What Are You Doing To A Man When You Call Him A Good Provider?

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 Mark Greene believes that when you call a man a provider, he is at risk for leaving the intimate daily emotional life of the family.

Lisa Hickey, CEO of the Good Men Project put it this way in a recent discussion: “We are at a tipping point in the conversations about men. Men are able to tell stories now that they could not have told even just a few years ago.”

The conversation about men is accelerating exponentially. It is happening, in large part, because of groundbreaking dialogues that were born in the women’s rights movement. Women’s rights dialogues have normalized the following idea: that men and women should consciously self-reflect about our idea of self, but also about the social and cultural contexts from which these ideas emerge. And if, in a culture of haves and have nots, we view ourselves as oppressed by virtue of our class, gender, race, religion, or economic status, this process of self-reflection encourages us to better understand our own complicity in the systems of oppression. If we are subjugated, it comes in part through the stories and ideas we have unknowingly internalized.

For generations now, the women’s movement has focused on awakening these kind of internal dialogues in women within the context of a male dominated society. In asking women to examine their internal dialogues, the women’s movement has awoken a more universal view of social justice in women and  successfully driven increasing legal and institutional parity for women and other disempowered groups.

As women and minorities continue to make progress towards parity, men are only just now publicly confronting the restrictive culturally imposed expectations that have come to be known as the Man Box.

This movement toward universal equality is a good thing. Decency and justice requires nothing less of us. Yet, even as women and minorities continue to make progress towards parity, men are only just now publicly confronting the brutally restrictive culturally imposed expectations that have come to be known as the Man Box.

The Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is, particularly in American culture. A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. This “real man”, as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity.

One value, central to the Man Box, is the expectation that men are to earn money and support their families. While seemingly benign, this expectation is rooted in a time when only men could be employed and therefore only men wielded the economic power in the home. Accordingly, what the Man Box offered was simple. “Do what you are told on the factory floor, be the undisputed king in your home.” Men, by retaining control of their family’s economic survival, held vast amounts of authority within the family structure; authority which often resulted in the brutal oppression of their wives and children. It was the devil’s bargain of economic power for American men; a devil’s bargain that is fading away as women become increasingly economically independent. But the ghost of it remains.

Men’s cultural conditioning is such that much of our self-worth comes from being able to earn and spend money and provide that money to those who depend on us.

First and foremost, men are expected to be good providers. Our parent’s generation expects it of us, the family courts expect it of us, women on first dates often expect it, and in the event of an early death, our life insurance policies pre-suppose it. The simple mechanics of being a good provider excludes men from a number of other spaces which, not coincidentally, are reserved for women. What more, as they aspire to switch traditional breadwinner roles with men in our evolving economy, even highly successful professional women collapse into the expectation that men are supposed to provide. And the cultural contradictions go on and on.

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Woman’s Work in the New Century
Imagine a woman saying the following: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my husband works.” This is universally accepted as a valid expression of gender for women. Although it is challenging to maintain a single income household given the economic pressures of modern life, the idea of a stay at home mom is encouraged, even heartwarming.

Now picture a man saying: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my wife works.” And let’s be clear. For the purposes of this example, the man is not saying this because of some external factor. He is not unemployed or laid off. He is not on a lower paying career path than his wife. He is simply saying that he wants to be a full time parent to his children, and he wants his wife to pay the bills so that he can stay in the home and raise them. This is what he wants.

Many tasks, done by a women are called nurturing, while tasks done by men are called providing. It is this languaging about men that positions them as emotionally reserved in the family structure.

This image generates a significant degree of cognitive dissonance, even for a fully engaged parent like myself. Men’s cultural conditioning is such that much of our self-worth comes from being able to earn and spend money and provide that money to those who depend on us. It starts with buying dinner on the first date and ends with putting money down on a mortgage for the family home. This economic validation is the hook that lures men into the provider role. In part, because it does not require learning to validate self through emotional connections; connections which boys and men in America are traditionally not taught to create. (See: Touch Isolation: Insisting Boys Learn Independence Creates an Isolating Trap for Men. )

The more money men generate, the more access we get to status and social standing both inside and outside the home. And the implications of this for gender conformity are huge. Why? Because the workplace is a space that typically requires a very high degree of masculine conformity.  It is a narrow constrictive box for men. And it is a box which is often mirrored by our social construction of men’s roles in the home.

New York City couple and family therapist Dr. Saliha Bava notes, “What is important is how we gender language around parenting. Many tasks, done by a women are called nurturing, while tasks done by men are called providing. The nuance of these language choices clearly places the women in closer and more intimate connection to the child. It is this languaging about men that positions them as emotionally reserved in the family structure. If the man is viewed as providing and problem solving, he is valued for his activities but not his emotional connection. For many men, these activities represent their form of emotional connection. Accordingly, we have gendered the performance of emotional connection and expression.”

Men as providers are, by definition, uninvited from the more intimate daily emotional life of the family, by virtue of our work life elsewhere (absence) and the dominant cultural definition of our role in the home. If men do not self reflect and choose another path, we have little choice but to seek validation in our role as a provider. Which, when men’s work life falters, can leave us with little or no role on which to base our identity or self esteem. This is why unemployment is so catastrophic for men. Because not only is it a huge threat economically, for many men it is also the end of our primary mode of emotional expression.

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The Devil’s Bargain is Broken
Meanwhile, over the last twenty years, work has become increasingly elusive for millions of men. As our economy is driven to the brink over and over by events ranging from the dot com collapse, 9-11, the real estate bubble and the banking collapse of 2008, solid middle class jobs have fled overseas leaving men increasingly challenged to function as single or even dual heads of households.

If the world is run by men, and if the Man Box represents their devil’s bargain of economic power for men, then clearly America’s elites, as embodied by our banks, governments and corporations, have so savaged our economic structure that there is no longer a devil’s bargain to be made. Even as women have moved into the workplace, the guarantee of work for men has declined. The result is both a huge challenge for men and a huge opportunity. Because, although the devil’s bargain of the Man Box may have, at one time, granted economic power to men, it continues to come with a terrible price of isolating and punishing conformity. In the Man Box, men live lives that are often deeply self-alienating.

It is by participating in the small daily moments with our children that men are finding the vibrant emotional connection which has traditionally been denied them.

The good news? The Man Box is breaking down because the traditional 9-5 working world is breaking down. For better or worse, many men are no longer are forced to present a rigidly normative front in the workplace or at home. And energies that were once used to maintain a rigidly normative working identity to the world can now be used to pursue innovative and adaptive ways to earn and live. This is where vast new opportunities for emotional expression and connection are emerging, especially when men shift away from the conformity enforcing world of the traditional office and closer to the daily emotional life of the home. By participating in more of the small daily moments with our children, men are finding the vibrant emotional connection which has traditionally been denied them.

An unprecedented national conversation about male aspirations is happening. The self reflection and cultural deconstruction that the women’s movement helped normalize is now taking place in the lives of men at an accelerating rate. When men confront the Man Box by expressing gender differently, choosing to be full time parents, seeking job satisfaction over compensation, expressing their emotions as sadness, grief or fear, long-hidden internalized narratives rise up to suppress their exploration of change. And it is in these moments that the expanding global conversation about men can give men courage to press on.

But we must all be conscious of the power of our archaic internal dialogues. Of how they weave themselves through our public discourses and our unspoken expectations of each other. Good provider? Think it over.

What are you doing to a man when you call him a good provider? Are you normalizing and reinforcing the Man Box paradigm of a man who sacrifices his emotional expression and hidden aspirations to insure a steady stream of revenue for his family? Are you relegating him to some space outside the daily emotional sphere of the family and by extension, depriving the family of crucial male emotional modeling and connection? The image of armies of suited working men, marching in lock step toward the corner office and the company car is not so far from the truth, even now. But the millions of men simply no longer aspire to that. They want fuller richer emotional lives. Lives that key on something other than the cold narrative of provider.

The conversation for men is shifting the a single central question: what do men actually aspire to? And, do we as a culture value a wider ranging expression of manhood? Can we encourage and value men as nurturers, as uncertain explorers and seekers of their own emotions? Will men be encouraged to express in ways typically defined as non-normative, both publicly and privately, socially and sexually?  These are questions that simply weren’t spoken of just a few years ago. As men take on the uniquely male version of self reflection, we do so, from the widest possible range of ideological frameworks. Our goal is the create a new, diverse, and wide ranging view of masculinity. From within which men can choose our own identities and paths forward out of the Man Box and into the world.

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Ask yourself. What are men in your life expected to provide?

Clarity and confidence <————-> Emotionalism

Singular clear direction <————-> Wide ranging exploration

Spiritual leadership <————-> Religious inquiry

Economic power <————-> Economic interdependence with others

Gender clarity <————-> Gender exploration

Assertiveness <————-> Negotiation

Dominance <————-> Cooperation

Providing <—————> Nurturing

Remaking-Manhood-small

Available now via iTunes 

Good Men Project Executive Editor Mark Greene’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views.

Remaking Manhood, a collection of Mark’s most popular articles on politics, culture, relationships, family and parenting, is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement. Greene interweaves his own deeply personal stories with a salient and powerful deconstruction of manhood in America.

 

 

Read more by Mark Greene:

The Man Box: Why Men Police and Punish
“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”

Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men of Touch

Boys and Self-Loathing: The Conversations That Never Took Place

Our Society’s Brutal Economic Message to Straight Men About Expressing Gender Differently: You’d Better Not…

The Dark Side of Women’s Requests of Progressive Men

Follow Mark Greene on Twitter: 


Photo by 401(K) 2013

 

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About Mark Greene

Good Men Project Executive Editor Mark Greene’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views.
Click here to purchase Mark's new book, REMAKING MANHOOD, for iPad, iPhone and iBooks on Macintosh. Remaking Manhood, is a collection of Mark's most popular articles on politics, culture, relationships, family and parenting. Mark interweaves his own deeply personal stories with a salient and powerful deconstruction of manhood in America. It is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement.

Comments

  1. Excellent piece Mark – particularly liked the focus on the language framing this issue, and that you were able to acknowledge how both sets of roles interact.

  2. Wonderfully thought-provoking article, Mr. Greene! I am a woman who LOVES the Good Men Project. Y’all are doing great work here.

  3. You know? I’m in my 40s. Was brought up by fairly conservative parents in the most conservative state in the union. When I look back at my life you’d think I’d have the most restrictive “man box” of all. BUT- although there are some general tendancies that relate, no part of my upbringing or experience was anywhere NEAR this black/white. If the perfectly dichotomous “man box” didnt exist in the ways you describe it in my life or the lives of the boys around me- where DID it exist?

    As far as what do you do to a man when you call him a “good provider?” You’re complimenting him for being successful in one of the diverse roles he plays.

    • Mark Greene says:

      The man box may be a good fit for you. In which case it would be relatively invisible to you. The full range of masculinity is an expansion of male roles but will always include that space defined as existing within the box. The box is not inherently wrong unless it serves to restrict alternatives.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      CW, I’m beginning to think that maybe you and I are related. Given that I use my actual name, I would have thought that at some point that if you are related, you would have said something to me. So I guess we’re not.

      It’s interesting that many of these articles are from a man’s perspective, shedding light upon that which men can greatly benefit in their evolving roles as men, husbands and fathers (grandpa’s too). But when I speak to the many women I work with, I have yet found a women who is comfortable with a man making a statement “I want to stay at home with the kids.” At the very least, these women are okay with “shared” parenting where the mom and dad share responsibilities equally.

      Which brings me to something else that came to mind when reading the article. For decades now, women have been well advised, says many, to make sure they are financially independent. In the event their relationship goes south, they have a self sustaining backup plan that will give them financial independence. With the evolution of dads staying home with the kids while mom works her career, I really haven’t heard the same advice given to men who may very well end up in the similar circumstances. We don’t have any tracking that gives us even a sampling as to how men shake out in these break-ups.

      Are we setting men up for yet another fall?

      In so far as “provider?” I have never seen myself in any limited box that says my being a provider has to do with material or monetary boundaries.

    • Kip Robisch says:

      I think there’s a difference between a personal experience of the “man box” and a macro observation of its use in a culture. During our time, if a man said he wanted to stay home with the kids while his wife worked, he’d have been seen as some perverted combination of Hugh Hefner and someone in arrested development. That’s true enough, yes? I also think there’s a difference between a man *being* a good provider in a cooperative arrangement that gives the people in a relationship what they both want, and expecting men to be good providers as some kind of gauge of their success. That’s not a compliment–that’s a box. I see that as Mark’s point.

  4. It’s good to get more men into a broader range of jobs inside and out of the home but it does come with a cost in the U.S and that appears to be less sex for the men when they do more traditionally female chores.

    “A February paper in the American Sociological Review reported that married couples in which men take on a greater share of the dishes, laundry and other traditionally female chores had sex less often than average, which in this study was about five times a month. Yet couples in which men confined themselves largely to traditionally male chores such as yard work enjoyed sex more frequently than average. Taken to the extreme, men who performed all the traditionally female chores would have had sex 1.6 times less often than men who did none of them.”

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=men-who-do-housework-have-less-sex

    Anecdotally, most women I have known that have discussed men’s roles have wanted him to be breadwinner, and she be the SAHM. There are a lot of issues to battle through to get SAHD’s respected as much as SAHM’s.

    http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2753-dating-unemployed-men-women.html
    “Of the 925 single women surveyed, 75 percent said they’d have a problem with dating someone without a job. Only 4 percent of respondents asked whether they would go out with an unemployed man answered “of course.”, yet “19 percent of men said they had no reservations and 46 percent of men said they were positive they would date an unemployed woman.”

    So yet again there is another stigma of men who aren’t traditionally employed, this may differ for single SAHD’s but quite frankly I doubt it. Everything I’ve ever learned from women has been that a man has to have a job, and single parents without jobs both cop huge stigma as “dole bludgers” here in Aus. I’ve heard often of married men who are treated with less respect when they do the SAHD role.

  5. Thanks Mark for sharing. From what I have seen men are now the one’s seemingly being the target of jokes and even attack etc on the media/ TV shows, etc. Some of it we brought on ourselves. If you do look at all the world’s problems to date – economic, political, martial etc – guess who started/led/fans them? We men do

    I think you rightly share we need to find our voice and present what is best about men whilst encouraging and empowering men to discover what it means to be a man in today’s world. That insight will be different for each man yet it will help the common cause to improve our understanding and interdependency.

    • Thanks Richard. We should all work for the expansion of options for men. That is, more diverse ways to perform manhood. It would be hypocritical to argue for the rejection of current or typical forms of expression, as long as they are not abusive. If you like how things are, live that way. The problem is when people are attacked for expressing manhood in non-normative ways, it is an attack on all of us. And the very next question for all men should be, if you stand by and let others be attacked for how they live, will you be next? Because no man is completely normative.

  6. Yes, being a stay-at-home mom is more accepted than being a stay-at-home-dad. However, having a mother who sometimes worked various jobs and sometimes was simply home with us, and hearing the kind of things people said to her when she was a stay-at-home-mom, even being a stay-at-home-mom is still a hurdle where people believe it’s a less worth while job than being in an office job of some kind. I agree that this is even a harder role for men to take on in society. But it’s not all peaches and heartwarming comments for women in this regard either. There is sometimes a general lack of respect for those who are “stay-at-homers”.

    In the Bible, men are told to love their wives and women are told to respect their husbands. This isn’t because men are not suppose to respect their wives and women are not to love their husbands though. It simply addresses the unique way men and women relate to each other.
    I must completely agree with CW’s post (well done CW) that when you call a man a “ “good provider” you’re complimenting him for being successful in one of the diverse roles he plays. Certainly, men should not only be define through their abilities to “provide”. A good provider alone doesn’t make the man. But to suggest that simply saying a man is a good provider limits him in other ways is like saying that because you compliment your wife or partner and say she is sexy, that she also isn’t intelligent.

    CW, thanks for bringing that point up because I was on the same track as you. But I’m glad you as a man said it.

    • There is a reason why the Bible comes up in your comments. The Bible is a central source for what is normative. Possibly, THE central source. When you rely on primary normative sources for how you view the world you tend to be comfortable with other normative frames like the man box. This does not mean you do not see other value in men. I simply means that your lead frames are more likely located within the man box.

      • Mark, I ask that you read my comments again. I said that men certainly should not only be defined through their abilities to provide. I also saida good provider alone doesn’t make the man.
        But I also don’t think calling a man a “good provider” limits him unless that is the *only* quality a person values him for.

        As for the Bible, The Bible came up in my comments because it’s a part of *my* life and it’s something I believe represents the truth of the world. As far as the Bible being “normative” now-a-days? We could certainly debate that considering any mention of the Bible often has people putting you into a box themselves. Even as they are attempting to argue against “boxes”.

        You will not find a person on this planet that is not influenced by their life experiences, thoughts, beliefs, upbringing, emotional relationships, religion or lack of religious beliefs and a heck of a lot more factors. I hope you take a look at every other person who responded and also tell them why you believe they came to their own conclusions as well. Otherwise, you are singling me out for something that applies to every singe one of us depending on all those factors I mentioned.

        Yes, lets recognize the million of other roles men play in relationships and champion them for it. Lets also recognize that “provider” is one of many legitimate roles. And there are men who identify with being a “provider” not because society told them to but because they take pride in providing for their families.

        Unfortunately, there are a lot of men out there that choose to walk away from their families, their kids, and not provide any financial help. I wonder how that factors into this discussion.

        • Hi again, Erin. Let me try and be clear here. When I talk about the man box, I am saying it is the normative and dominant view of American manhood. The problem arises not when men choose to identify with that way of being, it is when men and women begin presenting it as the only correct way to perform manhood. Those outside the box are often bullied and policed to conform to the man box’s particular view of how men should behave.
          Like the man box, provider is a perfectly legitimate role for men. Unless it is becomes a frame by which society restricts men from other roles that do not directly line up with earning money.
          As for men who walk away from their families, they are no less irresponsible than women who walk away from their families.

          • Mark:
            IN yours and Erins conversation I would see it thusly:
            It’s not complimenting of men who are good providers that is the issue so much as the exclusion of men who are failing at being good providers from being seen as “good men” that is the problem.

            I recently lost my ass in the recession and have been forced to work low-pay retail jobs where I had been a middle manager before.

            The issue is the lack of alternate avenues for men.

            I would also say to Erin that calling a man a good provider isn’t like calling a woman sexy. It’s like calling a woman “a good cook”. It’s a pat on the head for what you consider correct behavior.

  7. What you are saying is that he is just an appliance or ATM. That his only value is what he
    can provide for others.

    • I am most certainly not saying men’s only value is to provide. What I am saying is that if provider is central to how we tend to view men, we will create a culture in which many men are forced to play a role that does not fulfill the full range of their aspirations. But it is all relative to how they want to live. Some men, like CW above, seem to be quite comfortable with the cultural expectations that define the man box. Others, far less so. But it is our collective choice to make the man box the only acceptable performance of manhood. Many of us are simply refusing to have that choice forced on us. Because the man box is just one way to be a man among a vast range of possibilities.

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