‘When I was a child,” my 44-year-old son told me recently, “I didn’t feel close to you.” Maybe that’s because in 1976 when he was born, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a man.
My most important role model growing up was, of course, my dad. The time he spent with me — and there was a lot of it — was devoted to doing something. We raked leaves and shoveled snow together. He built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard and we would work on pitching.
One time when he and I were playing a round of golf together, I saw him muttering to himself something like, “Keep your head down. Keep your elbows in.” So there on the fourth hole of the Elks Club Golf Course I asked him, “Do you ever play a round of golf just to have fun?” In all seriousness my dad replied, “I believe that if God has given me a gift, I must work to make the most of it.”
At funerals in the German/Polish community in which I grew up, the nicest thing you could say about the guy in the casket was that he was a good worker.
My father served in the Army in World War II and as a navigator-bombardier during the Korean Conflict. Part of the Greatest Generation, my dad saw his identity as a man in terms of the role he played. The way he saw it, he was the breadwinner and my mom was the homemaker. I don’t think he changed a diaper in his life.
He clearly loved me, but his way of showing it was by doing things. That worked for men in my dad’s generation, but the problem for me was women in my generation wanted me to feel as well as do.
So about 30 years ago, six of us formed a men’s group in which we met every Thursday evening in each other’s homes and when people asked what we talked about, we would reply, “The women in our lives seem to know how to express their feelings and nurture relationships and we want to learn how to do that.”
We were like toddlers learning to walk. We had all learned how to be disciplined professionals who knew how to use our heads instead of our hearts, but now we were trying to “get out of our comfort zones,” as people like to say these days, and learn how to be vulnerable.
The women in our lives began to notice a change and some even called us SNAGS, sensitive new-age guys. We were learning to value relationships as well as success at work.
But that’s where the rub was and still is. The myth was that we could “have it all.” We could be successful at work, loving in our relationships, active in the community, do our share of the housework, change diapers, take care of ourselves by jogging and still at the end of the day, have time to get a good night’s sleep.
The problem was, and is, that we’re like guitar strings. In order to make music, a guitar string needs to have tension, to be pulled taut between the bridge and the tuning nob. In trying to add aspects to our self-image, we started to feel tension, which wasn’t producing music but was making us feel like we were going to snap. Being all that we could be takes time and emotional energy, the supply of which was limited for all six of us.
When I became a single parent, the mythical balloon of “we can have it all” was fatally punctured. I dutifully did it all but I didn’t have it all.
And we began to watch the women in our lives go the opposite way on the identity spectrum. They began trying to have it all by breaking into the areas of life where men had traditionally excelled. They wanted to become executives, presidents of the local chamber of commerce, fly airplanes and even be included in army combat units.
And, God bless them, women deserve the same opportunities I’ve had. But not without a warning on the label of the myth — this product may be harmful to your health.
What used to be “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget that you’re a man” has been replaced by “not tonight honey, I’m too tired.”
A recent study by the World Health Organization found that working more than 55 hours a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% risk of dying from heart disease. The study estimated that long working hours were killing 745,000 people a year.
The classic history of Alcoholics Anonymous is titled, Not God. Atul Gawande, a doctor, wrote Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Icarus and his father Daedalus were imprisoned on an island, so to gain their freedom, Daedalus made two sets of wings with feathers held together by wax. When Daedalus give a set to his son, he gave him a warning to not fly close to the sun.
Icarus did not consider the limits, got intoxicated by his newfound technology, flew too close to the sun which melted the wax, and plunged to his death in the sea.
In my old age, I’ve learned to loosen by grip on the myth and become vulnerable, limited, and therefore human.
At the end of his comment about not feeling close to me as a child, my son added, “like we are now.”
Tom Holmes writes a regular column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.