By Cassandra Barrett (Manager – Community Education and Participation) and Dr Simon Grof (Chief Medical Officer)
‘It’s that idea of being Superman; that you have to carry it all alone, that you can’t show weakness or talk about your feelings.’
In an age of respectful relationships, toxic private school cultures and a post-#MeToo world, it’s the question many parents are asking: how do we raise happy, healthy boys?
It’s an important question – and at least part of the answer lies not only in what we explicitly teach our children, but also what we show them in ourselves: what they learn by watching us as parents and role models as we move through the world.
Masculinity has been a hot topic in recent years; in particular, so-called ‘toxic’ or traditional masculinity, which prizes self-reliance, stoicism, aggression and power. In this worldview, men must be fierce and strong, no matter the cost, lest they be accused of that most detestable crime: being a “girl”.
How this narrow definition of what it means to be a “real man” hurts women and girls is well-established. Rigid constructions of masculinity are a key driver of violence against women – not to mention how it feels for a young girl in the school playground to learn that her gender, or the traits commonly associated with it, is apparently the very worst thing a boy can be. But these expectations hurt men and boys too, both physically and emotionally – and for many, this pressure can be an unbearable load to carry.
“The relationship between so-called ‘toxic masculinity’ and poorer health outcomes for men is very clear,” says Dr Simon Grof, Chief Medical Officer at Jewish Care.
“Men are far less likely to seek medical help; if they have a problem, they ignore it. It’s the old “she’ll be right” attitude. Often by the time they reach out – and frequently that’s only at the urging of their partner – the problem is far worse than it would have been if they had sought help earlier.”
And it doesn’t end there.
“Men are significantly more likely to die by suicide; they are over-represented in road and traffic accidents; and we display much higher rates of alcohol consumption. All of these can be linked back to the stereotypical concepts of masculinity that are so common in our society,” says Dr Grof. “Put simply: the messages that we give men and boys - about self-reliance and ‘hardening up’ - are, quite literally, fatal.”
The impacts are emotional as well as physical. “Socially, men are less likely to have stable friendships. They don’t draw on that informal peer support, and they’re taught to hide their feelings. They don’t have the same social permission as women to reach out to a mate and say ‘hey, I’m having a really hard time.’ “
As a Geriatrician, Dr Grof says this becomes particularly apparent as men age. “They do less well than their female counterparts if their spouse dies. Elderly men also have the highest rate of suicide of any age group – in large part because, when you have spent your whole life believing that you must be tough and strong and self-reliant at all costs… then the grief and loneliness and loss of independence that often comes with getting older can be, for some, too painful to bear.”
Where do we learn these stories? It’s not only in the explicit narrative that men and boys receive – “big boys don’t cry”; “man up”; “you’re such a girl” - but in the subtle yet ever-present cues in the world around us, too.
As Father’s Day approaches, the message about what it is to be a ‘real man’ is particularly clear – and our children see it. Kids internalise these messages about gender from a young age. Father’s Day will bring with it a flurry of hand-drawn offerings from the school art room: pictures of cartoon fathers with exaggerated biceps, cards proclaiming that dad is “strong” and “tough”. Then there’s the requisite gift handed over on Sunday morning; a quick glance at the shopping catalogues this time of year reveals the expected array of gift options that are deemed sufficiently “masculine”: tools, BBQ supplies, beer and superhero mugs.
When it comes to parenting, for men, the bar is often set astonishingly low. ‘Dadulation’ is alive and well: we’ve all heard friends exclaim how ‘lucky’ a woman is when her partner changes nappies or does school pick-up, or comment that she’s got him ‘well-trained’ (or the less-flattering accusation of ‘whipped’) for doing the laundry or preparing dinner.
What impact does this have for men?
“It’s insulting,” says Simon, who has two sons aged 3 and 7. “People will see me with my boys and ask if I’m babysitting. It’s my pet hate. I’m not “babysitting”; I’m parenting. I’m not someone who steps in to ‘help’ when Mum is busy; I’m just as capable, worthwhile, and responsible for their care as my partner.”
The tide is slowly turning. Running parenting groups at Jewish Care, I have the privilege of seeing first-hand the generational change that is upon us: men who are present and active as fathers, who deeply love their children and want to parent differently to the practically-supportive-but-emotionally-absent methods employed by – or perhaps more accurately, forced upon – their own fathers. Men who are working hard to unlearn the messages they received about vulnerability and burying their emotions and what it means to be a ‘real man’; who confide that having a safe space to share about the challenges of parenting and masculinity is both rare and transformational. It gives me enormous hope for the future – and yet, even when the desire and willingness is there, the barriers are real.
The challenges are not only personal, but structural. Men commonly report feeling less able to access paternity leave entitlements – only 1 in 20 Australian men take parental leave - or judged for utilising flexible work arrangements to care for children. There is an abject lack of support for fathers: the dubious looks in the parents’ room; the lack of dads’ groups for new fathers as they navigate the transition to parenthood.
And then there’s the issue of representation - after all, we can’t be what we don’t see.
Portrayals of healthy or alternate masculinities in popular culture are scarce. Storybooks and films encouraging girls to be strong and brave (rightfully!) abound – but where are the tales that celebrate boys as gentle and kind? The impact is real and significant. The so-called ‘Scully Effect’ for girls is well-established: women who grew up watching The X-Files were 50% more likely to pursue careers in STEM – but what about the role models for men? Thinking of the most ‘aspirational’ male figures in film and TV, there is a consistent formula: our heroes are confident, fearless, strong and brave. We learn little about their emotional worlds, and the social hierarchy is climbed through financial success, dominance, sexual prowess or violence. There is emphasis on personal rather than collective achievement, and little focus on community – and as far as fathers go, the dopey or incompetent dad trope is alive and well.
Where are the examples of positive, healthy masculinity? Of caring, thoughtful and loving men, who express their challenges and emotional experiences and are not considered ‘weak’ as a result? What can men and boys aspire to? In conversations about gender equity, I sometimes invite men to name a character they look up to who embodies such values – and even experts in the field sometimes struggle to do so.
As for Simon, he thinks hard before answering. “Bluey’s Dad.”
“He’s a great father. He’s not afraid to look silly; he plays imaginative games, he’s really present and in the moment with his kids. And he admits when he’s wrong and apologises. We could all learn from that.”
Progress has undoubtedly been made. Conversations about masculinity are very much on the agenda, and the vital role of active, supportive fathers is clear. Dads are no longer solely seen as the providers or ‘breadwinners’ of years gone by, who said a brief good morning or good night on their way out the door, or were called on only to dole out discipline: ‘just you wait until your father gets home!’ (a role that, incidentally, many men in their elder years say pained them greatly).
The social permission for men to be equal, active, hands-on parents – (such terminology is revealing in itself; after all, few mothers are described as ‘hands-on’) – is growing, and the role Dads play in influencing our kids’ understanding of what it means to be a man in the world is undeniable.
Yet for all the progress that’s been made, there is still an enormous way to go. ‘Pussy’ or ‘girl’ are still hurled as insults. Boys are too often told to ‘man up’, or bullied when they don’t fit the expected mould – especially true for gay and trans men, and non-binary folks. We live in a world where often the only socially-legitimate forum for men to express emotion is through sport, whether that’s an affectionate hug between teammates on the field, or a tear shed in the stands at the final siren (as was the case for Simon following a recent Carlton defeat).
This Father’s Day, let’s consciously choose to let go of these old stories, the ones that hurt men and boys, and instead celebrate fathers - both biological and chosen - in all their rich, beautiful complexity: as sensitive, caring, kind, warm, thoughtful, loving, vulnerable. After all – what legacy do we want our boys to inherit? How do we want them to be in the world?
I ask Simon what he most wants for his sons.
“For them to be comfortable in their own skin. To feel at ease in who they are. To speak up when things aren’t right. And to be happy and kind – not just to others, but to themselves as well.”
Cheers to that. Happy Father’s Day.
Jewish Care is currently seeking expressions of interest for the Dads Tuning In To Kids parenting program. For further information, contact [email protected]
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please reach out.
Mensline: 1300 78 99 78