Loving Men: Rethinking Women's Role in Defining Masculinity

*This blog is the transcript from Moe's up and coming TEDx Talk Delivered January 5th. Video available soon.*

I love men. As a heterosexual, CIS gendered, white woman, it has been part of my unconscious legacy to support, befriend, marry, work with, and raise boys and men.

And it’s my love of men that makes me scared for them. I am deeply troubled about the state of men today. This matters because as most of us know, any group can only move ahead as fast as its slowest member. What is real for me is that if men as a social identity group fail to thrive, it will impact all of us. I want to talk today about my own hard learning about what gender equity means in the truest sense.

I (and other women like me) have benefited from the tidal wave of equal rights advocacy and equality of recent decades greatly. Of course, work remains to be done on behalf of women and  I stand in solidarity with and beside all women committed to using the privilege I have as a white woman to advance the status of all women everywhere.

But it feels insidious to me that even as I have marched for and with my sisters and friends and daughter, I have watched men fall silent and behind in crucial and devastating ways.

Men (and the boys who become men) are in trouble, and white men, a group we rarely talk about as a group, dominate these statistics.

Consider these statistics

  • Men die by Suicide 3.5 x the rate of women and in 2016, 7 out of 10 suicides were white men.

  • All but 3 of the 162 mass pubic shootings killing 1,135 innocent victims in the USA in recent years were men ages 20-49 and the vast majority of these were white.

  • Even as drug related mortality rates decline or stay the same for minorities, it is skyrocketing for white men, which they do not want to talk about, Men typically overdose at twice the rate of women. 

  • 2.2 M more women than men enrolled in college in 2017 and worldwide, boys are 50 percent less likely than girls to meet basic proficiency in reading, math, and science. 

  • The wealth gap is increasing faster today for men as lower skilled jobs are replaced by skilled jobs often in what has traditionally been women’s work like nursing, teaching, physical therapy which men are not as inclined to enter.

Vivek Murphy, the USA Attorney General, calls loneliness an epidemic and men suffer disproportionally from it. The notion of manliness has become a confusing and tattered tapestry which affects all boys and men and all of us, at home, and in society.

Jennifer Bossom, a University of Florida gender researcher says, that manhood is something that's hard to earn and easy to lose and that masculinity is in fact more precarious than femininity.  Think about all the expressions and stereotypes and bad jokes out there about “being a man” and “manning up” “boys don’t cry” that perpetuate the image of what being a man has meant for centuries: He can stand alone, and he can take it. He doesn’t cry. He is focused on winning. He makes more money than his partner. He is analytical/rational and not emotional. He is strong, physically and mentally. His family can depend on him. His work is central to his identify. He likes sports. He is heroic.

But when today’s realities are layered onto our legacy beliefs about what it means to be a man, the dynamics get confusing and hard.

For example:

  • As women become primary wage earners it often shakes the identity of men whose internalized belief is that they should be;

  • Men who do jump in to share the load at home often experience a backlash of criticism and teasing in social and work situations that often discourages them from taking paternity leave or being the primary caregiver;

  • Even as emotional intelligence and vulnerability are seen as key attributes for leading and teaming at work and at home, men who cry, who are tender, or who have high emotional sensitivity are shamed everywhere from the playground to the boardroom for being weak;

  • The digital worlds of gaming addiction and curated social identities elevates isolation and loneliness, resulting in more successful suicides and untreated mental health issues in men.

I’ve had front-row seats to these tensions with the men I love. I have watched my sons crave and seek friendship via emotional intimacy with other men only to find it almost impossible.  I have navigated the tensions in our home when my income exceeded my partners and what that meant to his esteem and confidence. I have seen my men struggle with mental health issues and fight back the stigma of seeking help as it represented weakness and failure.  I have seen them face pressures to perform athletically above all else, despite a preference for music or philosophy. I’ve noticed male colleagues at work start leaving the door open when we meet and noticeably say nothing when famous men have been accused and the women they love are filling the streets in protest.  I sat with my husband as he suffered through chemo and battled his inner voices that wanted to refuse any help at all, even as his hair fell out and his immune system shut down.

I like most women have tried to “help.” I’ve used the things I have been trained as a woman to do: care, listen, support, tend, nurture, be compassionate.  These gifts of femininity have both contributed to and reinforced often toxic masculinity, even as I tried to be helpful.

Profoundly, I believe the work of redefining masculinity is for men to do, not women. But in my dark nights of the soul I have asked myself, what is my part in redefining healthy manhood?

First of all, it’s time we (women) stop being the keepers of all emotion. By that I mean that as women, many of us have been trained from a young age by society to be emotionally fluent caretakers.  I have often over-managed the feelings of men, even taking responsibility for them. I have inserted myself into conversations between my children and their Dad (and their step-dad) because I could and because I thought it was my job.  Because I was capable at emotional expression, I overdid it, and still sometimes overdo it. Doing this perpetuates the idea that we women know best how to talk about what men feel and creates a scenario where we become the center of all emotional caretaking, even at work when we act like “work wives.”. For me, this even bridged into the unspoken duties of care in families such as birthday cards and gift giving.  I remember the moment many years ago when my mother-in-law called me to thank me for the roses I sent for her birthday and I told her I hadn’t sent them—her son had. She literally wept with joy at his act, so unexpected after 18 years of me carrying the water. When we expect, ask, and demand that men find ways of owning their own complex feelings and expressing them, their hearts and emotions becomes theirs, which facilitates all kinds of health and well-being. Feeling and expressing their feelings (including non-destructive anger) are emotional intelligence and fluency skills they can and must learn and practice.

Their very lives depend on it.

Another way I have unconsciously fanned the flames of toxic masculinity is by perpetuating the mothering myth. You know the one I mean, the belief that kids need their Mommas and that Dads are nice but not really that integral? I did this as a mother of three by hustling to be the perfect mother, by doing it all instead of allowing their father to actually fully and completely be in the parenting story on his own. I had a thousand excuses. I felt guilty because I worked, and later because I was divorced, and driven by my fear of being an unworthy mother, I tried to be the best mother there ever was on this earth.  A heroine-mother-saint-warrior-creature who made homemade school snacks, extra-curricular activities I scheduled and drove to, a clean house, curated play dates, and healthy meals. As a divorced parent who fought for joint custody (the courts tend to favor women) we all benefited from their Dad having equal primacy with them and equal time. He parented differently than I did, but he did it well. Parenting is messy and not a job for saints and women are not the only ones who can care-take. Until men are seen and treated by all of us as able, competent, caring and attentive caregivers of children and elders, we will never achieve true gender equity.

A third thing I’ve done that diminishes healthy manhood is to mask my own ambition and ability, especially when it came to money. I hid my achievements, and I’ve seen other women do it, too, from the soccer field to the bank.  Making money is an unsavory thing for women to want, to do, and to talk about, so we tend to hide it, even as it is essential to the family’s safety and security. Owning our ambition and our skills gives our daughters permission to work hard and make money and gives our sons permission to not have to singlehandedly support everyone financially on their own.

Lastly, I have unwittingly contributed to a flawed notion of manhood by buying into the belief that I (as a girlfriend, partner, wife, mother) can be everything for the men I love. As good as it feels to be needed, I am not the end-all-be-all for their emotional needs. Men need other men, in much the same way as the last 40+ years of women’s empowerment has underlined how valuable women find communion with other women. When men deepen their friendships beyond the limits of sports bars and athletics, they have access to a whole world of community that enriches and enlivens how they deal life’s hard times.  Studies show that boys demonstrate these kinds of emotionally supportive friendships right up to adolescence when they fall off in frequency and closeness. Men who have other healthy relationships with other men do not need to always turn to the women they know to educate them . Communion with other men fortifies their health and reduces dangerous loneliness and isolation. Men do friendship differently than women do, but real friendships between men matter.

Oh, and by the way, when men develop emotionally rich and intimate friendships with other men they can not only be allies for women, but perhaps even more importantly, they can stand up together against other men when they see men act in toxic ways and they can speak up for healthy manhood.  These men of tomorrow talk about healthy sex not violence, they resolve conflicts instead of bullying, they are brave and vulnerable, they are sometimes afraid, they feel, they want, and they love.

True equity and equality in the realm of gender, means that we go together. If men fail to thrive, feminism and equality also fail. Largely as a result of the feminist movement, I have a solid grasp on my femininity and what it means to be a woman.  I thank my fore bearers for changing the world to benefit me and I pray it continues to improve things for my daughter and yours. For our sons, I hope that we women, can stand in grit and heart and strength as men find their footing with grace. We cannot do this work for men, but we can and must do our part with them. We women have a huge role in the critical work of redefining what it means to be a man today beyond the hard to achieve, brittle, narrow, and limiting definitions of the past.  Where we go, we go together.