Man Up is the romantic comedy of the moment, But the phrase ‘man up’ really annoys, Caroline Allen who thinks it sends out the wrong message to men about mental health
BEING a man has changed, to quote a TV advert for a well known fast food chain. However, the perception of traditional roles still runs deeply throughout society.
One of Intel’s newest vice-presidents, Cork native Margaret Burgraff, was recently quoted as saying that her American husband — a stay at home dad — encountered far more discrimination as a father in the homeplace than she did as a woman at work.
Former GAA president Liam O’Neill also raised the need to redefine masculinity at a recent awards ceremony at Mountrath Community School, Co Laois. Boys are not taught or don’t know how to express — to the same extent as girls — the language of emotions, he contended.
Having collaborated with the Gaelic Players’ Association on suicide prevention, O’Neill said there was a real need to prevent mental health difficulties before they arose rather than dealing with problems when they surfaced.
“This isn’t just about GAA or sport, but if a six-year-old girl is injured on the playing field, she is reaffirmed and reassured whereas a boy of the same age will be told ‘Big boys don’t cry’. Boys very quickly learn to hide their feelings,” says O’Neill.
“From a playing point of view, it’s also about not shouting at boys, but encouraging them. If a child is shouted at, it will take up to 20 positive remarks to bring them back to the level they were at previously — with an adult it will take four or five,” he said.
“If we dealt differently with boys from day one and taught them the language of emotion and that it is okay for big boys to cry and to express their feelings, it would eliminate a lot of difficulties later on,” O’Neill said.
It would also be in line with the message from mental health professionals that men need to open up about depression rather than trying to ‘man up’ and keep things to themselves.
The masculine identity is still aligned with a sense of ‘manning up’ which involves dominance, aggressiveness and not showing weakness, concurred Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist at St Patrick’s Hospital, and the author of a new parenting book Cop On (Gill & Macmillan.)
“There is still an emphasis on raising boys to be tough so as they won’t be pushed around and this is a concern of many parents, but perhaps in doing this, we stunt their ability to express unhappiness, pain or worry,” says Noctor.
“There is a need for children to establish resilience and this is achieved by giving them surmountable stress so that they can learn to overcome, and not by over protecting or overwhelming them with unmanageable stress. Yet this balance is hard to achieve.”
On a wider scale, Noctor said, we have become a society that encourages people to talk about their emotions while still not being being comfortable with people — especially boys — showing emotion.
“This is problematic. We have never been more encouraging of people talking but we have become overly concerned with brevity and conciseness. ‘Tell me how you feel but do it in less than 147 characters’.”
While strides have been made in advancing equality in the workplace, many feel there is still a long way to go to ensure men and employers are happy to promote a culture of acceptance when it comes to males availing of parental leave and paternity leave.
The earning potential of women can still intimidate some men and affect relationships, said Noctor. This combined with the loss of traditional male-dominated jobs such as construction, finance and manufacturing, during the downturn, has seen more stay-at-home fathers.
While this is a sensible solution for many households, some women admit to a prejudice — despite their feminist beliefs — that a man who doesn’t work is a lesser being.
There have been tales of stay at home dads being ignored on the social circuit because they are ‘only’ househusbands and of feelings of isolation and boredom.
While professional services are generally still very traditional work environments, the technology and social media sectors are among those with supportive cultures when it comes to flexible working for all, according to Fredericka Sheppard of Voltage Human Resources.
She says there is a shift in thinking, with more dads doing school drop-offs and collections. Just as companies can benefit by allowing valued employees time off to travel, so too can they retain experienced male employees by recognising their role as involved dads.
Positive role models include David Beckham who is proud of his role as a hands-on dad, supporting wife Victoria as she builds her burgeoning fashion empire.
Rugby star Brian O’Driscoll has said that he would be happy to move abroad so that his wife Amy can progress her acting career.
While Noctor agrees that ‘manning up’ is still an issue, he is hopeful that we are moving towards a more rounded idea of what that concept means.
“Often we demonise fathers for lacking empathy when they encourage their child to ‘man up’ but this can often come from a place that is hoping for the child to be able to be robust and not vulnerable to bullies as opposed to just being cruel.
As parents we can get this wrong and over-burden and over-protect our children. We need to encourage emotional expression akin to the child’s age. What is appropriate for a three-year-old is different to that for a 16-year-old.
“All emotional expression needs to happen in moderation and we have a responsibility to mediate that with children and adolescents so they can express — and contain — emotion as appropriate and proportionately to events in their lives,” says Noctor.
Good role models, he suggested, include Bressie and Alan Quinlan.
“They are two guys who have championed the idea that it’s okay to talk and it’s okay not to be okay. Although they are closely aligned with mental health promotion, they are good advocates for being able to ‘man up’ and struggle simultaneously.”
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