Fatherhood in Crisis: The Invisible Standard of Masculinity

There is a crisis in men’s mental health and it is hiding in plain sight.
01 May, 2021 | Matt Zerker
  • Fatherhood in Crisis: The Invisible Standard of Masculinity

There is a crisis in men’s mental health and it is hiding in plain sight.

Currently, 77% of men deal with some form of stress, anxiety, or depression and yet 40% of men say that it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm to reach out for help. More alarmingly, roughly 75% of suicides are committed by men and men are significantly more likely to develop substance abuse issues as a coping mechanism.

At the root of this crisis is a deeply held, and ultimately harmful, narrative of what it means to be a man. Indeed, many men are unwittingly socialized with the belief that ‘real men don’t cry’ and that struggling is inherently unmasculine.

This narrative and the lack of spaces historically (whether physical or digital) where men could safely express emotion without fear of judgment has allowed this narrative to persist. The result has been a collective decay in the mental and emotional well-being of men everywhere, keeping them sick and isolated as opposed to connected and healing.

One need not look too far down the comments section on any given Reddit thread to see this type of social shaming and ‘man up’ culture in full effect.

Indeed, it is clear that much of the world prefers men that are emotionally stoic and self-reliant as opposed to vulnerable and expressive. Interestingly, this concept of the ‘ideal man’ is an archetype that almost no men identify with personally. 

In a 2014 study performed by Dr. Michael Kimmel, sociologist and masculinity expert, polling found that 93% of men did NOT identify with the way that the media depicted masculinity. This means that while most men may consciously or unconsciously feel bound by this invisible standard of masculinity, the vast majority of us don’t see ourselves in that man.

Much of the reason for this has to do with early socialization. While from a young age girls are encouraged to share their feelings and express their affection for each other, boys are actively discouraged from engaging with their peers in a similar manner. This means that most boys never learn the tools required to build connected relationships and, as a consequence, grow into men who lack the skills to maintain supportive friendships with other men.

Beyond the age of 30, men have significantly fewer supportive peer relationships than women and over 50% of men report that they have less than two people with which they feel they can have a serious conversation.

The loneliness epidemic in men is well-documented, and the reasons behind it are complex. According to a 2019 article in The Walrus, “the fluidity of modern life, the weakening of community institutions such as service organizations and faith groups, the gig economy, and our increasing reliance on social media” all contribute to this intractable problem. In essence, we have less stability in our jobs and communities, places from which many individuals historically built their social foundation.

This decay of historically supportive structures for men coupled with an inherent aversion to help seeking behaviour (a direct result of the invisible standard of masculinity mentioned above) means that many men are in crisis by the time they receive support or never receive mental health support at all.

For fathers, this state of affairs can be doubly challenging because of the added pressure of being not just a good provider, but a good parent as well.

According to a 2019 research study conducted by Movember, a leading global charity dedicated to men’s health, 70% of fathers said their stress levels increased in the 12 month after becoming a dad, while almost a quarter (23%) said they felt isolated in the aftermath of having their first child. Moreover, 67% of soon-to-be fathers said that men were under more pressure now to be ‘good fathers’.

There is also a dearth of postpartum literature that focuses on the experience of the father. This can leave fathers feeling confused, unsure, and wondering what it means to be a good man AND a good father. According to Psychology Today “some estimates reveal that more than 25% of new fathers experience depression in the first year - which is almost always undiagnosed and untreated.”

There are biological and hormonal reasons why this happens as well. According to the same article from Psychology Today “starting a few months before childbirth, testosterone levels lower as prolactin, vasopressin, and other hormones increase, rewiring a man's brain to prepare him for fatherhood.”

These changes are meant to equip men with crucial skills that are needed to care for his new child. These changes often result in an increased sensitivity to crying, an increased capacity to bond emotionally, and more attentiveness to the needs of others. 

It is no wonder then that with a lack of resources and safe spaces to share these experiences the overwhelming experience of becoming a father means that many men are at an increased probability for developing clinical depression or a mood disorder in the aftermath of having a child.

Putting a lid on these feelings and not having a healthy outlet for expression has the potential to manifest in a variety of unproductive and destructive behaviours including violent outbursts, increased dependency on drugs and alcohol, and self-harming.

So where do fathers, and men more generally, go when we need someone to talk to?

Thankfully this story can have a happy ending as the world seems to be collectively awakening to the unique challenges that men face when it comes to mental health. Now more than ever there are spaces where men can congregate in a supportive environment and have honest and vulnerable conversations about life and what it means to be a man. 

Men’s groups are one option. In these groups, men come together in person or virtually with the shared intention of supporting one another through life’s bumpy times.

Online spaces exist too and provide the convenience of a digital experience without the pressure of having to show up and be immediately vulnerable. Often, the best way to approach this type of men’s emotional work is at a pace that allows you to keep building on your progress at a speed that is comfortable for you. The company I have built, tethr is one such space.

While we are still clearly recovering from an era where vulnerability, openness, and affection between males was discouraged, there are significantly more options for men who wish to begin the journey of forming deeper bonds and more connected relationships with other like-minded men.

It is vital for men to restore close, supportive connections between us. It is a missing link in the modern world. Male friendship has been an indelible part of society for as long as we have existed. There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, there is something fundamentally important about men being able to provide and receive support from each other.

Thankfully we are living in an age where this is not only possible, but more accessible than ever.

Join us at Tethr to begin creating restorative connections. 

 


About The author

Matt Zerker is the Founder & CEO of tethr, a peer enabled mental health and well-being platform for all men. He is a men's mental health advocate and works towards changing what it means to be a man.


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