12 May Should Men Redefine Their Role In The 21st Century?
The Changing Landscape Of Fatherhood
Four years ago, I travelled to Vancouver, Canada, to drop my daughter Ira off to the University of British Columbia as she embarked on the next chapter of her life. She was just eighteen years old. Ten days later, it was time for me to leave Vancouver. Ira and I decided to have breakfast before I left. It was a bright sunny morning when we sat at a buzzing university cafe. There was a palpable anxiety even in the din of shouts for coffee and croissants. For me, it was time to leave my kiddo alone to navigate life and she needed to start the rite of passage to adulthood. She walked with me to the taxi stand and after giving her a tight hug, I was off to the airport. On the way back, I struggled with myriad emotions. It hit me that my daughter was going to enter the proverbial big bad world. 10,000 miles away from home! A vague question kept circling in my head — Have I been a good father? Only Ira can answer this.
I have grappled with this question time and again. More so now, when as a counsellor, I help other children and parents. During college application season, the process takes over everyone’s life and we all go through an emotional roller-coaster ride. I see anxious, stressed parents, but the fathers are mostly in the background.
So, this rhetorical question is for all men. What is to be a man or a husband or a father in the 21st century. Let’s dive into it, especially in the world that we are in now. Ira went to a very good school in Mumbai. The school is unusual because a parents’ cooperative body operates it. The school had mothers’ groups for all school activities: mothers doing kitchen duties, mothers to coordinate school bus schedules, mothers for picnics, mothers to organise physics printouts, etc. Fathers, on the other hand, seemed conspicuous by their absence in children’s school lives. Why does our society, even in this day and age divide gender roles so neatly? Does society continue to put impossible demands on women?
In a world where every year, participation of women in economic activities is increasing, it is impossible not to confront the issue of the role of men. In some sense, the genie is out of the bag. One of the big social changes that happened after the Second World War was women’s induction into the workforce in large numbers. In the time of wars, due to the shortage of workers, women were drafted to do so-called industrial jobs which was mostly a man’s domain at the time. It inadvertently created a new paradigm — economic independence for women. That’s what I mean by saying the genie is out and you can’t put it back. The Industrial revolution negated the need for physical force for accomplishing mundane tasks and economic liberation took away the last bastion for men to control women. The progress is not smooth but it represents a cataclysmic social change, a bloodless coup in some ways. This change warrants the rhetorical question — What’s the role of men in a world where being a provider isn’t their exclusive domain?
Understanding The Nature Of Men’s Role
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. First, the role of a father. The etymology of the word “father” suggests respect and reverence for an elder male or ancestors. The word is used to address religious leaders or other respected male members of the tribe. The word “father” has deep social and cultural significance and it relates to family, lineage, heritage and respect for male authority.
Research has shown that fathers play an important role in promoting positive outcomes including academic achievement, self-esteem and establishing risk-taking boundaries. Fathers are spending more time with their children than any previous generation. And, that’s the reason for getting this question out in the open and debating about it.
Now, let’s look at the role of men. This article is not another piece on male bashing: blaming all social ills on patriarchy and masculine toxicity is not on my mind. The core thought here is to explore what it is to be man in the 21st century. It is to understand the role of men when the archetype of a provider is not sufficient.
Connecting Job Market Realities With Men’s Self-Worth
The next step is to understand the nature of man’s role. Are there innate behavioural traits — aggression, dominance, power, possessiveness, violence — that defines masculinity. Anthropologist David Gilmore in his book Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity dives into the cultural construct of masculinity across cultures and societies. His work highlights that masculinity is not a biologically determined phenomenon but varies according to cultural context. In many societies, like Aka people of Central Africa, men play an active caregiver role. The Mosuo people of China are a matrilineal society where women are the breadwinners and head of the family. Gilmore argues that social norms, cultural practices and rituals set markers for masculinity. There are no predefined behaviour norms. Men are not born toxic, power hungry or uncouth. Social conditions play an important role. Gilmore highlights the importance of sports for boys to teach competitiveness, aggression, collaboration and emotional restraints. The basic point here is that society can set new norms and that’s where an open discussion of masculinity will help all sides.
A deeper understanding of masculinity challenges our conventional notion of innate aggression and dominance. There are many different strands available for men and it will be useful to discuss alternate behavioural norms available to men in a globalised world.
I have also looked at some interesting work done by Richard Reeves, Researcher and Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, in his latest book Of Boys and Men: Why The Modern Man Is Struggling, Why It Matters And, What To Do About It? Reeves talks of changes in the social and economic environment that upended normal social norms and left men “adrift and underpowered.” It is a remarkable book and presents data to show the challenging environment for men today.
Reeves presents new social realities and a newly minted acronym HEAL (Health, Education, Administration and Literacy) as an economic option for men instead of the popular STEM. It is of utmost importance to connect new job market realities with men as their self-worth is closely linked to it. Most of the new job roles will require a blend of cognitive abilities as well as so-called soft skills. That’s why a new work order should be available to boys and not seen as ‘soft roles.
I have a few ideas (unconventional perhaps!) to extend this discussion further and here I share three areas where the conversation can take place:
1. Real Men Cry:
In the 2009 Australian Open final, Roger Federer lost to his nemesis Rafael Nadal. During the presentation ceremony, he was visibly moved and somehow muttered, “God, it’s killing me” and he sobbed on stage in front of thousands of spectators. Federer is a generation-defying icon and his appeal goes far beyond the tennis court. In some strange way, he made it okay for men to cry. At least, I felt so after watching tennis that evening.
There are very few occasions when there is an unspoken social sanction for men to cry. Crying is a valid emotion (like any other emotion) and when a celebrity does it in full public view, it gives space to others. By removing the social taboo around men crying, we can create space for men to be in touch with their emotions and feel comfortable with their vulnerabilities.
2. Men Can Expand Their Vocabulary:
While growing up in Delhi, I once dropped my father to his workplace. We travelled for more than an hour and hardly spoke with each other. Now he is no more and often I regret my inexplicable behaviour that day. There are many jokes that a father and son can only share with each other while watching cricket matches or TV news.
In most parties, men need a couple of drinks to soothe their nerves and then recite Ghalib. This is what we can change. Can Ghalib, Mir, Gulzar, Rafi or Arijit come before alcohol? Of course, it can. Men need to recognise and support each other. It is not that men don’t have an emotional vocabulary. It just needs a nudge. Let the nudge come from family and friends; alcohol can come later (if need be!).
3. The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues Of The Samurai
In the nineteenth century, Japanese educator, Nitobe Inazo wrote his most famous work, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. He interpreted the traditional samurai code for modern men: how chivalrous men should act in their personal and professional lives. Nitobe expounded on Eight Virtues: Rectitude (Justice), Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Honesty & Sincerity, Honour, Loyalty, Character & Self-Control. Remember, this code was for Samurai men, best of the warrior class.
In my opinion, men don’t (and shouldn’t) need to become lesser men to prove their worth. But what being a man means, needs discussions. That’s where I love the Bushido Code. It sets a high bar for a man — possess moral and spiritual courage; politeness and self-control are high virtues. As Confucius said, Courage is doing what is right. I hope we, men, reflect and introspect on what it is to be a man.
It is not easy to be a man. There are always competing demands that are placed on us. However, human conditions are never static. Societies are like rivers, always charging ahead. Women have shown remarkable courage and have been able to jettison the social shackles. I hope in the 21st century men can rediscover their innate sense of courage, passion, brotherhood and at the same time, also embrace their vulnerable side.
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