Like many boys who came of age in the 1980s, I learned that men show their care for others with action. Like generations before me, I was taught to take care of the people in my life, particularly women, by paying for dates, killing bugs that got in the house, being the primary breadwinner, and solving their problems. Caring was defined by doing.
The fathers I had—my biological father, who was out of the house by the time I turned 7 and out of my life shortly after I turned 13, and my stepfather, who was in my life from about age 10 but never felt it was his place to try to be my father—both endorsed this model. From my stepfather’s relationship with my mother, I know he lived this model. (At least with my mother; I don’t know about his prior marriage.)
Raised on TV shows like The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, and The Cosby Show (as a teen), that was how it was. Sure, Robert Brady, Ward Cleaver, and Cliff Huxtable were around, played with their kids, and could be trusted to deliver a moral lesson from time to time. Cliff was more involved than either of the other two, going so far as to change diapers (offscreen) and being emotionally engaged with his kids.
Like many men of my generation, I want to be involved in my daughter’s life in a way that’s different from how my dads were involved—or, really, not involved in my emotional life.
* * *
Gary Barker is the International Director of Promundo, an organization that engages men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. They have offices in Brazil, the US, and Rwanda.
I heard Barker speak at the American Men’s Studies Association’s 2013 conference, where he talked about some of the work they do. They have begun to focus heavily on the transformative power of fatherhood, as he describes in this TED talk.
“Fatherhood is hugely important for most guys, regardless of whatever else they’ve achieved—or not achieved—in their lives.”
Fatherhood is hugely important for most guys, regardless of whatever else they’ve achieved—or not achieved—in their lives. Men, especially new fathers, are insanely proud of their kids and their kids’ accomplishments; proud papa is not an empty cliché.
Perhaps more importantly, becoming a father, whether the result of a planned pregnancy, an “accident,” a formal adoption, or a (semi-)spontaneous decision to take in a niece or nephew, is one of the few points during men’s lives that causes them to stop and think about their lives as a whole. It prompts them to think about the big picture and how all the pieces go together. It often prompts a desire to change that has more staying power than the typical New Year’s resolution.
* * *
Barker and the folks at Promundo have started talking to men and, perhaps more importantly, listening to men when they talk about what it means to them to be a dad. For many of them, especially guys that might otherwise seem to be “struggling” because they have little education, poor job prospects, or have a history of gang involvement, fatherhood can become a central point of their life, something to re-organize their life around. At the extreme, it can become the stabilizing factor in their life. (And we can talk later about how that might impact the child.)
Barker and his staff have been struck by how little these men know about taking care of a child. They’ve also learned that many of these men don’t really know how to take care of themselves. Sure, they know they should eat right, but they often don’t have good details about that. And they know they should go to the ER if their arm is about to fall off, but they don’t know where the “day to day” aches and pains become doctor-worthy.
Once they start spending time with their young children, they also learn about responding to their kids’ emotional needs. Young children share their feelings—love, excitement, fear, sadness— freely. But most guys don’t, and they soon realize they don’t really know how to respond to their kids’ feelings even though they very much want to.
* * *
Barker says part of the key to helping men become better fathers is to also teach them how to take better care of themselves. Or maybe taking better care of themselves is the result of learning to be better fathers. Or instead of a straight line where A causes B or B causes A, maybe they both change together, each pushing the other along.
In the US, more men die from 14 of the top 15 killers than women, a statistical pattern that includes biological males from 11 to 79 years old. (The exception? Alzheimer’s.) Some of the biggest reasons for this differential are related to men’s relationships with doctors. Or rather, their lack of such a relationship. Compared to women, men are less likely to have an annual checkup and less likely to visit a doctor when they don’t feel well. When they do go, they often show up with more severe symptoms (because they’ve waited longer) and they’re less likely to follow the doctor’s directions after they leave the office. No wonder American men die 7 years younger than women, on average (although it varies by ethnic group).
That was certainly how I grew up. I can’t remember going to the doctor’s office as a teen living at home, and because I wasn’t a high school athlete, I didn’t even need an annual sports physical. Nor do I remember going to a doctor during my 20s, even though I had insurance and a good job. Cost was not the issue.
At some point, especially after I started doing research on men in my early 30s, I realized that I needed to practice what I preached and start having an annual checkup. I’ll admit that my doctor here in North Carolina was initially puzzled when I first arrived in his office as a healthy adult who wanted an annual checkup. He seems surprised every year when I come back for another checkup.
* * *
I certainly grew up with men who didn’t express their feelings. Neither of the men who served as my father did. I knew expressing my feelings were a girl thing and thus something to avoid. University of Akron researcher Ron Levant goes so far to argue that emotional non-expression is a normative part of growing up male. He argues that teaching boys to suppress their feelings, both loving and self-loathing, stunts their emotional growth and has a long-term impact on their mental health.
Even though I’ve long been empathic and was trained as a therapist when I entered my 20s, I wasn’t particularly good at sharing my feelings. I like to think I was better than most guys, but that’s not much of an achievement in its way. It took relationships with several women, some as girlfriends and some as friends, to help me get better at sharing my feelings 1) with others and 2) when they occur. I still have a hard time with it, especially my male friends.
* * *
So what would happen if we got serious about teaching men to be better fathers and started helping them develop those skills during childhood and adolescence, instead of waiting until they became dads? It’d mean we need to give boys chances to watch their younger siblings and even babysit, instead of assuming that they’re not willing and not interested. We adults will need to teach them the relevant skills so they can do a good job, and we’ll also need to accept the possibility that the kids and the house might not be “neat and clean” at the end of babysitting. (But isn’t that the job of the maid, not the babysitter?)
It also means we’ll need to listen to boys when they tell us about their feelings, instead of telling them feelings are girly, mocking them for crying, and teasing them for developing attachments to toys, places, and other people. We’ll also need better role models, like Doug Zeigler who kisses his son in public. In addition to the current generation of dads that’s struggling to figure out how to overcome barriers related to “parenting while male,” we’ll also need a new generation of competent, caring, effective TV dads who can help us all imagine what this version of fatherhood looks like.
This New Year, let’s resolve to give all boys and men the tools they need to become good fathers.