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Wellbeing of Men in Families


Even though not all men marry or have children, all men are part of a family. How they participate in family life has an impact on those around them; one could say there is some effect on the man's and the family's wellbeing. Research demonstrates that married or cohabitating men are healthier than single men, and people who have at least one person in which they confide are healthier than those who do not. Despite the importance of intimacy to human wellbeing, men do not have the same degree of socialization towards caring and relationship-maintenance behaviours. This has an effect on men's full participation in the human world from a macro and micro perspective.

There have been changes in the roles and expectations of men in families and men as fathers in recent history. These changes have resulted in a different and sometimes confusing social context for boys and men in our society. Their identity is being reconstructed-by men and others. Even though half of the human population is going through this change; it is infrequently addressed.

B. Men as Fathers

"40 years ago almost no fathers were present in the delivery room when their children were born." (Voices for Children (VFC), 1998 p. 2)

"Being there" is a phrase which captures an element of the current movement for men who are involved fathers-intentionally parenting differently than their parents, especially than their fathers. Considering the powerful influence of the environment (all ecological influences) these changes are quite an accomplishment for the men who are beginning to achieve a nurturing, emotionally involved relationship on a day-to-day basis with their families. Fathers who choose to be full-time caregivers of their children have many of the related

challenges (social isolation, little sense of accomplishment day-to-day, etc), and as well suffer discrimination from many men and women. (VFC, 1998; Bader, 1997; Gruber, 1992; and Kirk M. & Ron. D., 1993-6).

"The supreme test of any civilization is whether it can socialize men by teaching them to be fathers." Margaret Mead

Pittman (1994) and Osherson (1992) both identify a key role of fathers in lives of their children as a) being able to identify the unique and special strengths of the child, and b) making sure their child knows what these attributes are. In my experiences in therapy sessions, telling a father (of younger or older children) about this key role animates and interests them.

Pittman (1994) and others also assert, "the way to love your children is to love their mother." Not as many men in therapy are as delighted with this news. This is probably because of gender conflicts, and because of the changes in the role expectations for men and women. Many coupled parents find this time of role transition (mainly addressing power imbalances) challenging which can serious affect intimacy. The parents' love relationship dramatically changes, especially for couples who met while quite young. The consequences for

their children can be subtle or much worse, with conflict and power emerging in various forms of violence.

"Women and children tend to be more frequently victimized while men and boys are more frequently identified as perpetrators of violent behaviour. However, men are starting to feel more comfortable and legitimate about disclosing personal violations" (Peel Health, 1997, p. 9). Many men who assault family members were victims of assault as children.

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C. Men in Families

There are, of course many ways fathers can and do contribute to healthy family life. Several chapters in Booth and Crouter's, Eds. (1998) new book Men in families: When do they get involved? What difference does it make? carefully analyse this question. From a macro perspective, men's contributions to family are mainly in the economic realm.

Other authors in the Booth and Crouter text offer a micro perspective. Gottman explains specific ways fathers connect with their children. Most (90% according to the Hite report) adult men state they had less emotional support from their fathers than they would have liked. They hide this opinion though. Many fathers contribute significantly, especially with sons, to emotion regulation in their children, primarily through play. Father behaviours with children vary much more than mother behaviours in families.

Gottman also offers a macro perspective of men's involvement with families, including a critique of the trends in the current men's movement. For example, while acknowledging the strengths of some of the current men's movement such as Robert Bly's in grieving lost experiences with fathers, it is criticised for appealing to men to

"reject the path of the 'soft male' because it is feminist inspired" (Levant, 1992, cited in Gottman, 1998).

In the late 80's and 90's the men's movement addressed "the absent father." Not just fathers who were gone or physically absent due to work obligations, but those who were emotionally disconnected. It is asserted that this disconnection has serious consequences for boys becoming men. Mott (1994) is one of the few researchers to publish results of large-scale studies identifying the impact of fathers' presence/absence on home environments for children of each gender. The findings are suggestive that boys do have advantages, and possibly girls do as well, in having their fathers more involved. Triangulation among fathers, mothers and daughters (where the daughter idealizes and idolizes a "distant" father and rejects her mother, even though she

and her mother may be actually closer), is reported when fathers are absent (Carter, 1988).

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D. Men and Marriage

Men's patterns of parenting, men's perceptions of and participation in marriage are distinct from women. (Gottman, 1998, Mackie, 1991) Misogyny and power imbalances play a role in limiting men's responses to others in intimate relationships. Mackie (1991) summarizes what almost every mother in Canada experiences: women do the majority of the tasks, and the majority of the least desirable tasks. There is overwhelming evidence for this, even among parent couples who are both in the caring profession of nursing (Walters, Eyles, French, & Lenton, 1998)!

Duffy (1988) analyzes societal views of women and family over time, up to the late '80's, noting the constant and pervasive lack of opportunity and freedom for women to "create their own destinies"

(p. 111). At the micro level, egalitarianism within urban families has been declared. But on "microscopic" examination, the important

decisions are still made by men. She asserts "power inequality between men and women is imbedded in the normative structures of family life" (p. 124). Regional, class and cultural differences do exist, suggesting systemic influences.

"The private troubles of family life are often rooted in public issues - unemployment, lack of child care, popularization of violence, and erosion of the community. The costs of family inequality to the individual are, frequently, lost to the society at large. The contemporary family does not fit neatly into either a male-dominated or egalitarian model. In general, it is men who have more 'say' in the family, who perform fewer undesirable or onerous chores, and who set the tone for family interaction. However, this male domination is

conditioned by cultural, historical, class, life-cycle, and socio-economic factors." (Duffy, 1988 p. 127-8)

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E. Equality for Men

Equality goes beyond keeping the household in order and family decisions. It includes men having freedom and choice, just as women have demanded, to determine their own roles (gender should not be "destiny" for either gender, even though there certainly are important biological differences!). Systemic changes, such as family-friendly workplaces that do not discriminate between men's and women's roles in families, can improve the conditions for this empowerment. Essentially, the shift must be toward removing inequities and power differences between men and women. The change will benefit both genders, for even though men have more systemic power and thus greater access to certain things, it often comes with costs in the social and health arenas. As inequities disappear, both men and women can have more choices, allowing for the full contribution of both genders to society and culture.

A wholesale shift in power balances between genders in society is not likely to happen quickly. In the meantime, from an "upstream" perspective, and a capacity-building perspective, family- and health- related programs must not exclude (ie, avoid discriminating), and must include (proactively) men in their planning and programs. Acknowledging power issues, gender myths and assumptions personally and in program planning are also excellent beginnings (Jeanetta-Wark, 1998).

To conclude, here is an excerpt by Glossop and Theilheimer (1994) cited in an excellent text on family well-being written by Rena Shimoni and Joanne Baxter, educators from Mount Royal College in Calgary (1996). This list of ways society can support men in being fathers addresses the three main approaches in health promotion (education, policy, environment).

"How Can Society Support Active Fathering?

1. Supportive Workplace Policies

Flexible work arrangements, family leave, EAP's, childcare programs or referrals, teleconferencing or other ways to reduce travel, work at home options, information in the workplace on topics such as childrearing, etc. Even having a telephone in the workplace for parent to call children after school make a big difference.

2. Women's Expectations

If women expect men to play a bigger part in childrearing, many men will take the cue (also realize that men parent differently).

3. Role Models

If men see other men taking child care and domestic responsibilities, they will find it easier to do it themselves.

4. Promotion

Share success stories of active fathers and make them part of the work and the community.

5. Education of the Next Generation

Children must be taught that men can be active parents. Girls and women must learn that women do not have a monopoly on domestic duties.

6. Government Policy

Men and women must receive equal benefits that recognize their family responsibilities.

7. Value of "Women's Work."

Few men will want to take on domestic and caregiving work that have been traditionally performed by women unless we value it. (Applies to paid and unpaid work.)

8. Public Education

Public attitudes can change. Conferences, media coverage, advertising, and continuing education are tools that can help change attitudes.

(Source: Glossop, R. and Theilheimer, I. (1994). Does Society Support Involved Parenting? Transition 22 (1) p. 11.)

Submitted by L. Telford,

Health and Family Services

(416) 690-8849

F. References:

Bader, E. (1997). Being there: on what a man can do for a child. Transition (27) 2, p. 12-13. (Vanier Institute for the Family).

Carter, B. (1988) Fathers and daughters. In M. Walters, B. Carter, P. Papp & O. Silverstein, The invisible web: gender patterns in family relationships. New York: Guildford Press.

Duffy, A. (1988). Struggling with power: Feminist critiques of family inequality. In N. Mandell and A. Duffy

Reconstructing the Canadian family: Feminist perspectives. Vancouver: Butterworths.

Furstenberg, F. (1998). Social capital and the role of fathers in the family. In A. Booth & A. Crouter (Eds.) Men in families: When do they get involved? What difference does it make? New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (p. 295-301.)

Gottman, J. (1998). Toward a process model of men in marriages and families. In A. Booth & A. Crouter (Eds.)

Men in families: when do they get involved? What difference does it make? New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (p. 167-192.)

Gruber, K. (1992). Why don't I feel at home at home? Transition (22) 2, p. 16.

Jeanetta-Wark, J. (1998, April, May). Young fathers: Myths realities and strategies. Paper presented at the Family Resource Coalition of America, Chicago, IL.

Kirk M. & Ron D. (1993-6) Personal communications, Toronto.

Levant, R. (1992). Toward the reconstruction of masculinity. Journal of family psychology, 5. p. 379-402.

Levant, R. (1997). Gender equality and the new psychology of men: comments on "the politics of gender in family therapy." Journal of marital and family therapy. 43(4) p. 439-444.

Mackie, M. (1991). Gender relations in Canada. Toronto: Butterworths. (p. 233-250).

Mott, F. (1994). Sons, daughters and fathers' absence. Journal of family issues. 15(1), p. 97-28.

Osherson, S. (1992). Finding our fathers; how a man's life is shaped by his relationship with his father. NY: Fawcett Books.

Peel Health. (1997). Shades of grey: the continuum of violence. 3rd Ed. Mississauga: Author.

Pittman, F. (1994). Man enough: fathers, sons, and the search for masculinity. New York: Perigree.

Voices for Children (VFC). (1998). Fathers today. Toronto: Author.

Walters, V., Eyles, J., French, S. & Lenton, R. (1998). Gender differences in work and family life. Canadian Nurse Journal (94)2 p. 31-33.


This feature is based on a module in the university level distance education course: CVFS 401 - Family Issues I, of the Family Support Certificate at Ryerson Polytechnic University (module developed by L. Telford). For more information about the course or the certificate, contact Martha Lee-Blickstead (416) 483-4737

or Rheta Rosen (416) 979-5000 ext. 6943 .