Monday, September 25, 2023

Father’s Day highlights tricky relationship between men

Father’s Day beckons many to show fathers love and appreciation, not just for their role in their conception, but in raising them. In our culture at large, daughters seem to have an easier time expressing affection toward their fathers than do sons.

Though men are more prone to discomfort expressing emotion in general, that discomfort doesn’t seem to interfere with their ability to express love and affection toward their mothers, on Mother’s Day or other days. So why the emotional block for sons with our fathers on Father’s Day? Boys have been socialized by their fathers and male elders to comply with the unwritten rules of the “pecking order” of male social groups. To survive in this pecking order, boys are trained particularly by their fathers to avoid traits like tenderness and emotional sensitivity, that might make them vulnerable. Not only do these traits leave men exposed in the pecking order, but they also present obstacles to many of the burdensome tasks — like hunting for food and fighting in armed battle — that men have traditionally performed for millennia. 

The socialization of boys in the pecking order has led to them cultivating traits of masculinity that include aggressiveness, assertiveness, dominance, and forcefulness. The adoption of these traits has helped men to fulfill the duties that traditional societies have bestowed upon them, but in today’s world, these traits make it difficult for men to express love and affection to other men in the pecking order, including their fathers. There is often significant and obvious damage and wounds, a repressed longing. Many men are love starved for their fathers (and fathers for their sons) and deny it. To let this out of the bag is to face a great deal of anger, rejection and sadness.

Although fatherhood has changed, the expectations of fatherhood remain rooted in a traditional gendered division of labour reinforced by hegemonic masculinity. That is, the primary expectations for fathers reflect dominant masculine norms such as providing and lack of emotional expression. Yet men increasingly embrace the new fatherhood ideal, which emphasizes roles more traditionally aligned with maternal parenting expectations, such as caregiving. Contemporary fatherhood is characterized by the expectation that men should be highly involved in parenting, contribute significant time to housework, and be an engaged and equitable spouse, partner, or coparent – the new fatherhood ideal. To this end, men are more engaged with their families than ever before. 

Although societal pressures, political and institutional barriers, and gender expectations often prevent men from their ideal levels of involvement, more fathers report that emotional availability, family time, and father–child bonding are important today than in previous generations. For so many men, it is not until their fathers become weakened with age or illness — embodying the proverbial “lion in winter” that they feel safe enough to express tender, heartfelt emotion to them. There are many reasons why relationships between fathers and sons are complicated. For many men the only thing standing in their way of expressing love and appreciation toward their fathers is the unwritten code of traditional masculinity.

Clinical psychologist in Gaborone, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The father-son relationship and attachment can go a long way in enhancing boys’ and young men’s’ capacity for developing emotional expressiveness, understanding how to manage their feelings in difficult situations, coping with stress, and normalizing the experience of having negative or difficult emotions rather than seeing it as a weakness. The role of fathers in shaping healthy masculinity in their sons cannot be discounted or ignored. Moreover, how do fathers navigate their own masculinity and self-identities, as shaped by their experiences and by their family structures and expectations? Gender roles, gender ideals, and gender identity are largely taught and passed on within the family structure and is taught to us through observation, conversation, and parent-child interaction. Fathers who can actively model empathy and compassion in their own familial interactions, can demonstrate flexibility across masculine ideals, and can be attuned to their own emotions and express them.”

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang says, “Vulnerability is not a typically valued masculine ideal. However, the consequences of teaching young boys that it is not okay to be vulnerable can restrict their emotional bandwidth in their relationships and self-identities. Outward expressions of affection and warmth, expressing genuine pride as a parent, and spending time together, engaging in father-son activities, is positively regarded and valued by sons, and deepens the bond they share. These behaviours detail an active and involved level of communication between father and son. Being able to share both verbal and non-verbal communication about emotions can be a positive experience for children. 

However, if you are a son reading this now, and the only thing standing in your way of expressing love and appreciation toward your father is the unwritten code of traditional masculinity, it is my hope that you don’t wait until your father is old or ill to do so. Father’s Day offers an opportunity to deepen your relationship while it’s still early enough to enrich both of your lives.”


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