We need to start thinking about manhood differently. And by “we,” I don’t just mean guys—I mean women too. Maybe what’s really going on is more of a role reversal than either men or women realize, or are ready to admit. But denying this reversal won’t help; it can only dig us all deeper into today’s male identity crisis.
Every time I approach major corporations about talking to their employees about what it means to be a good man, they steer me toward their executive women’s group—who, they insist, would be delighted to talk about manhood. When I ask why they don’t have a men’s group, the response is an unsatisfactory combination of legal rules (it could be viewed as illegally discriminatory against women) and pop psychology.
It’s a funny thing about men. We don’t like to complain. In fact, some would say that we don’t really know how to talk about anything other than a box score or stock table. Women have shelf upon shelf of books, and countless magazines devoted to how to juggle conflicting female roles in the modern world. On TV, there’s Oprah, Ellen, and Dr. Phil. Most guys wouldn’t be caught dead watching that stuff, but for many women the magazines, books and TV shows provide a forum to talk through the practical implications of the feminist revolution.
Before I go further, let me say this: I was raised by a mother who burned her bra and who instilled in me the importance of female equality. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to undercut the need for feminism. Women, on average, still do not make as much money as men. Sexual exploitation in the form of pornography and prostitution is a serious problem, and it’s only getting worse. Men control the top spots in politics, corporate America, and entertainment. Much more still needs to be done to rectify these inequalities. But gender politics is not a zero-sum game.
Women have just as much incentive to help guys to figure out the new rules of manhood as men have in supporting women in their quest to overcome the obstacles of overt sexual discrimination.
Many men are in crisis. Most guys I talk to quietly acknowledge that they’re struggling to “do it all.” Sound familiar? That’s what women have faced all along: how to have a career while also being a mom and wife. Well, we want to be more involved as fathers and husbands. But no one has set the workplace bar any lower, so that men have the time they need at home with the family.
Seventy percent of the jobs lost during the most recent recession were held by men. The vast majority of those fighting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are men. Generations of boys are growing up without fathers. Boys are falling behind girls in school. Male incarceration and recidivism rates are higher than ever. Divorce laws in many states are grossly unfair to decent, loving dads who want to play a role in their children’s lives.
In spite of this, the media are still consumed with the old feminist battle cry, to the exclusion of the predicament of boys and men. Maybe guys need to complain more publicly about how hard it is to be a good father and husband, and still bring home the bacon. Maybe we should have our own cable network—not for ultimate fighting or pornography, but for guys to talk about trying to do it all while the wife, kids, and boss expect more than ever.
It’s up to us guys to speak out. Certain stereotypical behaviors are killing us: we don’t like to talk much and when we do, we compartmentalize. Maybe it’s some deeply embedded instinct to leave home and go hunt gone awry. But today’s caveman isn’t faring so well. It’s time to learn how to be the same guy at home as we are at work, to integrate the multiple challenges of male life, and to speak to each other candidly about ourselves, rather than suffering silently.
The most macho thing in the world is to be a loving father. To be a faithful husband. To put food on the table. Even more macho is to come clean about how hard it is to try to try to be all those things at the same time. Women have been doing for fifty years. Now it’s our turn.
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.