Watching the third and final episode of Gus Worland’s remarkable show Man Up (ABC TV, 8.30pm Tue 25 Oct) I was so pleased to see some female faces on screen in a show elsewhere seeming to be by blokes, about blokes, and for blokes. Fair enough for a show called Man Up, you could say, but is it actually fair? In fairness to blokes – and that is what this show seemed to be pursuing, fairness – don’t we need to hear more from women?
In one scene at a pub, men stood up and spoke at a microphone of their struggles, and among the audience were women watching with care and concern. In another scene Gus attended a speed dating night to find out what women want, and found some unsurprisingly articulate female voices offering advice some men may have found surprising: give me sensitive and caring over strong and silent any day. Here were women’s faces and voices adding something vital to the show’s mission, I think.
As a perinatal psychiatrist I have been listening to men and women talk about becoming mums and dads in the 21st century for long enough to feel kind of bilingual. I think I see where the women are coming from: millennia of appalling male oppression still far from over in so many aspects of society, the inherently unfair burden childbirth places on them body and mind, and to top it off, experiencing their blokes as not getting it, as not being there, and as firing up or shutting down when called on it.
But I’ve also heard the more common male stories enough too. Absence of good male role models, confusion about what makes a good 21st century man, isolation from peers around childbirth, a feeling they can’t win at work or at home, that they can only do a half-arsed job at either end. Feelings of inadequacy, failure to Man Up. Joining a long line of history’s Bad Men.
Actually, that’s all a bit articulate. That kind of personal story we get to once the man and I do more talking, listening and thinking together. When he first walks in it’s more like ‘I’m here because I lost it at home’ or ‘I’m sleeping on the couch’. Sometimes it’s ‘in Emergency they couldn’t find anything wrong. So I’m here.’
Watching Man Up talking about the awful rates of male suicide in Australia, I see these men in my practice are the lucky ones, who aren’t too ashamed of themselves to seek help. In learning how to help them I heard revered US author Dan Hughes speak; he told us guilt and shame differ importantly. Both involve feeling something has gone badly wrong, but Hughes reckons that while guilt can feel quite intense, there is still enough hope and self-confidence to reach out for help to repair things. Feelings of shame, however can be more intense – you can feel like you’ll be overwhelmed – and in that state things just don’t seem fixable, it’s all too hard. Instead of reaching out you shrink inwards, hiding away alone with these strong feelings you may not even be able to name.
I see the women and men for whom guilt has overridden shame, helping them vote with their feet and show up to see me. Once upon a time I saw mostly women in my practice. That was until I worked out how to reach the men too. Shame could be a big reason why it’s so hard for some men to ask for help: Why would you tell anyone anything if you feel you’re so much to blame that you can’t imagine anyone wanting or being able to help?
Gus Worland seems to be on a long overdue and essential mission to elevate the public profile of our male suicide problem, and I think a sleeper issue here is male shame. Every time I see another news story of yet another man representing us men in public with violence or other wrongdoing, part of me retracts from the awfulness – it’s all too hard. I can feel a bit of collective shame, a bit like hiding. Fatherhood guru Richard Fletcher describes seeing young schoolboys shrink into their seats upon hearing that the Port Arthur gunperson (yes, a mostly redundant term) was a man. Boys and men alike can feel like hiding when reminded how bad it is possible for men to be.
Can we actually think some more as a society, about how bad it is possible for men to feel? Because this where is it is clear to me that male shame is everyone’s problem. We have lowered the death toll on our roads largely through prevention; to lower the death toll from male suicide and other stress-related illnesses in boys and men we must also look for every opportunity for prevention. This means continuing efforts to get mental health care to boys and men who need it, but we can clearly start much earlier – when life starts, before that even. A boy begins life in the minds of his mum and dad the day they learn they could one day grow up and have a child. Every step along the way, male shame can be created or prevented, by men and – here’s the thing – by women, too.
How do you – woman or man – reach a boy or man hiding in shame? I had to learn this or I would not have reached many of the men I have served in my practice. I call it strengths-first engagement which in everyday words just means you start with a positive so you can help with the negatives. Dads in my dads’ groups are first asked ‘what’s the best thing about fatherhood so far?’ This gets them talking, telling proud stories of homecomings, celebrations of milestones. Then it’s safer to ask ‘what’s the hardest thing?’ That conversation is trickier, but so much more important. Strengths-first engagement builds a bridge for men overwhelmed, anxious, lost in the demands of work and home life to be able to think and know something more of their emotions, to face their pain rather than hide from it. Because there’s a bridge, they won’t be so alone in this vital task.
So, women and men, parents and teachers, anyone who cares about a boy or a man: if Man-ing Up is the mission, start with a positive. From the moment you find out about the life of a baby boy, ask yourself how you can reach him, honour and respect his life with all its thoughts and feelings. Try so hard to help him bring himself into the world, to learn to share his inner life with others.
Especially when things go wrong. Often we need things to go wrong to learn more about how to make them right! Strive to make it okay for a boy and the man he becomes to allow others to see where he struggles, so they can help.
It goes against the grain of so much history, but that’s the point. You change the course of the history of masculinity not one boy or man at a time, but one relationship at a time. There’s so much potential at this moment in our history to break these awful intergenerational cycles of male shame and harm, to open up the hearts of boys and men. To miss that opportunity would be a crying shame.
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Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my colleagues and mentors who assisted with their feedback in the production of this article.