What About the Men?

They can't have it all, either

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“What About the Men?” was the title of a Congressional briefing last week timed to commemorate National Work and Family Month. “What about them?” you may be tempted to snarl.

When Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, first went out on the road to talk about her organization’s research into men’s work-family conflict, she received many such snappish responses – and worse. Work-life experts laughed at her. Men are privileged, they said. They don’t have the right to complain. In New Orleans, when she spoke about generational differences and gender role change, she was swarmed by “angry men,” she said in the Capitol last week. “They were defensive. They were saying, ‘We played by the rules and now you’re telling us it’s not good enough.’”

That was in 2008, before the full force of the Great Recession had hit. This year, when Galinsky went out on the road again to talk about the results of a new study on male work-life conflict, published this summer as “The New Male Mystique,” she got a very different response. Some men were in tears. “Two men became emotional because they had wives at home. They felt they didn’t have permission to feel stressed about work and home, but they worried: were they good enough fathers?” she said. “‘This is what I think about each and every day,'” she recalled another man telling her. “‘I didn’t realize that anyone else did,'” he said. “He thought he was alone,” Galinsky told me. “He asked himself, ‘Am I being the father I want to be? Am I being the employer I want to be?’ Other men were less emotional, but they were agreeing.”

That men are experiencing work-family conflict isn’t new. Indeed, it’s been some time now that they – and younger men in particular – have been complaining of feeling the squeeze in even greater numbers of women. What appears to be new is that they’re starting to talk about it – just a bit. Which means that maybe they’re starting to realize that they’re not unique or alone in feeling they’re failing at the impossible task of “doing it all.”

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In other words, men just might be poised to have a collective “click” moment. “My experience,” said Galinsky, “is that, when they have permission to speak, they have a lot to say and it’s very profound and real for them.” Failure, instability, uncertainty, the self-doubt that comes from a spending a lifetime playing one game only to find, mid-way through, that the rules have suddenly changed, seem to have shaken up the old categories of self, work and meaning for many men.

Is this a bad thing? Another nail in the coffin of the Beached White Male? I’d rather see it as a moment ripe with possibility. “A new beginning,” as Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College put it at the briefing. After all, what men are starting to say sounds an awful lot like the conversational stirrings that paved the way for the modern women’s movement. The vague sort of dissatisfaction. The sense that life wasn’t adding up to be all that it was supposed to be. Even the anger from those who’d lived their lives according to the old rules then found that a new generation – or even their own spouses – didn’t value their choices, accomplishments, and sacrifices.

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For some years now, sociologists have been tracking the patterns of what they call convergence in men and women’s lives. Mostly, when we think of this, we tend to focus on how they live, what they do, spend their time, whether they do or do not empty the dishwasher or care for their children. But what about how they feel? Now that this final frontier is being breached, I wonder if we aren’t poised to see more meaningful change in men’s — and women’s and families’ — lives than ever before. That is: if we own the change and act upon it with courage, not fear.