Sunday, 16 June 2013

Fathers, men and boys

It’s Father’s Day. And the end of Men’s Health Week. And after the flurry of interesting debate in the media this week about men, I wanted to add a few words of my own.

I’ve had the privilege of working with quite a few men during my years as a counsellor. They have often started out rather nervous and reluctant, and have sometimes been ‘sent’ to counselling by work, or a partner, or a friend. My job, as with any client, is to put them at their ease, almost to give them permission to be there, taking the first steps towards exploring whatever is troubling them. It is then extremely rewarding to see them begin to talk, even though they’ll often criticise themselves for ‘not knowing how to put it’ or ‘not being very good at explaining’. For some men, it’s totally unfamiliar to speak openly and honestly, to own how scared or angry or sad they may be feeling, without having to try to cover it up and be big and strong. And once they start, they realise they can find the words, in actual fact they’re perfectly able to let me know what’s going on for them, indeed they turn out to be pretty good at it.

In Steve Biddulph’s thought-provoking book Manhood, he states that men and boys account for:

90% of convicted acts of violence
90% of behavioural problems at school
80% of children with learning difficulties
90% of prison inmates
70% of the unemployed

And as if that wasn’t stark enough, men and boys take their own lives three times more often than women, and twice as many men kill themselves as die in car accidents. Furthermore, he believes that men suffer from loneliness, compulsive competition and emotional timidity.

If you’re a man reading this, before your heart sinks right down to your boots, all is not lost – Biddulph offers plenty of advice about how to turn things around. It’s worth reading the book, but I’ll give a snapshot of the steps he offers here. You can start by fixing things with your father, i.e. finding out about his past, getting into dialogue with him and engaging with him. If you’re in a relationship, try to meet your partner as an equal, by standing up for what’s true for you, rather than either keeping the peace or being a bully. If sex isn’t working, try to talk about what’s going wrong rather than simply putting up with it. Engage actively with your children – set up fun physical games with them, but also be calm and firm when it’s required. Nurture your friendships with other men – don’t compete with one another, but offer affection and support. Try to find work that you believe in, and when you retire, don’t retire from life – become an elder, as Biddulph puts it, and stay involved.

One thing that has struck me since I’ve been working with couples is how often both partners will trace the start of their difficulties to the birth of their first child. I have long felt that much more attention should be paid to fathers at this time. It’s understandable that the focus tends to be on the mother, and that focus needs to be there, but fathers could do with support too, if they’re going to be able to provide mother and baby with the nurturing they require in the early weeks. If the labour has been difficult, maybe even traumatic, the father may have witnessed some fairly terrifying events, while the mother in the throes of labour may not have been as acutely aware of what was going on. Somehow the father has to process all of that while trying to support his partner and learning to look after a new baby. He can feel pushed out, excluded from his relationship with his partner, ill at ease with the baby, and he may not know where to take any of these feelings. It’s so crucial that the couple can share the joys and the frustrations that becoming parents will bring, and perhaps a bit of awareness in advance of what some of those frustrations might be would help. Having a look at this page from the National Childbirth Trust, for example, could be a start:’s-view-changing-relationships.

Not all men are fathers, of course. There’s an interesting short film made by Samaritans here, stopping men in the street and asking how they handle difficult times in their lives. One man comments on the gulf between 'what they think they should be and what they actually are', and another observes that some men think that 'if you cry you can't climb Everest - but actually you can do both'. Of course there are many men who don’t have a problem with expressing their feelings, but most of the men interviewed here talk about how difficult it can be. There are plenty of women who find sharing their innermost thoughts unappealing as well, but it does seem as though more of them tend to seek counselling, and perhaps to talk to other people when the chips are down.

Paul Brook in his Dippyman blog gives eloquent voice to the perils of ‘manning up’, and it makes me wonder why should men always feel they have to be strong? Where do they learn that? How can we change the way we all are, so that men don’t have to fear that admitting to feeling sad or scared or tired or low or angry is weak and humiliating? How can we all help the men and boys we know to believe that it’s okay to talk about how they feel, to cry when they need to, and to own their doubts and uncertainties? It’s a big subject, and one for my next blog. Terry Real, a family therapist and lecturer, has some helpful advice about ‘bringing men in from the cold’ that I’ll share with you next time …