Curing Manhood?

A few months ago, I attended a continuing education seminar for psychologists on men and grief. At one point in the discussion, the instructor commented, “If you think of manhood as a sickness that needs to be cured, you need to work on that.” With that one sentence, he gave voice to an uneasiness that I had been feeling in our discussions all day. Despite their biological sex or gender, those of us working as therapists tend to embody and value personality traits that are typically considered feminine. We like to listen, to process, and to talk about our feelings – about nearly everything. We place high esteem on intimacy, that is, feeling connected with others on a psychic level. And quite frankly, we think everyone should too.

Towards the midpoint of the seminar, I began to suspect that maybe we clinicians were on a mission to make men be more like us – to feel more, reflect more, relate more, and to talk more about all of it. More importantly, I recognized myself in the charge my by our instructor. In fact, I could easily imagine myself leading the campaign to have Hypermasculine Identity Syndrome (HIS) added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric disorders. Gender identity is what I read, write, teach, and talk about. Thus, with one statement, I found myself charged, found guilty, and sentenced. So for the rest of the afternoon, I began thinking that maybe we…maybe I needed to accept gender differences as another example of “apples and oranges” and to let men be men.

But (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) there was just one problem with that: our traditional notions of masculinity in America (which, by the way, have only been traditional for about 200 years) aren’t working. Not for men, not for women, not for children.

Case in point: life expectancies. While the gender gap is decreasing, there’s been a stark gender disparity in life expectancies. On average, women in the United States live 81 years, men 76 years. The gender gap is even greater among African Americans, with African American women living an average of eight years longer than their male counterparts. The earlier deaths for men aren’t attributed to sex chromosomes or sex hormones. Rather, they’re more likely resultant from behaviors like the way men handle stress (bottling it up, not talking about it, not asking for help), take unnecessary risks, and behave violently and aggressively toward themselves and others. Okay, you won’t really find any of those factors on a mortality chart. But they are factors related to the diseases that account for some of the gender disparity. Anyway, I’m trying to make a point here, not write a research paper. The point is this – the fact that men die so much sooner that women indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with the way they live.

But perhaps more compelling are the data on how our ideas about masculinity impact relationships. In fact, this has convinced me, more than anything, of our need to rethink manhood. A major theme in that continuing education seminar was the father-son relationship, particularly the issues that many men (of all races) have with their fathers.

I see this in my undergraduate classes, especially among male students, who talk about fathers who have never told their sons that they love them. During his segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, D.L. Hughley talked about this very issue. He described once asking his father whether he loved him and getting the response, “You ate, didn’t you?” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, one which Hughley found funny at the time and one at which I chuckled even as I shook my head in sympathy when he told it on the show.

But as Hughley noted in his commentary, he later realized that the whole exchange wasn’t funny at all. He, like all children, needed to hear that his father loved him. He needed a father who did more than provide for his physical needs and comfort, a father who did more than provide rules, structure, and discipline. As he said:

I don’t know one black men who isn’t broken in some way. Broken either by the relationship he had with his father, or by the relationship he wished he had with his father…It’s a shame that you’re a casualty if you have a father, and you’re a casualty if you don’t. Finding the blend, the right way to be a father, the right groove, the right tempo to be a father, is an amazing thing…We can break a family with our presence as easily as we make them.

Our understanding of fatherhood is bound with our understanding of masculinity. And as I begin to hear more stories about men’s issues with their fathers – the ones who stayed and provided – I realize that there is some serious work to be done.

So no, we can’t just let men be men, any more than we can just let women be women. We are all deeply broken, our divine likeness obscured – hopefully not obliterated – by our conformity to societal norms and expectations about who we should be. This includes our gender identities.

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