Silence and invisibility are pervasive themes in men’s lives and there is a powerful contradiction at the heart of it all. On one hand, men are highly audible and visible in our society. On the other hand, a man’s masculinity tends to be measured in large part by his ability to make his public accomplishments widely seen and heard, while keeping his inner life silent and invisible. For this, men, women, children, families and communities pay substantially. When men hide their vulnerability, rather than communicate it openly and directly, it “leaks” out in other ways that are highly destructive, such as suicide, anger, depression, substance abuse and others.
The effects of silence and invisibility are not always so dramatic. But they can still have powerful effects on a man’s life at crucial times. And this is true not just for men who tend to have trouble with emotions. I’ve experienced firsthand just how pervasive these processes are, and how they can come into play at important times in a man’s life.
My daughter was born Sept. 28, 2001, just two weeks after 9/11. Needless to say, the weeks leading up to her birth were filled with anxiety. In addition to the normal anxiousness all parents go through during pregnancy and birth, my wife and I were also experiencing the additional fear and uncertainty that affected all Americans following the terrorist attacks.
Like many parents-to-be, we attended a series of birthing classes and they continued up until the day before our daughter was born. The classes occurred in groups of anywhere from four to eight couples who had no relationship with one another except for the fact that we were all expecting a child. The majority of the time was spent on the nuts and bolts of the birthing process. The instructor focused primarily on women’s bodies and exactly how a baby made it from the womb to the world.
Periodically, I glanced at the men in the room and tried to gauge what was going on inside of them. None of them looked comfortable. Most were sitting up straight in their chairs and staring straight ahead. And I was certainly not comfortable myself. The images of a child being born were terrifying. I simply couldn’t imagine my wife’s body doing that. And if it did, I wasn’t sure I could handle watching it. When you combined this with the general fears about fathering that most men experience around the birth of their first child, it all added up to a pretty healthy dose of anxiety.
But we weren’t talking about any of that. Instead we talked about how we could be of help to our partners during the birthing process. In other words, we were re-establishing the “provider-supporter” role, and in the process, we all willingly agreed that talking about what we, as men, were experiencingwas off limits. Don’t get me wrong. The process of giving birth to a child is extremely stressful for women. But I am quite certain that many, if not all, men feel helpless and concerned during the process of labor, and we are given virtually no tools to deal with it. Encouraging our partners to “breathe, breathe, breathe” only helps us by giving us something to do, and often it is of little or no help to our partners.
Toward the end of the last birthing class, the instructor divided the women and the men. All the men went into a separate room where we sat in a circle and waited awkwardly for the instructor to arrive. We weren’t encouraged to talk to one another for even a few minutes, despite the fact that we were all going through a similar set of extremely powerful experiences — most of us for the first time. So here we were, eyes shifting from one to another, not sure what was expected of us. In time, the instructor arrived. She asked us to spend about 15 minutes discussing our fears and concerns about the process of having a child and to make a list to share with the women. In the span of a few seconds, silence swept over the room.
There are three types of silence that are so common in our lives we rarely notice them despite their pervasive influence. Private silence occurs when men know what’s really going on in their lives but choose to keep it to themselves. Private silence has long been celebrated as a marker of “real manhood.” Personal silence keeps many men from even knowing what we’re truly thinking or feeling in vulnerable times — in effect, they are silent and invisible to themselves. Public silence occurs when others let us know that we should keep our vulnerability in check. Public silence is not necessarily an intentional or conscious process.
Male vulnerability in society can be viewed as shameful and, as a result, men can’t help but publicly silence one another. Our birthing instructor probably wasn’t thinking about publicly silencing us, but that’s exactly what she did. As she left the room, she said, “Really, you can discuss football for most of the time and then jot a few things down at the last minute.” We all chuckled nervously, quickly looked around at one another, and then proceeded to discuss how the New England Patriots were doing. What else could we do at that point? Then, with a couple of minutes left, one guy reminded us we would look pretty dumb if we didn’t have a list when we got back.
Unfortunately, we never got to acknowledge our real fears. But if we had, I suspect our list might have looked something like this: What if I can’t handle the labor process and have to leave the room? Will my partner think less of me? What if the sight of my wife’s body giving birth is physically disgusting to me and it affects how desirable I find her in the future? What if she is in so much pain that there’s nothing I can do? What if I fail to help her? What if I do not feel love for the baby right at first? What would that mean about me? What if my wife and baby die during the process?
These were the real fears, the silent fears. Like all human beings, men need connections in their lives; we need to be able to share our experiences and seek support when times get tough. Being part of communities of shared experience reinforces the fact that we are not alone in our struggles. But the ways we continue to teach the meaning of manhood to young boys and men makes seeking and finding such support extremely difficult for many of us.
Returning to the parenting class ... My point is not that we needed to shed tears, have a big group hug and process our feelings for several hours. What we needed, and what so many men need when life gets challenging, was the opportunity to be seen and heard, by ourselves and by one another.
Unfortunately, private, personal and public silence have become so common in men’s lives that they exert their power automatically, rarely even coming into question. I think it’s time for men to stand up and be seen and heard. Not for only for our physical or financial achievements, but equally for our humanity.