All posts by walklikeaman

The Fathering Dilemma

The following is taken from a recent online article about male loneliness:

“We need to recreate institutions that not only encourage fathers to take on the mental load of parenting but also support them to do so. The expectation of fatherhood should not be based on a paycheck and how many hours we work. Financial care giving is certainly important, but so is the bond that we have with our children, our family and our community.

It can be hard to make friends as a man, but we need to step away from our isolated lives and step back into our community. We can do it through volunteering for a local organization, joining a hobby with regular meetups or simply joining a men’s community.. We have to put ourselves out there on a personal level and actively work to make friends.

Men’s lives literally depend on making that connection. This is the truth of the male loneliness epidemic. Right now, it’s the bonds with others that we need more.”

I have no disagreement with the overall issues mentioned. However, as usual, the devil is in the details. Agreed that the expectation of fatherhood should not be solely based on a paycheck. The problem is that many men, especially those with young children and stay at home spouses, feel enormous pressure to earn sufficient income to maintain a decent life style and save for college tuition. Trying to be a supportive father while being dedicated to providing leaves little time for activities in the community or for maintaining old friendships and seeking new ones. If providing is eased by a dual income household it increases the demands on being a supportive father sharing in the necessities of child rearing. 

The articles suggests recreating institutions that encourage and support male friendships.  How can your recreate something that never existed or no longer exists?  The institutions that in previous generations helped men make friends are not congruent with current fathering demands.  Going out with work friends for a beer after a day in the office or on the factory floor used to be a fairly common practice for a man to unwind from work and be in the company of other men. Unfortunately, seeking male companionship after work means missing after school activities and neglecting household chores thereby putting extra burdens on a partner.  Similarly, the traditional male organizations – Elks, VFW, American Legion, etc. – are disappearing because of the changing roles of today’s fathers. In addition, many volunteer fire companies and rescue squads are switching to professionals which diminishes the opportunity for a man to serve his community in that role.  The other suggestion to volunteer for a local organization faces the same problem with time.  Volunteering that is not a family activity means taking time away from supportive fatherhood.  That leaves joining a men’s group that doesn’t take much time from fathering as the only alternative.  Local men’s groups are a great outlet for men to bond and share their life’s journey in the company of other like minded men.  Most men’s groups meet in the evening two or three times a month and the benefits of men’s work is so appreciated by their partners that it  mitigates the loss of time from the family.

Unfortunately there are many communities that do not have men’s groups. All it takes is one individual willing to take on the role of organizer and post the group on meetup  Many churches offer rental space for a non-denomination group to meet for a reasonable fee easing the location obstacle.  The last hurdle, which I have encountered over the many years I have participated in men’s work is to get isolated or busy men to take the initiative to join a group.  Despite the need, many men are trapped in their routines and miss out on the benefits of joining a group.  I believe that increased media coverage on the issues of male loneliness that promotes and highlights men’s groups as an alternative would be extremely helpful in letting men know that there is an answer.

Modeling Matters

I wrote this a number of years ago as an adult to help me understand my relationship with my father and how it impacted my fathering. It was my eulogy at my father’s funeral.

My Father’s Store

            At the time it seemed that I hated every minute I spent there.  But I really hand no choice.   It was either being there or rarely seeing him.  I yearned for his presence and approval and, unlike my father and son fantasy relationship, I was not able to bond with him on the ball fields, the family farm or on backwoods trails.   He simply couldn’t fathom the preadolescent American male obsessions with sports, automobiles, and outdoor adventure.

            This was alien to a man who had spent his youth in a tiny eastern European village in constant fear of starvation and oppression.  His flight to the so-called land of opportunity brought him only temporary respite from the harsh struggle of basic existence.  As he reached his manhood he found his dreams blunted by the responsibility of being the eldest child trying to help his family survive the Great Depression.

            Bearing his scars he married and raised two children to succeed where he had failed.  I, his second born and only son, had a difficult time reconciling this melancholy man working 70 hours a week, his martyrdom in constant view, with the image of the ideal father emerging from the mass media of the fifties.  He wore a tie only on Sundays, never mowed a lawn, couldn’t change the oil in the family car and didn’t know the difference between a defensive end and a quarterback.  His battlefields were not the corporate high rises, the ivy walls of academia or the client filled offices of the struggling professional.  Instead, his south Bronx grocery store became the arena to prove his self worth.

            A thirteen-year-old boy finds nothing heroic in the sight of his father, an apron around his waist, slicing cheese for a demanding housefrau.   But he took enormous pride in his ability to accurately add a column of figures on a brown paper bag faster than an adding machine, or guess the weight of a mound of tub butter before he put it on his scale.  Quoting Talmud or offering a Latin aphorism, remnants of his intense but curtailed parochial school education, he held forth to his customers on politics, current events and religion.  The multi-ethnic working class clientele looked upon him as the neighborhood intellectual – the eccentric and passionate king of his shabby emporium.  This was the world to which I came every Saturday morning.

            His pre-dawn departure for the store was too early for me, so my solo journey became my adventure of the week.  After leaving our apartment building, I would stop at the candy store near the elevated subway station to pick up the latest war comic.  With a “GI Joe” tucked in my back pocket and a long pretzel in my hand, I began the 45 minute trip trying to remember to change trains without losing the continuity of my hero lobbing a grenade into an enemy foxhole.  The reality of where I was would begin to sink in as I walked down the last block before arriving at the store.  My spirits would dampen as I visualized the coming day.

            I suppose that he either ignored my sullen face or simply didn’t notice as I greeted him with the usual query, “How’s business dad?”  As the day progressed, my mood would gradually improve as the rhythm of the store’s activities took hold.  His efforts at intimacy were genuine but tightly constrained by the environment.  He never asked about school or my interests; he expected and got good grades and I suppose he found my passions trivial.  It was understood that schoolwork would always be completed without questions or complaints and that any concern other than making a living or contemplating the meaning of God was self-indulgent and childish.  My successful attempts to master the skills of his work were the stuff that brought his approval.  He loved to show me off to his customers.  “Watch him make change in head.” and “See how he handles the slicing machine.”  were his expressions of parental pride served up to his customers along with their farmer cheese.   I knew it was a form of validation, yet, I was also mortified by his remarks and by the fact that I was indeed trying to perform in order to please him and win his respect.

            I now realize that I missed a great deal.  I was unable to appreciate or fully understand his humanity.  He never uttered a racial slur, refused someone in need who was unable to pay his bill, nor failed to extend a second chance to anyone who had wronged him.  Even the alley dwelling beggar, who played his violin to the taunts of the neighborhood children, was treated with equality when he entered the store to buy his daily meal of saltines, sardines and an orange soda.  Stinking of dried urine, counting out his pennies one at a time from his torn change purse, my father would engage him in conversation and serve him like his most valued customer.

            This Saturday ritual, except for summer reprieves, lasted for several years.  I finally found the courage to break away and stop going.  Simultaneously, the neighborhood deteriorated, supermarkets blossomed and the store was sold.

            My eldest son is now thirteen.  I answer his homework questions, relate to his interests, and acknowledge his athletic accomplishments.  We go to “Giants Stadium” and I play one-on-one with him in our driveway basketball court.  I am a well-educated and successful professional who leaves for work each day in a suit and tie, briefcase in hand; yet I doubt if I do any better, or even as good a job as did my father of setting an example of self-reliance, decency and respect for human dignity.

Richard C. Horowitz, – 1/90 (edited, 10/08)

Man Troubles

Three stories in the media highlight some of the struggles facing the male gender.  One story talked about teenage male apathy. The authors reported that a good number of  teenage boys were adopting stereotypical and somewhat toxic beliefs while the remainder, for the most part, were displaying apathy about their futures and life in general. Neither bodes well for growing into men who navigate life in the best of masculinity. Young men as they mature desperately need guidance in their forming a definition of themselves as men. My suggestion in response is to teach boys about the best of masculinity and how they can be manly while respecting female autonomy.  A curriculum can be developed that should be taught at least in middle school and in high school that speaks to being a man in the positive aspects of masculinity.  I piloted a course based on the archetypes of masculinity with troubled teenage  boys in foster care and the concepts of being a man in the light clearly resonated with them. 

Another recent headline, “Top 16 Reasons Why Older Men Don’t Feel The Need to Socialize As Much As When They Were Younger,” for a story indicating the loss of friendship and socialization among men as they age. The authors highlighted data from a survey that showed a marked decrease in men reporting close friendships over time.  The reasons articulated by survey participants was that the demands of work and family left little time for socializing with friends. My guess is this is particularly true for younger men who are more likely to participate in the nit and gritty of everyday parenting than their fathers who might have felt more comfortable going out for a beer after work because their wives took on the brunt of childcare.  The consequences for men is loneliness and the inability to participate in the unique camaraderie of men sharing their journeys with other men. Men who participate in men’s groups find this a way to connect with other men to build new friendships and receive support and advice from a male perspective.  Female partners of men who participate in these groups often comment that the time their men spent in groups was worth it because of the benefits to their relationship and family life. 

The last story is particularly disheartening because it speaks to the worst of male behavior and feeds the stereotypes of toxic masculinity. The videos of the brawl at a boat dock in Montgomery Alabama went viral and clearly revealed men attempting to seek power by defying several legitimate requests to move their pontoon boat a few feet forward to allow a large tourist boat to dock at its reserved dock space. When a dock worker attempted to move their boat so that the tourist trip passengers could disembark he was attacked by the guys on the pontoon boat. My assumption is that the brawlers were probably uninhibited by excessive alcohol consumption.  Drunkenness seems to fuel a distorted image of boldness leading to defying legitimate authority coupled with physical aggression.  The best of masculinity is rarely displayed when men are drunk.  The self-control that helps a man seek out the best way to solve a problem, and in this case acknowledge a mistake, and behave with dignity, goes out the window with heavy drinking.  The possible silver lining of the video going viral is that men can decry the worst of masculinity and resolve to behave differently.

The message that links these three stories together is that men are in trouble and they face real challenges in their defining their masculinity. 

Cinematic Castration

Frankly, I did not intend to see the Barbie movie nor was I particularly interested in reading about it.  However, my wife sent me several articles criticizing the movie’s portrayal of men. Since this blog is devoted to issues surrounding modern masculinity I felt compelled to see the movie.  I do not intend to review the movie itself.  It is a well made film with decent acting and a high production value but that is not my issue. I want to focus on the hypocrisy of the writers in their double standard relating to stereotypical behaviors of both men and women. 

The women in Barbie Land, to some extent, do exhibit attitudes and beliefs that put women in non-liberated boxes but at the same time the women in Barbie Land hold positions of power – supreme court justices, president, noble prize winner, physicist – contradicting the Barbie vibe that women are vain air heads.  As one film critic writes, “However politically sharp, the gag is an unpleasant reminder of all the profoundly unfunny ways in which this world, with its visible and invisible hands, tries to control women, putting them into little boxes.”

The problem is that the men in the movie are only put in little boxes. In Barbie Land the leading man Ken and his cronies are useless and inept and have zero power or influence. The movie then shifts to the “real world” where women are powerless and the prevailing zeitgeist is patriarchy. The irony is that in this world the men hold all positions of power but they are still portrayed comically – especially in the depiction of the Mattel management team. Along with an insightful new female friend and her daughter Barbie returns to Barbie Land and finds it now taken over by a re-energized Ken and his minions. This is the part of the movie that I found most disturbing.  The takeover is defined entirely with toxic male stereotypes including over the top man caves and Ken’s outlandish outfit. Then there is a ridiculous scene of men fighting each other on the beach for no particular reason other than the trope that men need to be in some form of combat in order to self actualize. 

Of course the newly empowered Barbie returns and overcomes the Kens and forms a new Barbie Land replete with fully formed powerful women. However, the Kens remain in the shadow of male stereotypes with their only motivation being to unleash their sexual desires on the Barbies. Generally speaking I do enjoy good satire. This movie attempts that but in the process uses antiquated stereotypes to deliver its message. Yes, there is still progress to be made in order to achieve gender equality but women have achieved far more gains than the need to overcome Barbiehood.  Furthermore, satirizing old school male stereotypes might make good comedy for female audiences but at the same time it makes masculinity appear to be a negative force that must be tamed in order for women to succeed.  Neutering men is not the best way to achieve gender equality.

Dad For The First Time

The birth of one’s child ranks as one of the most significant events in our lives.  Despite the obvious joys of bringing a new life into the world of your family, the powerful emotions leading to and surrounding the arrival of your child, especially the first one, have the potential of wreaking havoc on a relationship and one’s sense of well being. One particular concern has been expressed to me by a number of men when their wives have become pregnant for the first time.  I have often heard a prospective father say that, “My wife is really into the whole baby thing yet even though I am excited my enthusiasm doesn’t come close to hers.  I am feeling guilty and wonder if there is something wrong with me?”

This question raises some key issues that are foundational for the change in identity from simply husband and wife to husband – father, wife – mother.  To begin with, we need to understand that a woman begins the transition to motherhood before a man.  Once she knows she is pregnant and her body begins to change, her sense of herself also changes.  The baby is totally dependent upon her for its very survival.  She must take good care of herself physically and as the baby grows there is a direct connection between the child and herself as the baby shifts position in her blossoming womb.  She has a number of months before the actual birth to help prepare her and process what is happening to her both physically and emotionally.

Men, on the other hand, are merely observers during the period of pregnancy.  They have no direct childcare responsibilities and are largely relegated to the role of bystander.  No matter how sensitive and responsive a husband is, he still cannot possibly completely empathize with his wife.  Unlike his partner, a man’s emotional transition to the role of father doesn’t really fully begin till the birth of his child.  When a man sees his child being born and holds his baby for the first time the flood of feelings brings an abrupt change in his identity.  Instantaneously he begins to assume the roles of protector and provider often overwhelmed by the sudden change.  Clearly, there is a huge disconnect about becoming a parent before the birth that if not paid attention to can lead to discord and distress. 

To make sure this does not happen with the resultant damage of misunderstandings, hurt feelings and unmet expectations particular attention must be paid to effective communication practices between husband and wife.  The ability to express oneself, be listened to, be validated and to reach consensus on issues requiring planning is basic to good relationships as a couple and as parents. 

In the case of a man’s confusion over his lack of synchronicity with his expectant wife, his ability to express to his wife about what he is experiencing without being stifled by guilt is directly related to his partner’s ability to hear him and acknowledge that what he is feeling is real and difficult for him.  Of course, good communication is a two way street.  A man must also be able to validate the very powerful feelings about motherhood that his wife is going through even though he is not able to share them during the pregnancy. Successful communication before the birth of your child will lay the necessary groundwork for a harmonious resolution to the many challenges of parenting that await you in the future.

Masculinity Gone Too Far

I often blog about the virtues of masculinity but it would be disingenuous of me to avoid instances where certain positive aspects of masculinity can lead to bad outcomes.  I am not speaking about the dark side of masculinity but to masculinity behavior that appears to be more normalized rather than toxic.  The prompt for this blog was a newspaper headline, “Ex-NFL player among 11 deaths caused by FLA., ALA. rip currents.”  Reading further I learned that in addition to the former quarterback, a firefighter and two fathers trying to save their children all drowned. 

It is certainly the best of masculinity that two fathers tried to save their children.  This desire to protect one’s family is worthy of praise.  However, when one reads more of the article we learn that all those who drowned ignored red flag warnings at the beaches indicating unsafe swimming conditions.  What is it that propels a man to defy a clear warning of danger and risk his life and the lives of his children?  Boldness and independence are traits of masculinity yet they can easily lead to excessive risk taking behaviors.  It is one of the essential ironies of masculine behavior that an apparent positive trait can easily prove to be so self-destructive.  The men who drowned drew the conclusion that the warnings were for the timid and that as a bold and independent man they could defy the red flags and hit the surf regardless of the warnings.  Boldness in the face of danger is a feature of  the Warrior archetype of  masculinity which can manifest itself as taking action even in the face of adversity.  However, in order to avoid a tragic mistake the Warrior  needs to be constrained by the King archetype which speaks to thoughtful planning and risk assessment.  I hope men heed the warning that their desire for adventure and risk needs to be modulated by thoughtful planning  in order to avoid unnecessary risk.

Father’s Day of Course

The calendar indicates that today is father’s day. Sounds great that a day exists to allegedly honor fatherhood.  Also, we know that the greeting cards and e cards industries along with other retail businesses that provide gifts benefit greatly from this label on the calendar.  However, I used the word allegedly because I do not believe fatherhood is sufficiently appreciated.

Fathering does matter as I was again reminded by a greeting card I received from my adult daughter.  I quote, “You’re the best DaD a daughter could have.  Thank you, Dad, for inspiring me to take risks and believe in myself.”  Whomever wrote this at the greeting card  company “american greetings” really got it right in highlighting how important fathering is in the life of a child.  For both boys and girls fathers are mostly responsible for children taking risks.  Fathers play with children tends to be more physical.  When done with care, children learn that they can take risks safely and this carries through into adulthood.  Since the quoted greeting card came from my daughter it is important to highlight the importance of fatherhood is to females.  Girls who are un-fathered or poorly fathered are far more likely to become pregnant as teens and more likely to get into unhealthy relationships with men.  The validation by a father is an important ingredient for girls in their journey to lead a productive and healthy life.

I have often blogged and won’t repeat the statistics that support the devastating results of a lack of fathering yet we as a society have seemed to forget how important a father is in the life of a child. Let’s honor fatherhood for the other 364 days a year.

Masculinity Books

I was pleased to see an opinion piece in the Sunday (6/4) edition of the NY Times by Carlos Lozada where he discusses two recent books on masculinity.  Richard V. Reeves book entitled “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling and Josh Hawley, the senior U.S. senator from Missouri, new book, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs. ,” which draws on biblical influences — the stories of Adam, Abraham, David and Solomon in particular — to combat the malaise of American men, so addled by video games and pornography and troubled by depression and drug abuse that they cannot discern their calling. “They have no template,” Hawley worries, “no vision for what it is to be a man.”

Hawley offers no practical ideas what to do about restoring manhood but his statement about no templates and no vision for what it is to be a man does resonate.  In a previous blog I did address Reeves’ suggestions that included holding boys back one year before Kindergarten and encouraging more men to seek HEAL (health, education, administration, literacy) jobs.  However, Reeves does not address why men are avoiding the HEAL jobs and how this can be changed.  In fact, in terms of education, Lozada points out that the percentage of male teachers has actually declined by nine percentage points in the last 25 years.  As a former male elementary school teacher I can attest to the societal perception that teaching is not a manly profession and that the men who choose to be teachers are losers afraid to compete in more lucrative occupations.  This bias about men in education and healthcare, other than physicians, needs structural initiatives to bring change.  Several countries where educators are treated with greater prestige and respect attract more men into teaching.  Increasing teacher pay and autonomy would go a long way in encouraging more men into the profession.  In addition, career education has not had sufficient attention in school curriculums.  If young men were taught about how teachers and health care workers demonstrate the best of masculinity these jobs may become more appealing. I have frequently blogged about the archetypes of masculinity and how men can be empowered by expressing the archetypes in the light.  For example, the lover archetype which in the light speaks to compassion and connection traits that are fundamental attributes of HEAL jobs.  In fact maybe we do have a template for restoring non-toxic pride in masculinity. Let’s refrain from gender neutrality which harms both men and women and instead applaud the virtues of masculinity in the light and the benefits that accrue for both men and society at large.

Is Machismo a Dirty Word?

I’ll start with the dictionary definition of machismo.  Merriman Webster’s definition, “a strong sense of masculine pride an exaggerated masculinity,”  followed by these  synonyms, “macho, manhood, manliness, masculinity, virility.”  The problem is with the two definitions. The first one, a strong sense of masculine pride, is not a negative connotation of machismo. The issue is how a man expresses his masculine pride – manhood, manliness, virility.  The shadow of masculinity is exaggerated masculinity or what has become synonymous with toxic masculinity or misogyny. Yes, there exists a backlash to the feminist movement towards gender equality that a small minority of men have used as a rationale for toxic behavior. However,  the vast majority of men are not toxic but are struggling to feel proud of being a man. The irony is that if a woman said she was proud to be a women she would not be accused of toxic femininity – if that even exists.  How then can a man be prideful of his masculinity without it being at the expense of female domination. This is especially important for boys and younger men who are clearly struggling with their identity and worth. In addition, middle aged men who have lost their way due to job losses in manufacturing with the subsequent consequences of suicide and opioid addiction have lost their pride in being a man. 

So, other than being a sperm donor, how else can a boy/man feel pride in their masculinity?  One example is fathering.  Given the grim statistics of the impact of a lack of fathering has on both boys and girls –71% of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. Nearly 25 million children live without their biological father. 60% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes- men need to step up fully to the responsibility of being an involved father and appreciate how valuable they are to the welfare of their children.  Another aspect of manliness that can be a source of pride is strength.  When expressed in the light a man’s strength or character is his resolve to overcome obstacles, sacrifice for the welfare of others, protect one’s family and provide for one’s family. 

For those men who have been left behind by automation, globalization and a loss of pride in blue collar work we need government and industry support in re-training and vocational education that will again offer a pathway to a middle class life for non-college educated men.  If these men can earn a decent living and regain their self respect they are less likely to fall into the cadre of men in despair.

There are numerous examples of macho men who live their lives in the best of masculinity without apologizing for being a man. Let’s recognize these men as appropriate role models for boys and men.  Again I will repeat my mantra, we do not have to be gender neutral to be gender equal. 

Men & Women In The Media

I will admit to watching the Netflix series Cobra Kai.  Any fan of the Karate Kid movies will enjoy binging the show as good escapist fare.  What I did want to highlight is that the male characters, both good guys and bad guys, occasionally cry.  I find this significant evidence that we are no longer giving boys and men the message that it is not masculine to cry.  Too many male apologists, female journalists and authors perpetuate the trope that we teach boys not to cry and they therefore wind up suppressing their emotional lives to their detriment. This stereotype of masculinity might have had merit in the past but there are countless examples of male behavior in the media with a contrary message.

Another personal irritant is the way men are generally portrayed in various television advertisements.  We are often made out to be lazy, sloppy and inept needing female intervention to clean up a mess, correct a mistake or to motivate a man to achieve a goal.  A recent example is a life insurance commercial where, after a couple found out an acquaintance had passed away, the wife inquired of her husband whether or not he had purchased life insurance.  He hemmed and hawed and admitted he had not. She then assertively told him about how to obtain life insurance that was affordable and pretty much told him to go buy it or else.  Another commercial depicted a couple on a vacation trip unloading their kayaks from the roof of the car.  She asks him for the life jackets and he responds that they do not have them.  He states that it was her responsibility to pack them.  She counters that it was his. Magically, an individual appears with a laptop showing a video replay of what occurred in their household before they started on the trip.  Sure enough, on the video he states that he will pack the life jackets.  She was correct and he blew it presumably ruining their kayaking vacation.  There are many other examples of male malfeasance or nonfeasance in the media and I ask my readers to comment on them on the blog website.

On the other extreme I have also noticed men in roles that appear to portray men that just doesn’t seem realistic.   An example is a commercial with a man with a baby in his front pack singing and dancing around the kitchen praising a product.  Give me a break.   I have no issue with a man carrying his child in a front back but dancing around in domestic ecstasy just doesn’t fit.  Other examples of men praising a particular brand of laundry detergent while smelling clothes with a blissful smile is a ridiculous portrayal of a man doing household shores and frankly is also insulting to a women who gets her rocks off by smelling clothes coming out of the dryer.

I would really appreciate seeing men and women portrayed in a more realistic fashion that respects the best of masculinity and also respects women. A great example would be a commercial where a man and a women are having a discussion over a needed decision or disagreement with both parties listening to each other with respect and with the couple coming up with a compromise that both can agree with little resentment.