LONDON: In the Hugh Grant vehicle, About a Boy, a man with no children pays a call on friends who have two. Hilarity, of a sort, ensues.
He winces at their unfreedom and infant-soiled upholstery. They press him to leave what he calls his “island” for the “mainland”. In a film that makes botched efforts at poignancy, these few minutes of ostensible lightness might be the saddest.
Between Grant and the other man is an unbridgeable rift in lifestyles and sensibilities, clunkily dramatised by the one’s modish epaulettes and the other’s woollen tank-top. You are watching a fraternal estrangement.
Pop culture tells us that parenthood is the Great Divider among male friends. So does common sense.Not one of life’s family men, I braced for the triage as I cleared 30, when fathers and non-fathers enter cordial, sometimes intersecting but ultimately separate worlds.
Interests start to diverge. Disposable incomes, too. Monthly nights out become twice yearly. One side leaves the city as the other dives deeper into its treasures.
At some point, the asymmetries are too much to reconcile and each sect hunkers into a monoculture with its own kind.
I am still waiting. Among the sweeter discoveries of my thirties has been the empirical falsification of all of the above. Fatherhood is not an automatic breaker of bonds. At worst, it is a stress test: friendships that were waning anyway perish almost overnight if one party starts a family.
But the relationships that survive this audit actually become more, not less, intimate. And for a reason that should have been plain all along.
MORE EXOTIC TO THE OTHER
The asymmetries, it turns out, are the point. They make each side more exotic to the other. To a father of young children, the childless man is an emissary to the outside world, smuggling him stories of freedom like contraband.
Even I, a lightweight carouser, a 1am Uber-hailer, am Keith Moon next to these captives of hearth and home, with their price-gouging nannies, their once-in-a-blue-moon date nights.
If the bachelor’s usefulness only went as far as vicarious hedonism, it would make for the thinnest of friendships, not to say the tawdriest. But he also has confessional duties to perform.
Fathers confide things to their childless brethren that are unsayable to other fathers, never mind to the mothers of their children. These include — I have agonised over the wording here — their precise degree of enthusiasm for the life they have chosen.
To the childless man, the father is no less a portal into another world. It is one of structure, routine and kitchens that are not just auxiliary wine cellars. Consistent domesticity would break me.
Flitting in and out of it at a friend’s invitation is a minor joy. A family home is a wonderful place if you know you can leave.
As for the divergence of interests, something nearer the opposite has panned out. It is natural to assume from the blood-marbled eyeballs that the default state of parenthood is fatigue. From what I can see, it is boredom.
Unless they have produced a Mozart or John Stuart Mill, Greek-literate at three, parents must wait the better part of two decades to be stimulated by their offspring. The burdens of care also put paid to theatre visits and late-night reading.
The mistake is to assume they give up on intellectual life. Some become all the more ravenous for the stuff. They derive more from each novel, film and holiday, exactly because these pleasures are now rationed. The suburban book club is not just a pretext for affairs.
Far from shedding old interests, fathers will often develop entirely new ones as a gesture of independence. It can be derisory (“I’m really getting into my whisky”) but it can also be the making of them. The richest conversations I have are with men I had backed to be child-smitten monomaniacs by now.
Whether anything I have written is as true of motherhood and female friendships, only women can report. Perhaps the initial dread of estrangement is not so acute.
Perhaps the eventual reality is not so benign. Readers are welcome to testify one way or the other. It is all I can do to relate the male experience, and cherish it.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.