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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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Photo by 401(K) 2013