This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.
The title of a best-selling book from the ’90s packs a punch of sincerity the likes of which you don’t see much anymore: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. Hell yeah. That’s the kind of pompous grandiosity that gets my attention. The book employs Jungian typology to refute the idea that masculinity is about dominance and control. It was a (corny but well-intentioned) invitation to cis-hetero men to consider the hotness lying dormant in the creative, nurturing dimensions of their gender identity.
It’s easy to make fun of self-serious maleness in the age of Jordan Peterson, but this book is the product of a different time. Along with Iron John, by Robert Bly, there was a movement among hetero men in the ’90s that sought to move past toxic masculine patterns of behavior toward a form of male liberation that mirrored rather than collided with the feminist movement of the time. Were there cringeworthy aspects of this “mythopoetic men’s movement”? You bet: White guys were having drum circles, waving feathers around, and beating their chests trying to feel something real for a change. But egregious acts of cultural appropriation aside, a lot of what these books elaborately propose has since seeped into the groundwater of what it means to be “a good guy.”
I’ve been wondering lately about the “good guys” and how they’re doing. I see these new dads in my neighborhood on Saturday mornings, babies strapped to their chore coats as they trudge blearily around, coffee in hand, giving their partners a precious hour during which to shower and share a few memes with their friends. They look vulnerable, these new dads. They look adrift. They look proud and committed and like they haven’t gotten laid in months. They look ashamed for wanting to get laid and annoyed that they feel ashamed.
I admit I could be projecting too much onto these nice local fellows, but I do know for sure that male loneliness is a great crisis of our age and that no one wants to deal with it. Women balk at the idea that it’s their problem. Men shrug their shoulders and turn inward. But the whole question of whose problem it is does not sit well with me. It would be of grave concern to me if my sons grew up to be lonely men. It devastates me to think of men in my community feeling isolated, and I don’t think this makes me some pathetic mark for hetero male neediness. It seems to me that mothers’ grievances are being aired to a historically unprecedented extent while dads are not necessarily experiencing the same kind of collective catharsis. Dads with all-the-way-open third eyes know better than to complain. But everyone deserves to be heard — right?
I wanted to hear more from some new dads, so I created an anonymous survey and sent it out into the internet. This method isn’t scientific, but I did hear from 40 semi-random dads of kids under 3 about whom they feel they can really talk to, how they feel about their intimate connection with their partner, and anything else they wanted to rant about.
In 2017, the Boston Globe coined the name “sad clowns” for the lonely breed of contemporary dad. I couldn’t have come up with a better way to describe many of those who responded to my survey. A few themes that emerged: rage at the lack of affordable child care in the U.S., a feeling of hopelessness about the impossibility of having enough quality time with partners and kids, and, pervading all responses, a very powerful sense of being aboard a leaky ship very far from land. Free-floating resentment and confusion abounded, along with sincere goodwill and devotion.
Half of the dads who responded said they don’t really have friends they can talk to honestly about their life and feelings. There was more than a little Fleishman-esque malaise — that feeling of “What have we done?” (This is consistent with the recent Pew parenting survey results, in which 62 percent of parents said parenting is harder than they expected it would be.)
There was a recurring sense of bewilderment about the social sorting that goes on in heterosexual adulthood: “It can be really lonely. My wife and I used to traffic in the same circles in the city, but in the suburbs people separate themselves between husbands and wives, and I find it so strange and stifling.”
But above all, the dads I heard from lamented not having the time and support systems they need to feel good in their families. When I asked what people would change if they could change anything about their family life, almost every response echoed this.
“I wish we had more time for all of us together.”
“More one-on-one time with my partner.”
“Relatives who live closer.”
“Any kind of affordable child care for any amount of time.”
“I wish my wife and I had parents who could/would proactively volunteer the odd night of babysitting so my wife and I could go out or maybe even take a weekend together somewhere.”
“Every part of my life outside of work, parenting, and household stuff has pretty much stopped. The only time I’m free from those obligations is when everyone else is asleep.”
Among dads who do report having friends they see regularly, several remarked that it’s still hard to form the kinds of connections that existed pre-kids. “It’s very easy to make light of any attempted conversation and move on to a less serious subject,” one said. Is this the kind of immaturity that King, Warrior, Magician, Lover was trying to help guys grow out of 30 years ago? Were men’s groups really such a lame idea if they taught men to open up to one other? As much as I think all genders should be able to enjoy harmonious hangs, there is definitely something to be said, as a mom, for my moms-only spaces. I can’t imagine it’s any different for dads.
Men’s groups do remain a formalized part of life in faith communities, so I called up David Zahl, the author on staff at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, to compare notes on new dads. I wanted to test my theory that new dads in faith communities have more robust support than those in secular environments. Zahl has written on this topic, and he co-hosts The Mockingcast, a podcast about Christianity in the world, which I’ve enjoyed even though I’m not a Christian.
Zahl remarked that his local F3 workout group functions like a de facto men’s group. The F3 format is 45 minutes of exercise followed by someone sharing a thought of the day. In some parts of the country, F3 groups are heavy on the “faith” dimension, but they tend to reflect the dynamics of their communities; in Zahl’s Charlottesville chapter, the conversations range far beyond religion. And the need for connection is great.
“The other day, a guy got up there and said he’s got a young baby and he’s never wanted to press the ‘eject’ button more,” he told me. “He’s grateful for his family, but it’s much harder than he thought it would be. Every single guy there in his 30s and early 40s reached out to thank him afterwards. People felt it.”
Zahl wonders if there is hesitation among feminist men to create men’s-only spaces. “The guys in Charlottesville are a little sheepish about it — it being all men,” he said of his exercise group. “There’s a knee-jerk suspicion of male-only spaces. That might continue the cycle of loneliness. But I think you’re going to see more of these groups developing out of necessity.”
Is it possible that some feminist fathers’ best intentions can have the unintended consequence of isolation? Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far into the wilderness for some of those Zahl calls “educated blue-state dads.” “It’s like a karmic thing,” he said. “Men have had it good for so long, and some of the sensitive ones are like, Okay, I’ll take it — depression or loneliness. These are the dads who seem to be going to such lengths not to be “that guy.” Maybe they’re overcompensating for who their dads were.”
A lonely man will put pressure on his partner for connection, and when that person is already maxed out caring for a baby, you’ve got yourself a powder keg of bad vibes. This was borne out in the responses to my survey prompt about partner intimacy.
“I feel like she is angry with me a lot, but she doesn’t say it. We are both really lucky to have each other, but it makes me very sad to think she is okay with our relationship being on the back burner.”
“I try to respect the fact that my partner is always needed by someone in the house, so I push my wants/needs to the bottom of the list of importance but feel like in turn that has landed us in a rut that is extremely hard to get out of.”
“It’s hard to feel sexy/find the right time to want to have sex when you’ve just been through the trenches with someone all day/week.”
Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their sex life since having kids — higher than I would have guessed — and there was abundant sympathy for the demands of motherhood. I was surprised at how many dads referred to their partner as “touched out”; I’d only ever heard mothers use this term with one another, in private. But having a touched-out partner breeds a consequent feeling of loneliness and shame. As one dad said, “I can’t help feeling like I’m the problem.” Perhaps men need a term to describe the feeling of wanting the intimacy that the conditions of their lives have made impossible. But to start using such a term, they first need to start hanging out together and talking about it.
There is no map for this place where many hetero couples with young kids find themselves. Libidos fluctuate, and no one should be duty bound to have sex. But libidos are just the tip, haha, of the iceberg. The demands of nuclear-family life are so totalizing that many couples don’t have time to nurture whatever intimacy was once there. There are kids in the bed. There are no parents nearby to babysit. There’s no time for any of it, whether the will is there or not.
Left-leaning feminist culture has been hard at work dismantling structures of shame and silence, and we’ve been calling in dads to feel cherished and useful in their fatherly roles. If domestic equality is what we’re all pushing for, everyone needs to have a voice. Maybe this is where new dads need one another as much as they need their partners. They need their experiences reflected back to them in the Zeitgeist alongside touched out and mom rage. They need a language to describe their experience.
At the end of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, the authors write, “In the present crisis in masculinity we do not need, as some feminists are saying, less masculine power. We need more … We need to develop a sense of calmness about masculine power so we don’t have to act out dominating, disempowering behavior toward others.”
This is a lot to take in all these decades later. The dads I know today are neither dominant nor disempowering. They’re good people doing their best. Many are plenty calm about their “masculine power.” But they could use some quality hangs and a sense of belonging to a culture of family life that extends beyond the fraying edges of their home.
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