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There had been so many arguments that week, it was just easier to hide in the spare room and close the door behind me. That way there’d be nothing to get angry or shout about, nothing to make me storm out of the house to get away from it all.
I had started feeling terribly trapped. There were big things, like a major invoice that hadn’t been paid and a tax deadline, and small things: a misplaced hospital letter, the frustration of persuading a preschooler to brush his teeth. Worrying about breaking a wine glass left carelessly, I thought, by the sink. That was when my wife asked me, desperation on her face, why I wouldn’t let her help me.
I remember just feeling so angry that I couldn’t let her help, because that would mean adding to the list of things I couldn’t do on my own.
At the time, my wife and I were getting toward the end of a relationship counseling course. That was yet another source of trappedness: It seemed wonderfully New Man of me to acknowledge our need for counseling, but I was also ashamed that I needed counseling at all — despite our therapist repeatedly telling us that counseling makes perfect sense in a world where people aren’t taught constructive relationship skills.
It was too difficult to let it out to my wife, so I hate-wrote about it on Facebook. That my toxic masculinity felt like a misguided sense of responsibility where everything falls on me as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a purported head of the household who must provide. It’s a weakness to ask for or accept help. It’s shameful to say I can’t do something. Never doing things with people, instead feeling like I must do them for people, and where I disempower everyone I love while thinking I’m protecting and providing for them. On my worst days, it came between me and my family, isolating me from the very people who want to help.
My wife and I moved from London, in the UK, to Portland, Oregon, in 2011. The cost of living was so much lower that when we started a family, one of us could be a stay-at-home parent. We felt lucky, in that privileged middle-class way, to have that choice.
I thought I was being a successful, important, progressive man providing for his family so that his wife didn’t have to work and could spend time with the children.
And then I prematurely left my job; as often happens with all problematic relationships, I had planned to leave but ended up being dumped. Despite my friends’ reassurances that everything would be fine and something would turn up, it’s terrifying to calculate how long you’ve got until you can’t afford to pay the rent.
I went freelance, which meant far less control and predictability over my income. Our income — my responsibility, I thought — was at the mercy of corporate accounts departments. Responsibility without control is a hard reality to adjust to. I felt like I was drowning in two different oceans at the same time, so terrified I couldn’t provide for my family that I’d take on an overwhelming amount of work, but also feeling pressure to be the Present Father and the Present Husband who spends Quality Time with his family.
I felt I was doing both jobs badly. At night, sleep wouldn’t come because I’d be beating myself up about what I hadn’t done that day. In the morning, I’d already be worried about everything I wouldn’t have time for today.
Things got really bad for a while. Really bad was my wife feeling like I was avoiding her and trying to ignore the fact that she was right. Worse was leaving for a work trip still angry from the night before, without saying goodbye. Worst was sitting in a hotel 500 miles from home and feeling desperately lonely, as if everything were in free fall — and recognizing the familiar, creeping feeling of flirting with suicidal thoughts because there didn’t seem to be a way out. Even that just increased the pressure, because I knew that everyone I left behind would suffer, that nothing would be fixed.
Becoming a father came loaded with all sorts of strange expectations. I grew up thinking being a “good” husband meant not having arguments with my partner, that we should never disagree, and that we must present a united front. When I type these words, it’s as if they’re naked and I can see them for what they are: the advice you give someone else but would never take yourself.
My misguided “masculinity” had manifested in distorted ideas about duty to the partner I’d made a commitment to stand beside until death. Having children amplified that responsibility, extending it for another lifetime.
There were good realizations, too. I know that when we become parents, we try to undo the harm we felt was done to us as children. So I make a point to tell my sons how much I love them, and it was a punch to the gut a year or so ago when I overheard my parents saying, after I’d told my son that I loved him and he’d told me the same, “He’s so much better at this than we were.”
I don’t want my sons to wrap themselves into the same shitty knot that I have. On good days, I try to tell them to talk about how they feel. I try to remember to tell them that it’s perfectly normal to be angry, and that it’s important to listen to what that anger is telling you.
I am, of course, the hypocrite when my son sees me having a meltdown when I try to assemble his bunk bed, angrily refusing help. Why? Because I need to show him I can do it.
The worst thing is that when I get angry, I shout at my eldest son, and I can see that he’s afraid of me. How could I be so mean? I’m so disgusted with myself that I storm out of the house, yet I don’t even know what I’m angry about. I know I shouldn’t have acted the way I did, that I didn’t act the way I would want myself to. I leave the house because I think I’m a monster. Later, my therapist will tell me that all parents get angry at their children and will ask if I repaired my relationship with my son.
I come home once the anger has gone, but it has left behind a dark hole of shame. My wife encourages me to apologize to my son, and we hug. I don’t justify my behavior or try to defend it. I try to show him, again, how I love him. And the next morning, he wakes up and all he wants to do is play with me. For that moment, he’s forgiven me, we are repaired, and he’s just full of excitement and joy.
The British comedian and writer Robert Webb talks about how you’re not “a real man” until you answer the question “what’s the matter?” by aggressively grunting either “nothing” or “I’m fine” in that malevolent Liam Neeson Taken voice. Of course, we’re anything but fine. We are always angry, because that’s the only feeling men are allowed to express.
It’s easier to be angry at my wife than to tell her what I’m afraid of. Easier to snarl and slam a cupboard door than to say I’m worried about work. Easier to seethe in silence as I wash dishes — trying not to break that wine glass by the sink — than to say I disagree about some parenting issue.
Is this “toxic masculinity”? I think it’s toxic whoever’s feeling it, male or female. One of my friends said I was experiencing provider syndrome, and that it killed their dad.
There are so many ways boys are encouraged to hide how they feel, to deny the complexity and depth of their own emotions. We teach them that whatever they’re feeling, whatever might be crying out inside, they mustn’t let anyone see the “weakness” of deep feeling, of not being strong.
I have had to learn to trust my wife with my feelings. She asked why I wouldn’t let her help me, because she loves me and cares about me. I was refusing her help and refusing to talk to her about all the things on my mind — the anxiety about being able to provide, the reluctance to tell her the things I disagreed about in fear of conflict — because I was so worried about risking our relationship and what that would mean for our family.
But I’ve started telling my wife how I’m feeling and what I’m worrying about. We talk about it. And then we get over it and everything is fine. Most of the time, all the pain I imagined just doesn’t come to pass at all. And even in those times when it does, I’ve learned that it doesn’t last forever.
I’m learning to accept that it’s okay to say I can’t do something, that I need to say these things out loud and acknowledge them instead of stuffing them back into my mind in favor of what I think I should be feeling. I want to stop trying to hide my pain from those people who truly care about me. And I’m writing this because I think many other men are also going through this, and all that loneliness and anxiety is unbearable. We shouldn’t have to keep this all inside.
More than anything, I want to show my sons that being a “real man” doesn’t have to be anything more than accepting that all the emotions we feel are perfectly normal. That being a man, a good man, means being able to care for and love myself, to value my own feelings and experiences and not be afraid of sharing them. Because if I can’t do that, then I can’t show them how to truly love themselves and others, too.