible for her daughter to have hundreds of genetic siblings?

“You know what it really points to? That there is a need not being met. If reproductive services were properly funded you wouldn’t have to make these dodgy private deals,” she concludes solidly.

I hadn’t thought of it like that.

To mother is far more intimate and involved. To father is a biological act over in seconds.

“Listen, if I went through all that expensive treatment, like people do, like some of these women in the article did, I would be pissed as hell. But I got it cheap off the internet, you know? Like, if you buy something on eBay, you take a risk. And I got my baby. She’s perfect. I didn’t get scammed. I didn’t get an STD. I got my baby. And just this morning, I was looking at photos of M when she was tiny, cradled in her brother’s arms, and I was thinking, this was the best intentional — you know, really intentional — decision I ever made.”

I feel a fool. Lisa precisely gauged the whole operation so her family’s well-being would be in no way dependent on the man who fathered her child. The mothers in the article feel cheated. Their children being part of some vast, shadowy constellation with one man at its center is unnerving. But Lisa and I struggle to pinpoint exactly what she should be wounded or raging over.

She oscillates between calling the Viking a jackass, a psycho, and sympathizing with him having his name and picture splashed across the press. “Bless his little heart,” she says. “And bless his balls.”

Two hundred children. A thousand children. I know what Lisa means about vasectomies. Surely there should be some limit. Nature doesn’t impose one, and culture, convention, law, and social mores all failed in this case. It makes you want to reach for the scissors. But what does it actually mean to father 100 children? Obviously it meant something to this particular — narcissist? An undercover Genghis Khan conquering the human genome by stealth?

But really, as I realized on the phone to Lisa, it doesn’t amount to much. It merely diminishes the verb. Father is a verb we rarely see outside of cold historical accounting: “He fathered a dozen children by native women during his time in Rhodesia,” perhaps. To mother is far more intimate and involved. To father is a biological act over in seconds. To mother is, as Rachel Cusk says, A Life’s Work.

Mother to rhyme with smother. A cloying, female thing, even when done by a male: to mother doesn’t have to involve biology. In an excess of femininity, you might mother a boyfriend or a dog. To father is a binary operation: you either fathered this child or you didn’t. You can be a good or bad father but cannot father well or poorly. You can father too many or too few, but you cannot father too much or too little. Mothering is messier. To father is a bald act of creation. To mother is to spoil that which has been fathered.

Let men be mothers, too, and define all parental relationships as active bonds of care.

I’m on a date, sort of. Stella and I are eating from big steaming bowls at a vegan Vietnamese round the corner from her building. Max is currently living with her and will be waiting when we come in from our meal. We’ll all climb into her enormous bed together, for sex, or maybe we’ll just watch the House of Cards season finale.

But dinner, as ever, is just us two. Stella’s son, X, is 11 and loves his school. If we moved into her building, she urges, my daughter could go there too, the kids could walk there together. We both regret that our children have no siblings, but this is the closest we’re likely to get to doing much about it.

Stella says motherhood never felt natural to her. She never felt fully female, not properly made for such womanly work. If she went back, she says, and was told that she could only have X if first she went through five more pregnancies and births, she would do it, she would do anything, even toil to raise six kids, to make this person whom she loves so completely. But if instead she were told X would still exist, she could still have him in her life, without having to bring him into the world herself, without being anyone’s mother at all — she’d grab the chance.

“So, no more then,” I say.

“No more. I mean, I would love another child — I would do it like a shot — if this time, I could be the father.” She fixes me with a pout and raised eyebrow.

“Don’t even,” I laugh.

Now, I have a better idea: why not just abolish fatherhood altogether? Let’s ditch this amorphous identity based on dubious ideas about genetics, class, property and rights over other human beings; let men be mothers too and define all parental relationships as active bonds of care.

Adapted from Doing It All: The Social Power of Single Motherhood by Ruby Russell. Copyright © 2024. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.