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The season of goodwill to all dads?

by Dr John Barry

One of the iconic images of Christmas is the family sitting around the tree opening presents. Although images of this kind are commonplace at this time of year, for some people it serves as a cruel reminder of what they are missing out on. A large number of such people are fathers who won’t see their children at Christmas due to family separation and child custody issues.

In a survey of over 1,000 divorced parents, fathers went on average over three years without spending Christmas day with their children, and travelled on average 392 miles to see their children at Christmas. Another survey of 402 parents by Families Need Fathers (FNF) found that about half the children of separated families only saw one parent at Christmas. In many cases court orders for contact with the child were ignored. For those who didn’t see their children, around three quarters didn’t get a card, gift or phone call from the child. Many respondents said that parental alienation was an issue.

The mental health impact on fathers who are unable to see their children at Christmas must be enormous, inducing in some a state of grief. Very little research has been done on this topic however, which tells us some important things:

  • There is a gender empathy gap. In general, it seems likely that problems facing men aren’t noticed as much as problems facing women
  • It is the fashion to view fathers negatively. Fathers may see themselves as important to their children’s wellbeing and development, but are often viewed in a negative light by organisations that deal with issues, such as domestic violence, that can result in family breakdown
  • Sympathy for fathers is discouraged. The legal rights of fathers are often minimised or dismissed, and sympathy is sometimes actively discouraged, as shown by this workshop which makes the harmful claims that “Father’s rights groups… are interested only in reducing their financial obligation to their children [and] Are interested only in extending or regaining power and authority over ex-partners and children” (p.47).

These three issues mean that fathers don’t receive the support that they should do, and are left at risk of mental health problems, especially at key family occasions such as Christmas. Moreover, we don’t even know the true scale of the problem, because interest in this topic is discouraged so funding is virtually non-existent.

 

What can fathers do?

Although Christmas can be a very challenging time to be a father without his children, there are several things you can do, including:

  • Don’t give up. The new year is around the corner, and things might change for the better, especially if you set out a few achievable goals for yourself.
  • Talk to someone about how you feel and what you want to do about your situation. Families Need Fathers have helplines to offer practical advice and emotional support . Other helpline numbers are listed below.
  • Realise that you are not alone. There are many fathers in exactly the same situation as you are, and despite the efforts from some quarters, sympathy for your situation is increasing, even amongst the judiciary. No doubt one day common sense will prevail and fathers in the UK will no longer be treated in a way that causes such deep distress.

 

For further help over the Christmas period:

CALM is open 5pm – midnight (365 days), phone 0800 58 58 58 or webchat https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/

Samaritans are one of the few helplines that is open right through the holiday period (open 24/7, 365 days) Tel. 116 123 (UK & Ireland)

 

About the author

Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is also the topic of his new book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is co-founder of both the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS), lead organiser of the Male Psychology Conference, and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (London: Palgrave Macmillan IBSN 978-3-030-04384-1   DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1).

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Men Ageing Without Family become Invisible and Alienated

Dr Rob Hadley discusses a disturbing social trend: How Men Ageing Without Family become Invisible and Alienated (i.e. join the M. A. W. F. I. A.).

The global trend of a declining fertility rate and an increasingly ageing population has been extensively reported. Childless men are, compared to women, missing from gerontological, sociological, infertility, and psychological research. These fields have all mainly focussed on family and women, with the fertility intentions, history and experience of men not collected.

Infertility research has shown that failure to fulfil both the personal, and socially accepted, status of parenthood leads to a complex form of bereavement. The grief associated with the multiple losses, and distress levels of females and males in this population are equal to those with serious medical conditions.

Despite the high numbers, there is very little literature on the impact of male childlessness. Rob will draw on his own research and the research of others to show the impact of childlessness on men’s social wellbeing and health. He will demonstrate the structures that maintain men’s invisibility to policy makers and institutional stakeholders. Finally, he will offer solutions to the structural exclusion of men ageing without children or family.

This talk will be followed by a question and answers session with the audience.

 

About the speaker

Dr Robin Hadley specialises in understanding the experiences of involuntarily childless older men. Rob is author of the ‘Breaking Dad’ chapter in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health

 

Tickets

Tickets are required and must be shown before admission to the talk. Tickets are free and can be requested here

 

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Finding honey in the shitstorm: personal crisis, faith, and mental health.

by author and journalist, Neil Lyndon.

Recent research has suggested that men who have some religious faith are less likely to suffer depression and less likely to commit suicide.

The researchers said they were surprised to find that religious observance is, for men, a significant predictor of having mental positivity. Moreover, people who have religious faith are not put off taking their lives simply because they think it’s immoral; it seems to be more that they find resilience in their belief and from a sense of community.

Those findings came as no surprise to me. As one who suffered frequently from depression and anxiety for decades and was sometimes perilously close to suicide, I can positively affirm that the regular religious observances of the second half of my life (praying and meditating twice a day, going to church every Sunday) have immeasurably helped to heal me of that foul curse. Moreover, my religious routines have unquestionably helped to free me from lifelong addictions to self-polluting poisons and compulsive, damaging habits. Those benefits genuinely feel miraculous. I reverently give thanks for them every day.

The story of my religious odyssey crosses many way-points that are common to my generation.

Born in 1946, I was baptised into the Church of England. My parents were not churchgoers but I became a devout little boy who sang in the church choir and – like Bertie Wooster – won Religious Knowledge prizes at school. For some years, I felt called to become a priest until around the age of 13, when a moment of blinding revelation came to me in school prayers. “I don’t believe a word of this pious twaddle,” I realised, “and I am certain that the teachers who are ritualistically doling it out don’t believe a word themselves.” That epiphany – very much like the experiences recorded by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – led me, like them, to atheism and Marxism. By the age of 16, I was carrying a membership card for the Young Communist League, though I never actually signed it.

Also, around that same time, while still at school, I first consulted a GP for depression and anxiety and was prescribed anti-depressants. She knew that my father was serving a long term in prison for serious crimes and she knew that my family life at home was chaotic, making it extraordinarily difficult for me to find my way through exams to university. And already, by that age, I was habitually drinking, smoking, taking daredevil risks, living in financial chaos and messing around with half a dozen girls at a time. Drugs followed automatically.

That was to be largely the story of my early 20s until – propelled out of control by LSD, marijuana, speed, drink and some touches of heroin – I crashed into a suicidal breakdown when I was 24. A carving knife in my own hand had been pointed at my heart before a friend dragged me to the local mental hospital where – thanks to the NHS – I began my first sessions of counselling and psychotherapy and started to take trycyclic antidepressants.

While making disordered efforts to heal myself – running, swimming and progressively quitting drugs – I began, to my profound perplexity, to experience undeniable, Wordsworthian intimations of the divine – in nature, in landscape and in love. As a hardened atheist, I was at a loss to come to terms with these apprehensions of a spiritual dimension beyond the materialistic and the worldly. The birth of my first child, when I was 36, introduced me to the miracle of unconditional love – that certainty that you would give your own life for another person in a heartbeat if necessary – which itself appeared to open a doorway to the divine, though I had no clue where it might take me.

In my later thirties, I lived and worked for five years in California, where spirituality flows out of the taps. Still ensnared in the toxic coils of addiction to drink, tobacco and promiscuous sex, I sought help in expensive therapy and with Alcoholics Anonymous. My counsellor was the first person I ever met to suggest that the poetic stories of the Bible might be interpreted allegorically and that the father in heaven, the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection could all be seen as figurative expressions, enabling us to domesticate and anthropomorphise the incomprehensible divinity of the universe. Made sense to me.

A bookshop round the corner from my office in Los Angeles was packed with spiritual texts – many of which are now on my shelves at home. They introduced me to Unitarian, Jewish, Gnostic, pantheist, Buddhist and Taoist perspectives on divinity which roughly synthesised in my mind (much in the way, I later discovered, they had synthesised in Wagner’s thoughts). These diverse scraps of understanding were nailed into place with a resounding clang when, standing in an aisle of that shop one afternoon, I opened a Bible at random and came across the words of John, who said “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” That simple declaration rooted me to the spot in that shop and has rooted my life ever since

It then followed, in my early forties, that I found my way back to my spiritual home, the Church of England – not least because that devout little choirboy knew the Anglican liturgy in his bones. Because the CoE was and remains theologically derelict, I felt free to interpret its hymns, psalms, prayers and rituals in my own terms, rather than according to the precepts of an unchallengeable authority. No Pope; no heresy. By coincidence, I was confirmed in the CoE and declared my faith in a father in heaven (“metaphorically speaking”, as I would mutter under my breath) within days of the death of my own father on earth. No doubt Professor Dawkins would smirk knowingly and question the coincidence. My LA counsellor, however, would unreservedly have approved.

That confirmation took place 30 years ago next month. During those decades my religious adherence has grown ever stronger and my religious observances ever more regular and nourishing, despite a succession of Job-like trials in the 1990s.

In 1992, after building a comprehensive intellectual case for 20 years, I published No More Sex War: the Failures of Feminism – the world’s first critique of that ideology from an egalitarian, non-sexist point of view.

That book and its author were then subjected to more sustained philistine abuse than any work and any writer in our own time. Socially and professionally ostracised, I lost my income, my home and most of my friends – while the shitstorm also provided cover for the legalised abduction of my only child by his alcoholic mother.

During the 1990s, I also buried a baby who was afflicted with one of the world’s rarest malformations; was nearly killed in an accident of surreal horror; endured the breakdown of a cherished relationship in a tawdry triangle that could have been scripted for The Archers; and then became sole parent to a teenager who had run away from his hopelessly unfit mother.

Somebody who takes the Bible to be the literal truth might suppose that God was testing me (and who knows? as a beekeeper and a gardener, I do sometimes admit the possibility that a supernatural power may stand in a similar relationship to our world as I occupy in relation to my plants and insects). I would rather say that my religious devotions strengthened me to endure those trials.

However, my perception of divinity was never that of an intervening, providential Father Christmas figure who would sort out your mortgage and fix the holes in your roof if you uttered the correct magical spells and incantations. Instead, my daily prayers and meditations and weekly attendance at church are all devoted towards the same purpose as a musician might achieve by playing Bach every day. The reward for these exercises is to secure a perspective and a place in the universe – both as a being who is no more than a blade of grass or a bee and as one who, like all humans, shares in divinity through our great high priest, Jesus Christ.

That happy perspective does prove to be a sure defence against depression and suicidal feelings, to which I have been largely immune for almost 20 years. During those decades – when I have been entirely free of anti-depressant medicines – I created not just a new life but new life. I built a house; created a garden out of an acre of rough pasture; married a good woman and fathered two daughters whom we brought up as equal parents in the family set-up I had sought since I was in my twenties.

In my old age, I also – praise God Almighty – became free at last (Free At Last! Hallelujah!) of all addictions and all debt. Secure in marriage, family and faith, I now face my end with gratitude and in good heart.

As a state of mind and a state of being, we can probably agree that this is rather more desirable than facing your end at your own hand, sobbing uncontrollably in misery and despair, with a carving knife pointed at your heart.

 

About the author

Neil Lyndon is best known for his book No More Sex War (Sinclair-Stevenson 1992), described as “the world’s first egalitarian, progressive, non-sexist critique of feminism in its own terms”. Neil has also written articles for The Sunday Times, The Times, The Independent, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.

 

 

 

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The provider role indicates that masculinity is prosocial

by Belinda Brown

For decades now, masculinity has been under assault – largely by visionaries who anticipate a new gender-free social order. Creation of the new involves destruction of the old, so ‘new man’ can arise phoenix like from the patriarchal dust.

And masculinity is, after all, an easy target. Men appear to be more physically violent than women, they are more likely to kill themselves and they are much more likely to commit crime. All this has provided ballast for the concept of toxic masculinity, and has had potentially damaging consequences for male self-understanding by drawing attention to stereotypes of dysfunctional male behaviour and treating them as if they are the true nature of all men

My chapter From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity; the transformative power of the provider role  for The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental health takes a different approach.

In the chapter I ask why it is that since the beginning of recorded history men have, by and large, done the hardest most gruelling labour, given the proceeds of their labour to women and children, usually deriving little benefit for themselves. I also ask why it is that, despite earning less than men, women have extensive control over resources and, why even welfare is largely spent on women and children while the taxes to pay it are earned by men.

All this points to extraordinarily altruistic behaviour by men and this, I argue, is mystery which we should explore.

A clue to male motivations lies in men’s family role. A rich seam of data has shown that partnered men earn more than unpartnered men, married men earn more than those who are cohabiting and married men living with their own children trump the lot. And this is not simply a case of female selectivity. The data show that men appear to be responding to female preferences and need.

In order to understand why men should do this I turn to the vineyards of evolutionary psychology. This field explores how our psychological adaptations are rooted in genetic and neuroendocrine systems, which have evolved in ways that help to ensure that our descendants survive.

One of the mysteries for evolutionary psychologists is paternal investment – why do human males invest so much time and effort in women and children, when the majority of primate males do little for their own offspring. This has spawned a great deal of creative thinking about the benefits of paternal investment to evolutionary fitness, and theories have focussed on mechanisms which have brought this investment about.

My own explanation is that males have evolved to be responsive to human females. As human females choose mates who can provide for them, the corresponding desire to provide may have become biologically embedded in males. Males then become deeply attached to those infants, who they help to socialise and provide with food. The result is that men are in hock to potentially self-sacrificial behaviour because this is what ensures the survival of their genes.

If men are impelled to be responsive to females and possibly to provide for and even become attached to their children, we would expect some accompanying biological scaffolding to have evolved. My paper is only exploratory but some clues point us in directions to look.

Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that little boys start out in life more sensitive and responsive than little girls. Later, men and women experience emotion to the same depth and in similar ways. So why is it that when it comes to emotional literacy or emotional awareness women tend to assume men are second best?

The key difference is emotional expressiveness; this is the domain in which women have the upper hand. When we think of men as stoical this is only in contrast to female emotional expressivity – the other side of the coin. Female emotional expressiveness is ultimately evolutionarily adaptive. It involves the rapid translation of cognitive information into a form of behaviour which will spur others into a response.

It is not just that this female emotional expressiveness appears inbuilt. So does the male capacity to respond. Men have been found to have higher levels of empathy for women than they do for other men. If male empathic responsiveness is particularly honed to female need, then males are likely to be vulnerable to female emotional expressiveness in ways that elicit altruistic behaviour. Even where this incurs a cost.

If masculinity is essentially responsive, what underlies male providing is not the desire for status or dominance but rather to be desired by women themselves.

And this too is supported by the data. Some of the most extensive studies conducted in the social sciences are on mating preferences. And what these incontrovertibly show is that women are looking for men who will be a good financial prospect. Men respond to female cues by providing them with resources because this will further their own genetic fitness.

But what I suggest is that the value of male provisioning does not necessarily lie in its nutritional content. Male provisioning stimulates paternal attachment in the same way maternal attachment is stimulated; through the experience of having others dependent on you. Male provisioning is the cornerstone on which fathering work is built. It is linked with paternal care and having a father in the home.

That men are primed to develop paternal attachment is again suggested by the male physiological response. As men marry and have children their levels of testosterone drop which is thought to facilitate a nurturant behaviour. Research on couvade has shown that men experience many of the symptoms of pregnancy as well. Men are primed to respond to infants. Not only is there evidence they experience hormonal changes in response to the cries of their infant but they can also recognise their infant by touch.

Research from the animal kingdom has found links between provisioning behaviour and reductions in testosterone. If this was found in humans, it would provide a biological link between the act of provisioning and a nurturant response. Although such evidence may not yet exist,  there is evidence to show that when it comes to childcare it is those men who have more traditional attitudes, or those men who are actually engaged in providing for their families, who are more likely to be involved.

There are a number of hypotheses in my handbook chapter which need to be explored further and tested. They raise the possibililty that the male provider role is not simply a social construction belonging to a bygone age. Rather the provider role may be not only socially, but psychologically acting as a trigger for nurturing behaviour. It may even, as I suggest in my chapter, play a vital role in transforming a more immature and potentially ‘hegemonic’ dimension of masculinity into a more socially responsible, co-operative and nurturing form.

For these reasons, the provider role – as an important dimension of masculinity – deserves further investigation. If it emerges that it is not only socially but also psychologically salient, then perhaps we need to start encouraging provisioning in men.

 

About the author

Belinda Brown is a Social Anthropologist who writes about family and gender issues.

Belinda’s chapter, From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity; the transformative power of the provider role, appears in The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental health, is available here https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030043834#aboutBook

DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1

 

 

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