Do I ever feel inadequate as a man, as a father, as a husband, as an employee, as a son, a brother, a friend, a Christian? Abso-freaking-lutely!
Why? Because every role and title I hold carries list of expectations. And these expectations are fuelled by internally adopted measures along with all those everyday life places on me.
Now some of you may think, like me, that at middle age with 20+ years of marriage and three children I’d have my shit together or defeated all my demons, but I haven’t. Every year and with every passing poem or hard conversation I realise how wide the chasm between reality and expectation is . Heck, I’m only just coming to terms with the patchy permanent greyness of my hair, let alone the truth that my pursuit of being remotely cool or trendy is officially over. Any over-confident attempt otherwise is likely to make my teenage daughter’s Snapchat feed along with the overlay ‘My dad’s lameness is almost cute.’
As for parenting, the truth that it is near impossible to raise children to be both free-thinkers and compliant humans is beginning to wave it’s bony middle finger in my face saying, ‘What did you expect? You can’t have both, mate!’. Should I be surprised? Yet, I am because actively and intentionally attempting to raise children who are remotely functional and resilient has been the hardest and most thankless task of my existence. You imagine less dysfunction. You imagine less incompetence. You imagine that even if you think it’s tacky, if you wanted, you’d have the parental influence to get each of your children in a white linen shirts for an iconic family photo at the beach with a well groomed Labrador (why do they always have Labs?). But you’ll never see that kind of photo on our wall, especially now the eldest nearly has her drivers license, the middle one demands more phone-time and the youngest regularly needs bribing with generous amounts of sugar. In fact, each of my kids is so different you’d think they grew up with different parents – which, come to think of it, they have as Natalie and I evolved and poured thousands of hours and dollars into battling the generational giants we were handed – knowing now that our kids will have their own battles and although we’d rather not leave them our giants, they’ll definitely have their own parental wounds to work through too.
What I really wonder about, (perhaps slightly too often), is where the hell all the men highlighting this great sense of inadequacy are. Sure, there are the occasional podcasters and authors that pop up and then disappear when sponsorships run out or the product they’re peddling doesn’t sell but let me be honest, if you still have the pain-free body of an 18 year old, have a single 2-year-old child, are financially secure and in your early thirties can you please put the guru mic down and come back to me at 45 or 50! I want some bags under those eyes. I want you to raise or co-raise more kids. I want you to lose your job and wonder how you’ll pay the rent next week. I want you to face at least one mental health crisis. I want you to see your partner to lose their shit at you because you’re honestly still not pulling your share of house-chores. In other words, I want you to die before you die. Lose your ego to the battle of everyday life for a decade. Then, and only then, come back to us when you’re re-constructing life from the tired bottom as a truth teller whose shame filled defences are just too exhausted to pretend anymore.
It may be just me, but I am so incredibly jealous to see so many more options for elders and wisdom teachers among women. Sure there are the mum bloggers and insta-influencers who need to snap out of the illusionary perfect life they portray (or have temporarily been handed,) but at least women have a rising movement of other women who are pushing against the toxic feminine norms with immense energy, smarts and vulnerability. I am thinking of the women who write on the genuine struggle of raising teens. Or those with less that magazine-cover bodies dancing, moving, holding themselves with giant smiles of self-acceptance and love. I am thinking of female comedians who laugh about sagging boobs, children they forgot about at school and pelvic floor dysfunction. I’m thinking of global champions like Brene Brown who say it how it is without being mean, judgemental and pretentious dicks.
I guess my question is, where are the vulnerable confessing men being celebrated and highlighted? Where are the middle-aged men with their average dad bods shooting viral videos of them dancing in an embodied and loving way – without being stereotyped outside their heterosexual identity? Where are the dad blogs and books being promoted of men fighting everyday esteem and acceptance battles and just scraping through for the month? Why are so many popular and esteemed men those who’ve ‘arrived’ at some measure of success? You’ve seen them; hot wife, big cars, mini mansion, bio-hacking, side-hustle millionaires with passive income, fuck-you attitudes, neurotypical good-looking kids, fancy holiday pics, craft whiskey, hunting trips and chests big enough to sell real estate on. I mean, really? What planet do you live on to think any of that is real, attainable or some kind of mark or manhood? What can be said of these men’s kindness, generosity, gentleness, charity, spirituality or relational openness?
Again, back to my question, where are these celebrated honest confessors? Because I dare say we need them right now. Beyond Blue‘, a mental health support service, provides these sobering facts on men in Australia:
Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.
Men are far less likely to seek help for mental health conditions than women.
One in seven Australian men will experience anxiety or depression or both in any year.
Given that men are less likely than females to experience anxiety or depression, there is still an alarming rate of suicide and a great apprehension to seek help when they are suffering.
I’m sure there are more qualified and studied people to be saying this but I think the narrative has got to change around masculinity and those who identify as men. I know haven’t made much mention of Christian elements here, suffice to say they come with a whole other array of expectations and new ways to feel inadequate. Some of you may even be ready to write to me, disappointed with my lack of reference to the hope of God, the need to read and believe scripture more or my lack of work around my identity in Christ, let alone my coarse language… but again, all this provides more (religious) yard sticks to measure up to. More laws. More expectations. Many of which Jesus seemed to butt up against in his day too.
I have a hypothesis around what I see as a paradoxical challenge many well-meaning men face. And this is by no means solitary or incredibly well supported by data here – it is simply an observation and meditation of mine.
When inadequacies are experienced across so many areas for men today, I see two predominant responses emerging:
The first response looks like a well crafted assault on anything that makes these men feel less-than adequate. That assault may be expressed in many ways including relentless self improvement, violent retaliation to anything or anyone exposing their shortcomings, or wilful denial of all feelings in a stoic attempt to survive. We know that many of these actions springing up from roots of shame and trauma.
The second response looks like total defeat. These men live with an overwhelming awareness of their inadequacies to the point they lay down and cycle through waves of disappointment in themselves and from others to the point they feel utterly hopeless and in a constant state of malaise. Numbing out and employing well crafted reasons for their state might be employed as coping mechanisms. Again, we know that many of these actions are a response to unresolved shame and trauma.
I can relate to both response attempts. I’m guessing other men may also. I have spent time travelling between both camps and have fading achievement badges from both tribes. Yet, I’m at this point where I’m wondering, like so many of our brave female friends and mentors, if we men should be seeking to practice a third way of responding to inadequacy; this being, acceptance.
Perhaps we should be telling perfection to piss off. Perhaps we should suggest the same to those around us who are clearly projecting their own sense of inadequacy on us with unreasonable expectations. Perhaps we should befriend our inadequacies instead of fighting or falling prey to them. Perhaps the heros we should esteem are those who booked an appointment with a mental health specialist when they felt the onset of depression and/or anxiety. – not numbing it out by whatever means. Perhaps more men need to realise how spectacular they are trying as partners, dads, sons, workers and friends – because I have to tell you, the amount of engaged and intentional young dads I see out in the community today is unbelievable. Seriously, I know young dads with more photos of their kids in their phones than the amount of times their own dads looked at them!
Perhaps the way forward begins with becoming carefully and vulnerably aware of our inadequacies and holding them so close to our spirit that the voice of our false-self and fractured social narrative is muffled by the deep sense that no man can measure up to all the marks of manhood, therefore no man besides yourself, gets to set the measure of a man.
So set that bar at a reasonable height, and tell any inner or outer voice of inadequacy that wants you to set it higher to mind their own bloody business… and learn to love yourself across a lifetime.