Parenting, Masculinity and PhD during COVID-19

I have written in various forums regarding my experiences of parenting during the UK lockdown, in this blog I will explore some of the more subtle experiences I have had and how they can relate to dystopian fiction. At the start of the lockdown my mind was whirring with the various incarnations of dystopian fictions I have read over the years. I was in the middle of re-reading ‘The Year of the Flood’ by Margaret Atwood and the similarities between that virus catastrophe and our own was unnerving. As the lockdown continued, I can now reflect back on experiences of anxiety, self isolation, social distancing and nuclear family life with a degree of clarity.

I will start with the early feelings of fear and anxiety I experienced at the start of this pandemic. I followed the emerging situation from January and associated much of the story with fictional scenarios I am particularly familiar with through my love of dystopian fiction. I started to think about ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy and the means of survival as a family. That story beautifully portrays the contrast between tender love and essential survival through a spare, masculine lens. In my reaction to the developing pandemic, I drew on the survival narrative to perform an audit of the things we needed to survive if things went badly wrong… This includes canned foods, a tent, basic survival clothing and equipment etc. I am woefully ill-equipped to actually perform the necessary survival actions such as camping, but I find it oddly reassuring to have these ‘things’ available should we need them. When I reflect on this, I think this relates to my masculine identification to protect my family from harm. I wonder if this relates to the breadwinner identity that my wife embodies as the primary wage earner? Regardless of it’s origins, my anxiety and fear, stoked by a bank of dystopian fiction scenarios, was the primary catalyst!

Early in the pandemic in March, before the UK lockdown, I entered my own period of self isolation during which I confronted the possibility of my own mortality. My self isolation was due to developing a persistent, dry cough, diarrhoea, early mild fever and persistent mouth ulcers. In those early days, I genuinely considered the possibility of not surviving. This was after hearing of healthy adults of my age who had been admitted to ITU and intubated. Knowing that survival at that stage is roughly 50%, I was genuinely worried about my prospects. I remember feeling relieved that my journal article had been accepted and would be published as this would secure my legacy and a semblance of my voice in public for posterity. I recognise this is a very self-indulgent thought, but I have always felt an urge to contribute to the story of humanity in some way and it is a great motivator for my continuing efforts to write and publish. When I contemplate my experiences of masculinity during my self isolation, confronting my mortality (even if briefly) was a strangely calm process. I did not ‘perform’ this calmness completely as the conversations were still occurring in my head. However, when with my wife and child, I acted as a protective shield by not discussing these thoughts and instead presenting a persona of control and calmness. I associate this protective performance with my unconscious stoic masculinity, something I have previously discussed. I found the self isolation very oppressive and can only imaging how horrible it must have been for those who have been shielding for many weeks. Though my self isolation and morbid thoughts were thankfully short-lived, I learned a lot about my sense of self and my identity construction as a man in such scenarios.

After self-isolation, the protracted months of social distancing have become increasingly normalised. I, like many others, have found the reality of social distancing very strange. I am not an overzealous hugger, but I am happy to embrace a colleague or friend as well as the everyday common contact of a handshake and pat on the arm or shoulder. Such physical interactions form the vernacular of contemporary western masculinity in the workplace and I am intrigued to see what survives in the post COVID-19 world. These small social cues typify what I perceive as masculine acceptance and collegiality in the workplace, especially amongst male peers. I still recall conversations with my parents about the importance of a firm handshake as a signal of character strength and confidence. In my view, this ritual of masculinity can set a precedent for the power dynamics in a relationship, particularly when there is a show of strength from one party. In lieu of such opportunities to show strength and character, I wonder what ritual may replace it. Perhaps this gender performance may be replaced by something a little more gender neutral? The elbow tap feels much less threatening and provides limited opportunity to show off brute strength. Equally, a fist pump provides limited scope to dominate someone, yet does come with masculine associations in pugilism and aggression. Having had the good fortune to do a trek in Nepal, my personal favourite is the Namaste greeting, which involves no physical contact and exemplifies equality in a greeting. Of course, physical contact has not disappeared from my parenting and I have continued to kiss, cuddle and play with my son. In fact, the pandemic social distancing has probably made me appreciate physical contact with my son more than ever. Social distancing is nearly impossible with children and I want to role model masculinity as a caregiving and caring identity for him to integrate into his identity. Perhaps we will all transition from the imposed physicality of social dynamics to a more intimate, loving physicality preserved for family life? I hope this pandemic might see a move towards respectful distancing in the workplace and loving contact with our families and friends.

As time has passed and I have attempted to integrate the norms of the pandemic with my working life, I have grown accustomed to the trials and tribulations of working from home. I love the freedom and comfort of my home, but also feel terrible for those without a safe of healthy environment in which to work. I love to see my family more at the start and end of the day, but miss the contact and fresh environment of the University when the working day starts. I, like many, have started to feel the need for a combination of both worlds, with the flexibility to spend as much or as little time at work as you need. I think it is hard to replace the face to face contact of colleagues and friends, and I think we have to consider the vitally important risk of social stratification according to home environment. If organisations are the live their values of humanistic employee care, the option of a safe space to work must be retained, regardless of the profitability of a scaled down working estate. For PhD students, work without contact is a norm of much of the process, but even the most ardent isolationist requires collegiality and community to take a break from the dredge! If the common spaces disappear, what will happen to the community and the friendship? PhD study is about more than what we read and write, it is about who we meet, what we debate and how we explain what we are doing. Without these crucial tenets of PhD life, perpetual isolation will breed a dysfunctional student and we will be all the poorer for it as an academic community.

Reflections on my Unconventional Method – at the end of my 2nd year (after data collection)

I have recently finished the majority of my primary data collection and thought it would be useful to reflect on what I have experienced and learned from the process. I am also nearly at the end of my 2nd year and this feels like an opportune time to consider my journey so far as I anticipate final year analysis and write-up.

Design

I started my interview process with a sense of how I wanted to conduct myself and the type conversations I hoped to facilitate. I developed a protocol based on very open questions including image elicitation before and at the start of the interview. I also had a bank of potential questions I could ask depending on whether I felt my participant had already offered during the image elicitation.

The image elicitation was a really exciting process for me. I started this journey at a conference session at which two colleague, Russell Warhurst and Kate Black were sharing their research using image elicitation. I realised during their session how that approach would be consistent with my methodology in that it uses abstract ideas, encourages narratives and personal tangential connections, and allows the participant to take greater control of the interview discussion. From my coaching experiences, I also wanted to incorporate the pre-interview task to encourage the interviewees to reflect on their choices and prepare themselves for the interview themes before they arrived in the interview. My hope was that this may have helped them to feel more comfortable in the interview and to be more reflective in their responses.

Reflecting on my early stage interviews in comparison to my most recent interviews, I believe I have grown in confidence in adapting to the variances and unpredictability of participant contributions. I have also allowed myself to incorporate ideas from my literature review which felt pertinent to my research, but this did cause some issues. I think it is important to acknowledge my challenges throughout this process as I am not presenting myself as a fully polished and expert researcher, rather as someone who has stayed true to the ethical principles of critical ethics and my methodology of Critical Discourse Analysis which emphasises my researcher intention to problematise the social problem and seek meaningful pathways to enact change. The reason it is important to discuss my issues is that I want to explore my relationship with theoretical constructs of masculinity and specifically re-embodied and caring masculinity. Both facets of these forms of masculinity promote the nurturing, caring and involved masculinity that accepts failure and the issues of everyday working life.

Issues

Some of the early issues I encountered included my ‘ideals’ question; introduced after about 4-5 interviews. It has gone through a few rounds of changes before I have arrived at the optimal version, which presents four ideals in no particular order (parent, father, mother, worker) while attempting to limit my influence on the participant’s response. I have used my intuition to introduce this question at points in the protocol that fit with the flow of the conversation. I have increasingly found that this question fits nicely towards the start of the interview, just after the images, as this encourages my participants to think philosophically about what their ideals are. Earlier in my process, I was not as adepts at formulating this question as my earliest example proved when I limited my participant’s responses to two possibilities ‘Ideal father and Ideal worker’. This example highlighted my culpability for succumbing to gendered assumptions of the ideals of parenting and predated my refined perspective that we should all be aspiring to the shared language of parenting, not mother and fathers as separate roles. I acknowledge that this means some of my data is inconsistent, which is why my analysis and discussion phase will greatly benefit from fictionalisation to amalgamate my data into characters.

Consistencies

One aspect of my questioning which has remained fairly consistent is my integration of personal reflections and collegiality with my participants. I have tried to maintain this dynamic as consistent with my subjective position on research data and my desire to deconstruct the research process which places the researcher (me) in a position of authority. I did this for a couple of reasons: one, to encourage my participants to trust me as an interviewer and therefore potentially share more in-depth stories; two I wanted to democratise the research interview to disrupt the typical paradigm of researcher impartiality. I am not impartial in this discourse, nor do I intend to present an argument that balances the debate for and against parental rights in the workplace. My methodology is clear in it’s social justice intent. That does not mean I will obscure the truth to fit my narrative as I am happy to be proven wrong if my expectations are disproved, but my initial perceptions of my data do support my assertion of a gender imbalance in the way parental decisions are discussed and discoursal influences on an individual and organisational level. Therefore, my personal interjections remain an important way for me to show collegiality as a peer and parent as well as interviewer for a topic that is personally important to me.

Transcription

Transcription is a very odd process. I am using dictation software to listen and dictate my interviews (to speed up the laborious process). I find that as I transcribe, I apply my critical lens (imbued with my theoretical underpinnings of masculinities theory and ideology) to immediately highlight passages that jump out at me from first listen. This process is valuable as my initial stage coding, but is does undermine my ability to review all interviews in a systematic process. I intend to apply a critical discourse analysis (CDA) method to my transcribed interviews. I have submitted a revised draft (with my supervisor) for a methods text book which outline my general approach, which is inspired by dystopian fiction (DF) tropes (see examples in Claeys, 2018) and a Fairclough’s (2013) conceptualisation of CDA (see model below).

Table extracted from Interpellating with dystopian fiction: A critical discourse analysis technique to disrupt hegemonic masculinity (revised draft under review for publication in Handbook of Research Methods on Gender and Management – Edward Elgar Publishing – if accepted to be published 2020-2021)

Transcribing with my analysis in mind is a clear example of the messiness of research. I am sure that the ‘ideal’ researcher would dispassionately detach themselves from the data during initial transcription. In principle, this is to limit biases and the potential to corrupt your data analysis through incremental coding and themes emerging prior to the official analysis phase. However, I am conducting subjective research and cannot detach myself from my research, not do I espouse virtuosity in my methodological approach. Rather, I attempt, by taking personal responsibility, and in line with my personal values of trust, fairness and honesty, to follow my method in a manner consistent with ethical research. I therefore must embrace my idiosyncrasies and accept that I am feeling my way through this process on a journey from relative novice to relative expert (I do not expect to ever achieve actual expertise, nor do I think anyone should ever dub themselves as such).

Through serendipity, a colleague has recommended an AI transcription service online, which may address my primary data analysis delay. It is called Otter and I am currently trialling the service to see if it meets my needs. My initial impressions are very positive. it is not 100% accurate, but it does produce a very helpful baseline of transcription which I can refine by listening to the recording and download as a word document. Based on this promising development, I may be in a position to start my formal analysis very soon!

Social Justice (before analysis)

I will write a further blog update on my analysis progress at a later date, but I am already applying my learning from the literature and my wider engagement with parenting and masculinity discourses to contribute towards social justice agendas. I have started a parenting network at Northumbria University for staff and students, I have contributed significantly to the UCU (trade union) parental leave conditions claim, and I am continuing to disseminate my research through conferences and seminars where appropriate. Additionally, I am attempting to live as an ally as much as possible through my action and words in the public workplace. This is my active attempt to present a caring version of masculinity and re-embodied masculinity (see Connell, 2005) to my colleagues and students in my here and now.

I believe (based on my experiences on the Equity Challenge Project) that aspects my social justice output can be achieved through prefigurative social action (see example definition in Leach, 2013). Prefigurative action represents social interventions and actions implemented in my here and now, not planned or desired actions or recommendations to potentially pursue in the future. This is the basis of a paper I am co-author on with my supervisor and colleague to show how we can affect our current reality towards the future we hope to achieve, by creating opportunities to engage and structures to support different approaches to engagement and discourse with staff and students. One example of this is the parenting network, which I initiated as a focused space for parental discourse and potential action. The network provides a place where interested parties can congregate and share ideas and resources. It is in its infancy, but it is the type of bottom up approach I hope can illustrate my social justice intent through my research method. Another example was the student led poster competition which took an existing problem and worked with our students to generate new, creative and exciting outputs to literally change the visual appearance of out building as a more inclusive and diverse space.

Summary

I believe my methodology, through its unconventional use of dystopian fiction as a critical inspiration and data source, alongside my use of critical discourse analysis method, can generate social justice (SJ) outputs. The nature of my present prefigurative SJ actions, though relatively light touch, demonstrates the potential impact on local people-powered initiatives to affect our here and now. I also believe the same principle can have a meaningful impact on our workplace parental policies and cultures. This is an aspect of the social justice, I intend to further explore in my method and incorporating my own autoethnographic experiences. I also hope that, through my analysis and discussion chapters, presented fictionally, I can demonstrate a critical counter-narrative (Frandsen, Kuhn & Wolff Lundholt, 2016) to present a viable array of alternatives to the dominant model of parental decisions in the workplace.

References

Claeys, G. (2018). Dystopia: A Natural History: Oxford University Press.

Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities. Polity.

Fairclough, N. (2013). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language: Routledge.

Frandsen, S., Kuhn, T., & Wolff Lundholt, M. (2016). Counter-Narratives and Organization. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Routledge.

Leach, D. K. (2013). Prefigurative politics. The Wiley‐Blackwell encyclopedia of social and political movements.

Parenting & the masculinities spectrum of stoicism and guilt

For the last week or so my son has been demonstrating varying degrees of dependency and attachment in favour of me compared to his mum, which, for a couple of differing reasons, has made me feel guilty and reflecting my my guilt identities. This has partly been a consequence of his recent bouts of coughs and colds, conjunctivitis and then tonsillitis, which we perceive has made him feel more vulnerable. In addition, he has recently started at nursery and I am responsible for drop off and pick up. This has established a routine between us that might be temporarily affecting his parental preferences for comfort and security. I am aware that these behavioural traits are typically phases, but I still find it difficult to see how much it hurts my wife. My additional guilt relates to my commitment to my academic studies and career. In combination, these guilty feeling combine to form a spectrum of guilt that can approximate the spectrum of masculinities I also inhabit in my life.

Stoicism

I will start with stoicism as my initial focus as I wonder if my instinct in this scenario is to present controlled demeanour (akin to unconscious stoicism) to protect the emotions of my wife and son. I have recently engaged with the concept and philosophy of stoicism (originated by Zeno of Citium) on a discussion board reflecting on the excellent guardian series ‘modern masculinity‘. Stoicism is a term I have used previously in a relatively negative frame as I associate it with ideas of presenting a public version of masculinity that conceals emotion. My understanding of the term involves individuals projecting a sense of emotional control that can harm the individual’s mental health and provide a damaging model that others may feel they need to follow, especially children. I was presented with the original philosophical perspective which also encourages individuals to be open with their own vulnerabilities as an act of revered ‘courage’, alongside ideals of temperance, justice and wisdom, which I am far more encouraged by as guiding principles for masculinity. However, I perceive the dominant understanding of stoicism to conform with my first assessment of guarded emotions and men taking responsibility for outwards displays of strength. I feel this can encourage existentialist dichotomies between men and women as men aspire to remain in control of their emotions. I also feel this model of masculinity is a proxy for hegemonic masculinity in certain contexts and elevates men to a position of righteousness; in effect a patronising position.

I therefore feel that the more I try to protect others through my attempts at self control and performance of ‘calm’, the more damage I might do to them and myself. The damage may be through my conformity with models of ‘superior’ calm embodied by hegemonic masculinity, which reproduces the power imbalances of the gender order, or it may also be the damage I do to my own emotional processing through forcing my emotions into an inter vault. This internal conflict leads me to the conclusion that I should embrace a greater degree of vulnerability (something I accept can be part of the philosophy of stoicism and courage), which is something I have explored in my recently accepted paper to Human Resource Development International journal. However, achieving success in one realm, my academic pursuits (through my active reconstruction of my masculine identity) ironically requires a degree of stoicism to maintain equilibrium with my other identities. Whenever I focus on one identity such as my career, I create tension with another, namely my re-embodied masculine self as a parent. This is when my sense of guilt rises up and takes hold.

Guilt

The downstream impact of my unconscious stoicism is that I have experienced varying degrees of guilt. Guilt is a polysemic term and evokes ideas of penal culpability, internal strife and a general sense of being ‘in the wrong’. I experience guilt as a parent for the affection from my son, which I feel is unearned in comparison to my wife, who has spent far more hours and quality time with my son than I have. I have, as previously discussed, consciously tried to maximise my time with my son through working flexibly and prioritising our relationship (sometimes to the expense of my studies). This is a personal choice and reflects my values, which do not place academia (as a proxy for my self-actualisation) on a pedestal above family life, rather as a vocation and life choice which I feel should complement family life. This is a conceptualisation that I have become obsessed with and something I feel should be possible more widely than Higher Education too. I am therefore left pondering the irony that I may also be feeling guilty for my dispersed commitment to my studies at points over the last year. My guilt is transient but cyclical and surges at varying points in the week. I am ‘triggered’ by the successes of colleagues and peers, while I also question my parental credentials when I attempt to embody a truly ‘involved’ parental identity. I perceive my failings through my frequent feelings of frustration when he won’t sleep in his cot, (which has led to us sleep training – a whole new arena of guilt!), or when he makes a colossal mess at dinner time… I am learning my craft as a parent and know I should not be feeling guilty. I also acknowledge that I should embrace these nuanced experiences as essential to the spectrum of parenthood and masculinities which my research aims to explore. I cannot, however, shake the immutable sensation of guilt tinged by self-diagnosed self-indulgence and impostor syndrome at my privileged experiences as a student and a parent.

Summary

What does this all mean? I suppose there is no easy answer to these themes of masculinity; there are inherently a constant presence in my conscious and I don’t necessarily feel that I should battle against them to vehemently. Stoicism remains a cultural artefact of the models of masculinity I have inherited, it is not purely negative and in many circumstances provides a framework for ‘plodding on’ when things are challenging. I really like the idea of stoicism including expressions of vulnerability as an act of courage, but I feel that vulnerability should not require courage, rather it should be a natural discourse to open up emotional support networks and encourage empathy amongst peers. This is something that I intend to explore further for my own sense of self. As commonly perceived ‘stoicism’ is an inherited trait, so ‘guilt’ is a universal experience which makes us all human. As a husband, my guilt keeps me focused on the fairness of equal contributions to our relationship, as a parents my guilt ensures I never take my son for granted or chastise myself for fleeting moments of self-pity, in my my guilt keeps me focused and driven to achieve better for myself and my family. Guilt, as with stoicism, can be a positive influence when we accept there influence on our behaviours as part of the wider consciousness of being human. As with broader perceptions of masculinities, it is my acceptance of the spectrum of experiences that will allow me to embody a more nuanced and authentic version of myself and, by proxy, potentially contribute to broader progress towards a kinder, wiser, more willingly vulnerable and empathetic masculinity at home and at work.

Something Dystopian: dropping off my son at Nursery

Many parents have been there and many have winced and crumbled at the sight of their child wailing as they are carried away from your arms by their wonderful nursery carer. My experience this morning was visceral in every sense. As I handed my son over to his key carer I watched the calmness crash out of his face to be replaced by anguish and an imploring soul sapping cry as he stared at me. I felt the invisible heartstrings straining between us as he was carried away from me and I stumbled further into the room to follow his innocent, vulnerable cries. Reassured by the calm, collected carer, I steeled myself and turned for the door while being bombarded by the continuing sounds of my son’s cries. The lurching, sinking weight in my stomach continued to pull me down as I headed out of the main building and into the courtyard. Few psychological torture techniques could have the emotional power of this experience.

I used the title ‘something dystopian’ to equate the oppressive, crushing experience of my first official nursery drop-off for my son with those often described in dystopian fiction. Of course, I know that my son is being very well looked after as I type these words. I know that I will be picking him up in around 90 minutes time. I know that he will get more familiar with this routine as time passes and he learns to expect our routine every week. In contrast, dystopian fictions often outline the despair and seeming hopelessness of such experiences. Where dystopian fiction does align with my own experiences is the coping strategies that protagonists employ to cope. For me, this blog post is a means of processing and reflecting on my experience. My phone call to my wife was another, and my text to my mum was another. It is the act of sharing and mutual reassurance that subverts the oppressive forces that act upon us. If we suffer in silence, or allow our emotions to be silenced, we become the embodiment of dystopian oppression.

My re-embodied masculinity journey took a step forward today because of this bodily caring experience. I handed over my son in a symbolic act of mutual trust and abandonment of my parental responsibilities as a carer in lieu of my other responsibilities as a provider. This juxtaposition of care and abandonment is an element of masculinity that was previously relatively unfamiliar to me. I have gained a greater sense of the inner conflict that I presume other parents feel when doing the drop off. I have certainly heard about it through general discourse in media discussions, but the real experience brings the emotions into clear focus. I do not presume to suggest that I have somehow had an epiphany today, but I do believe the physical aspect of parenting involves a spectrum of emotions. If you don’t engage in all aspects of physical care, you nullify your sense of self and limiting your growth beyond the hegemonic masculine model. Parenting is not just reading, play and bath time, it is tears, nappies and rocking to sleep too.

Re-embodiment requires that you embrace this collage of emotion and internalise these feelings as a part of who you are. Only through reflection and discourse can men take steps towards a caring masculinity that benefits them, their children and society as a whole.

Something Utopian: My Son’s Christening

I have spoken a lot about subversion, collectivism and the need for change in my blog. It is something I apply to workplace cultures and societal attitudes to gender roles in parenting. One area I can say I am not so keen to change is that of traditional family events and the opportunity to bring people together to celebrate something special. Yesterday was my son’s Christening and we had a wonderful day celebrating one of his first life milestones in the church that I grew up in. It felt really special to share this day with my family and some people from the church that I have known for years. During the day and afterwards, I reflected on how important it is to have events like this that bring people together in mutual celebration.

I have some personal issues, related to ideas of masculinity, with patriarchal events that symbolise men’s ownership of women, but yesterday’s christening was absolutely about my son (or any person) and his welcoming into our family traditions and the wider church community into which we hope to continue to involve him. I am not a great believer in the extravagance of the wedding industry, nor the commercialisation of many family events, but I do still value the togetherness these days enable. I thought it would be useful to write a bit about my feelings on the day and also relate that to my research. This is partly for me, partly for my son and partly for catharsis.

The weekend itself was a great family occasion. On the Saturday, we met as more nuclear family with the grandparents to have a lunch together and spend some quality time. I reflected on the reality of the limited occasions when such lunches might occur in the future (aside from birthdays, christenings etc.) and the importance of appreciating them. It felt very balanced with each member of the family having their own identity outside of traditional gender roles. This is something I love about my family as I have previously written about the influence of women in my life. I hope my son will also learn to appreciate the unique qualities of all his relatives as he grows up and internalise this level of respect for family as he gets older. It was very important to me that the grandparents were together with us as I want my son to know them as a collective as well as separate entities. For me, this is because I remember the pleasure I got from seeing my own grandparents getting on together and socialising, it is one of the great joys of two families joining together and something that can break down social divides that could exist if we only met those we chose to meet.

The christening itself was a wonderful service and highlighted the unique joy of bringing people together from a range of backgrounds. I am incredibly grateful to the parish vicar Fiona Mayer-Jones for her warm, collegiate, emotionally intelligent approach. From our first contact, she has been exemplary and made us feel comfortable and involved every step of the journey. The service was delightfully informal with music and humour and togetherness. She spoke with great feeling about the warm embrace of the church for my son and she guided us with great sensitivity and calmness through the service. It was at the font, when she held my son that I felt one of the greatest surges of pride that I had experienced in a long time (I held myself together… just). It really solidified my connection with the church (as a building and a collective) as a something that meant so much to me growing up. As a parent, it confirmed of me the importance of the wider community in the education of children.

Afterwards, we had some lovely informal family time together at my parents home with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and close family friends. It was a time to chat, eat and just be together without any pressure. I am so grateful to my parents for hosting it as I know how much my mum gets anxious about events like this. Mum and Dad, it was brilliant and something I will always look back on with happy memories. I wanted the day to be as informal as possible as I feel this is the best way to create events that challenge the rigidity of patriarchal tradition. I believe the same principle applies to the workplace too as the more hierarchical events and groups become, the more likely they will reproduce patriarchal structures and imbalances. Avoiding formal structure and hierarchy was one of the great joys of yesterday and something I hope to apply in the workplace too.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who made yesterday special. Everyone at the church and in my family who joined us for our son’s special day as equals in celebrating our son’s christening. It meant the world to me and we have memories and photos that we can look at and smile for the rest of our lives. This is what family should be about and it affirmed my belief in the great good that many of our traditions can continue to support in contemporary and future society. Yes, they (our traditional institutions) can, and should, adapt to modern attitudes and expectations, but equally, we as a modern society, should appreciate the many beautiful things that happen as a result of our traditions and the simple act of bringing people together.

Nursery Inductions

This is a brief blog to share my thoughts after my son’s first week of nursery inductions. My wife and I have taken him to three sessions this week and the feelings it evokes are a mixture of pride, anxiety and sadness. I was so proud to see him venture off to discover new people and experiences without having me or his mum next to him. I was very anxious this morning to make sure the first trial run of taking him to nursery in the morning (solo) went well (it went fine). I am sad this this marks the end of the first stage of his life within our close family. For the last 11 months he has spent afternoons with grandparents on a handful of occasions, and a few single hours in a gym creche, but the rest of the time he has been with either me or my wife. After next week, he will be with new carers from Wednesday to Friday each week and will explore a new world with new people. It is exciting for us and he seems to love it already, but it also signifies the start of a new phase for me and my wife as parents. From now on, he is going to be increasingly learning independence and social skills away from us. It is a strange feeling.

As a parent I am conscious that this experience is part of his growing up process, but it also influencing my growing up and masculine self identity too. Today was one of the few occasions that I have solely cared for my son in the outside world (apart from the odd walk around the block). The sense of responsibility I felt when boarding the bus into town and going up to the nursery was very different to how I usually feel when I am with my wife. I realised that my sense of caring masculinity had been constructed with the security stabilisers of his mum’s presence, which meant I had not fully experienced the full scope of caring masculinity. Today was my first step into this new world and it felt great to look after my son.

I think the process of solo care is a vital learning experience for new parents, especially partners (and particularly fathers). It is most important to fathers who are socialised around the idea of patriarchal male roles in the home and workplace. Things are gradually shifting in some social circles, but I still think (from anecdotal and cultural references) that most men take an almost complete secondary role in childcare in the early role. By this I mean they rarely look after their children in the early years apart from the odd evening. This is why we still hear the grinding reference to fathers ‘babysitting’ their children. It is a problem with our perceptions of roles and responsibilities as parents and fathers.

I will end this brief blog with the personal hope that my time dropping off and picking up my son from Nursery. To consciously organise his day bag the night before and ensure I am there on time every day for pick up will serve as an experiential process of masculine re-embodiment (as per Connell’s concept). This will mean I learn the caring competencies necessary for a parent to independently look after their child, something I feel all parents can benefit from!

Bodies and masculinity

I have spent the last week and a half battling with my body though a viral infection and a stomach bug, my experiences reminded me how much I take my body for granted sometimes and how bodies dictate our freedom. It has been very frustrating to be limited my body and I have been unable to make the progress I wanted with my PhD. In addition to my own body, my son has also been physically unwell with a persistent viral gastroenteritis. It was been horrible to see him suffer with an upset tummy and he has had some very difficult early mornings as a result. This has compounded the physical battle of the last 10 days and highlighted the degree of dependency we all have to our bodies. I am writing this blog for parents, and specifically fathers, in the hope they might reflect on their own physical commitment to their children and the freedoms they allow their partners.

Men and women have different socially constructed expectations of their own and each other’s bodies. There are some functions that we have in common; we can all perform very similar physical fetes, albeit men are typically stronger than women due to testosterone levels and physical size; however we are comparably very similar in most everyday tasks. In contrast, becoming parents marks a significant point of difference between men and women, especially concerning pregnancy, birth and childcare. I won’t elaborate the specifics of my experiences with too graphic details, but I will emphasise that anyone who claims men are stronger, more resilient, or have a higher pain threshold clearly has no understanding of what it means to be a mother. It is this distinction which has been drawing my attention this week, especially what this difference means for masculinity and men’s bodies.

My understanding of and relationship with my body has been influenced by cultural, social and some innate factors. I have always enjoyed being physically active, especially through sporting and outdoor activities. Some of this is obviously nurtured through my upbringing, but I definitely think I have a different experience with physical activity than my brother who shared the same family influences as me. Accepting the possibility of the principle of physical differences between siblings, it is also reasonable to suggest that physical differences between men and women are also guided not only be social construction (though that is a VERY important influence). I am treading this contentious issue within gender theory because I think it is very important in the context of parental discourse. The main reason for this is that I believe men’s construction (innate & socially-bound) of their bodies as fathers is perhaps too influenced by the socially constructed elements, which can constrain our innate desire to be more involved and caring parents.

To explain my thinking on this a little more, I see parallels between the physical stereotypes applied to boys and girls growing up, and the physical stereotypes applied to mothers and fathers. Notwithstanding the obvious differences linked to childbirth and breastfeeding, I believe there are some harmful stereotypes that inhibit some men’s involvement with their children. To put the record straight, it is not the mother’s responsibility to change all the nappies (regardless if the father finds it repulsive – newsflash no-one enjoys it!), nor is it the mother’s responsibility to get up whenever the baby cries overnight. I think this overnight delineation of care is totally linked to the egregious social attitude that childcare is a lesser work than the work of ‘going to work’. When we pander to these physical stereotypes where fathers are exempted from the less pleasant physical caring of nappy changing, mid-night crying and soothing, and feeding, we allow socially constructed gender to override the innate reality that men are just as capable of providing full childcare for their children.

Men are also just as responsible for enduring their fair share of sleep deprivation! I accept that this is a critically important issue for parents and something that I cannot easily speak about from my singular perspective. I speak from a privileged position as a PhD student and flexible part time worker, but I argue that it is totally unfair to burden the totality of sleep deprivation on any stay at home mothers (or fathers). I believe the day-long caring responsibility for a dependent child is equally tiring and arguably much more important than most jobs (you can battle through most jobs without risking the well-being of a vulnerable human). One caveat I add here is that some professions such as medicine, which is literally life and death, include exhausting 12 hour shifts (and on calls) which do require some protected sleep. Allowing for the circumstances where parents do need some sleep allowances, I think the sleep deprivation issue is currently still disproportionately perceived as a mother’s responsibility. If we are going to get serious about equitable treatment of men and women as parents in the workplace we need to start talking more openly about the physical acts of parenting for men and women to change our collective expectations of our shared responsibility.

What I am arguing for in this blog is for men to reflect on their own commitment to the work of family life. Are we all doing as much as we could be? It is not easy, it is often painful, but it is fair and right for men to contribute to their child’s care. If any men reading this are labouring under the assumption that when a mother on parental leave looks after the baby during the day they are chilling at home, I am going to use my privileged access to the real childcare experiences of my wife to dispel that assumption. Proper childcare is really hard! As a baby gets older, they demand more attention and more of everything from the parent. All babies are different, but you should be under no allusion that it is in any way easy, ever! So, when you are dragging yourself out of bed for another day at work, remember that the protected sleep you might have enjoyed was at the expense of your partner’s well-being. And, the child-free day at work you ‘endure’, is time you don’t have to spend physically caring for your child. So, if you have an agreement with your partner for protected sleep, perhaps you might reflect on the support you can give when you get home. Even better, perhaps you can agree to share some more of the physical care and contribute more to your shared responsibility as a parent.

Crying Masculinity – some personal reflections and the contemporary context

My personal reflections

During my research, I have had frequent opportunities to interact with peers and fellow colleagues concerning a range of issues relating to equity and diversity, many of which have brought me close to tears. I have had the privilege to gain insights into the experiences and reflections of colleagues, some of which have been extremely sobering while others provoked serious self reflection and reevaluation. During my PhD interviews, I have encountered my most personal opportunities for self reflection, specifically related to parenting and the emotional highs and lows it brings. However, despite all this emotional openness, I struggle to release the dam of tears. One reason for this is my desire to maintain emotional distance in certain circumstances (especially professional), but I also find the range of circumstances where I am free to cry is very narrow. I wonder what this means when I reflect on my self construction of masculinity.

My masculine identity is strongly influenced by my upbringing, be it family role models such as my dad and grandfathers, or the cultural icons I admired such as film stars like Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) & Clint Eastwood (the archetypal cowboy). Equally, I was mesmerised by fictional idols like Sherlock Holmes and Gandalf, alongside sporting heroes such as Glen McGrath and Juninho. Some of these figures incorporated elements of vulnerability in their external behaviours (I distinctly remember Juninho crying when Middlesbrough FC got relegated in 1997). The majority are more likely to maintain control of their emotions and present a calm, rational exterior. It is the latter performance that I feel I have incorporated into my behaviours in spite of conscious efforts to reflect on this and open myself up to emotion as an adult.

The process of self reflection has perhaps  been most significant since becoming a father, and conducting interviews with other parents and colleagues around parenting and equality issues. I have also been interviewed as a colleague relating to my core value of fairness, which always renews my commitment to my intrinsic motivation. As a father, I find myself discussing my family with colleagues and friends far more frequently than ever before. Previously, I kept family as a far more private thing, but I believe this is a symptom of prior constructions of masculinity that I masqueraded under in the past. Now that I find myself opening up more, I am ever conscious of emotional conversations and the potential for tears to follow. However, I still find myself confronting an internal barrier when it comes to crying…

My crying barrier is symbolic of my internal struggle to define my own masculinity and embody the version of masculinity I feel is most conducive to healthy relationships in work and at home. I  can sometimes feel the familiar fragility of breathing and heightened sensitivity when I speak with people surrounding emotional issues, but something inside me always stifles the tears. It is really only when I watch immersive fictional stories that I let myself cry. I often think I am subject to streams of tears in cinema because I am so limited in my crying elsewhere. In effect I allow my tears to flow, safe in the knowledge that the circumstances are benign. I think this is why many men struggle to let go and also engage in any meaningful emotional conversations.

In the workplace, I am aware that men avoid or curtail emotional conversations; this is a really problematic issue for mental health, empathy and collegiality. I have intentionally involved myself more in open conversations with peers with a view to making myself available to people who might sometimes need someone to listen to. Ultimately, I am also preparing the ground for potential future scenarios where I too might seek a sympathetic ear. I think the first step to releasing my captive tears is to show empathy for others and reject the surface conversations synonymous with the ‘ideal worker’. I will continue to do this and, maybe one day, I will allow myself to cry in empathy with a colleague without feeling the need to resist and maintain my projection of masculinity.

Context

On the news this week, I read the baiting of Boris Johnson calling for Jeremy Corbyn to ‘man up’. This categorical bluntness is typical of Johnson’s hegemonic rhetoric relating to constructions of power and patriarchal language. Normalised patriarchal language from our leaders has a serious effect on the collective response to issues of crisis. We should be embracing nuanced responses to challenging situations, but instead we are presented with the stoicism of unemotional responses to enormous issues. I worry where this bombastic language is leading us and fear the impact it will have on constructions of emotional masculinity in future.

Another topic hitting the news this week is male infertility; specifically the emotional turmoil this brings for couples. I was  not surprised to hear that male infertility accounts for 50% of infertility issues with couples, but I’m also acutely aware of the misconception that most infertility is attributed to women. I think emotional barriers are culpable for this misnomer of common ignorance, specifically men’s shame at sharing their emotions, or crying when experiencing such heartbreaking problems. Hegemonic Masculinity (the dominant projection of what  society expects of our leaders (men and women) e.g. assertiveness, aggression and confidence) is a damaging construct when it comes to emotionally devastating experiences. If 50% of infertility is due to male infertility, then it is likely that I and you have worked with a male colleague who has lived with this difficult experience. I try to remain cognisant of this in my daily interactions and hope anyone reading this might consider their interactions with men in the future. The reason men aren’t talking about it is not because they are not experiencing it.

Conclusion

This foray into crying masculinity has opened up more questions for me about what it means to be masculine and whether crying is acceptable in all circumstances. We can see continuing reminders of the hegemonic construction of masculinity in the language of our male leaders. The places where crying might become more acceptable are in the home, with our families, by being a role model to my son. I hope he will see that crying is not something to be ashamed of, rather it is a healthy part of masculine identity. 

 

Image by Maurizio Beatrici – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35235908

Masculinity and Mental Health

The royal family have hit the headlines this week regarding their mental health and their continuing advocacy for openness is a model for masculinity to follow. Harry and Meghan have spoken fairly candidly about the challenges they have faced in recent months concerning media intrusions and protecting their family. Harry has also alluded to the continuing impact of his mother’s death upon his perceptions of media interaction. I am not a royalist, and I do see the PR element of this week’s headlines, but I also see the positive aspect of mental health being discussed in major media outlets. The monarchy can play a significant role in continuing to break down these barriers and I hope Harry’s role can extend to models of masculinity for others to follow.

It is our combined influences that create our embodied masculine whole and when something is missing, we must reach out for support elsewhere. When I consider my own models for masculinity, I immediately think of my dad, but my masculinity was also heavily influenced by the women in my life. My mum played a huge part in nurturing the patience and sensitive side of my personality and this was reinforce during my teen years. For Harry, to miss out on that influence from his own mum must have been excruciating at times, like a part of him was and still is missing, but hopefully he has found someone in Meghan. Even with my solid foundations for my constructed masculinity, I have often found myself grappling with internal self doubt, confused perceptions of who I should be, and a fear of making the wrong choices. I am lucky to have an amazing partner in my life, and parents and extended family to share my feelings with when I need help, but this may not be the case for many men.

When I consider models for masculinity, I always find myself returning to the problem of inconsistency for many young children, especially from broken or unstable homes. I feel sad for children whose ideas of masculinity are associated with stoicism, bottled emotion and aggression. I wonder where children can access different models to counter these often damaging primary encounters. With gender imbalances in primary education, children’s access to masculine role models can be limited to the extent of their extra curricular activities; sport can be highly influential, as can martial arts, and the arts. I feel a sense of responsibility for my own child’s construction of masculinity, but also increasingly feel called to extend my influence to the wider community.

I commit to being open and trusting with my emotions amongst friends and colleagues. I also commit to contributing to the community and embodying a version of masculinity to vary from some of the dominant tropes I have mentioned. I sense the importance of ascribing a subversive intent in my actions, accepting the dominant paradigm will push back, to promote an awareness of the breadth of masculinities amongst my colleagues, family and friends.

Masculinity and the menopause

Today, I am thinking about the menopause and the role masculinities play for a couple of reasons. Colleagues from UCU are launching a menopause cafe at Northumbria University aligned to world menopause awareness day (October 18th) and I am keen to involve myself, as a male ally, in this important initiative. Secondly, the woman’s hour featured section on the menopause this week, specifically relating to sex drive and also postpartum continence. Women’s health is a marginalised topic in the workplace from my experiences (I have previously talked about pregnancy as a major challenge for women). It feels like a great taboo to even mention periods or menopausal symptoms, never mind incontinence. The reality is that many people experience varying degrees of discomfort and, for some, it can be extremely debilitating. I believe challenging some of the prevailing workplace masculinity cultures can help to deconstruct these taboos and normalise adult conversations that acknowledge women’s health.

One of the classic flaws of hegemonic masculine ideals is the assumption the ‘real men’ don’t discuss their feelings, instead we are encouraged to talk about sport, or music or business prowess or sexual conquests. Many men do not conform to many of these topics of conversation, but the avoidance of discussing health is, in my view, synonymous to men’s avoidance of appearing weak (the ultimate fear for any man). A weak man is unattractive, disrespected and marginalised in society. It should come as no surprise that men do everything they can to hide their weaknesses and encourage others to do the same by promoting less emotionally involved conversation. Talking about your family is OK (you might construct your identity as breadwinner/provider as symbolic of your strength), but talking about your insecurities as a parent is taboo. I believe this weakness rule extends to conversations about women’s health.

Historically, the modern office has been the domain of privileged men, and women have played a supporting role. Although women are finally achieving greater recognition in leadership roles (though nowhere near enough…) progress is far slower when it comes to creating a different culture that represents the reality of men and women’s lives. The fact that men also experience significant health problems (such as faecal incontinence) as they get older is something I had not event thought about properly until it was mentioned on the woman’s hour this week. If men, who defined the social discourse rules of workplaces (still in place), cannot discuss their own health for fear of marginalisation, it is a sad consequence that women who are still navigating a hyper masculine workplace, especially those who go through childbirth, are at greater risk of marginalisation if they disclose any hint of health issues that could affect their performance.

For men, the ‘andropause’ is a separate term for some men’s issues, typically resulting from increasing stress, anxiety and lifestyle choices. It is fair to say that men’s symptoms are not directly resultant from physical changes, rather a consequence of workplace seniority, responsibilities and expectations relative to the hegemonic ideal. That men experience a cluster of negative symptoms while they age is indicative of an ideal against which we all measure ourselves unfairly. It is true that men are likely to develop prostate problems and decreased sex drive, but the severity of this transition is incomparable to the often intense shifts in women’s health. This is not to diminish men’s health in any way, but simply to illustrate that, if men are not comfortable discussing their own feelings and mental health to the extent that they bring physical health issues upon themselves, then it is clearly a much more difficult task to change the culture for women’s health too!

I am delighted to have the opportunity to attend the forthcoming menopause cafe on October 30th. I think modern masculinities need to be part of these conversations and we need to take ownership of people’s health issues, not perpetuate spurious gender separations. It is only though discourse where these topics can be openly discussed without fear of judgement that our workplace cultures can really shift. Mature conversations about women and men’s health (physical and mental) can open up rational decisions in the workplace. If women colleagues are experiencing menopausal symptoms, perhaps there are tasks they will feel more comfortable with on certain days. Similarly, if men have prostate problems, perhaps they require a different working space to ease certain symptoms. We need to work together to change our expectations of each other, away from the cyborg ‘ideal worker’ whose health has no bearing on their performance. Only acknowledging and responding to our collective health can we enable people to take responsibility for their daily working lives.

Spaces for research, spaces for masculinities, manifestos and meaningful work in academia

I attended a session today for research development that focused on meaningful research and spaces in academia. The session was led by Gibson Burrell whose agenda centred on the contemporary, neoliberal landscape of academic and approaches to subverting this.

The session itself was designed as a space for academic discourse and more egalitarian debate, unfortunately, this was not fully achieved in that much of the talking was led by the professors in the room (this is not the first time I have encountered this problem). This issue is compounded by the parallel demographic issue amongst our professor colleagues of male dominance. This was not an intentional hierarchical barrier, but rather a consequence of the power distance between the students and senior colleagues in the room (probably only perceived by the students). This power distance (in a foucauldian sense) between the individuals in the room meant that the space became transformed from an initially open space to a more closed, patriarchal space.

One consequence of this re-conceptualised space, aside from the visual problem of male professors discussing research in their terms, was the equally problematic silence of young women and BAME colleagues in the room. Taking a feminist & postcolonial perspective, the room began as a gender balanced, ethnically diverse group, yet the conversation was representative of hegemonic masculinity in the sense that most of the time and reflections were reproduced stories of white, male privilege in academia. The problem reminded me of my work on masculinities and the voices of alternative masculinities such as caring, gay or subordinate masculinity in parental discourse. It is so difficult to speak up with an alternative lens, and I was so pleased when a woman (I later learned from Turkey) spoke about power in Foucauldian terms (which is the main reason I mentioned it earlier). Her contribution was excellent and added to what was a very interesting discussion with some highly optimistic and hopeful points raised. I am certainly not criticising the content of the session as found most of the talk very refreshing. However, it struck me as I stuck up my hand to ask a question about manifestos, that I was also part of the problem as a young, white, cis-gender man (the next generation???). My question was self-serving and directly related to my own work; it also enabled me to establish my presence in the room. Ultimately, it was designed to orient the discussion back towards meaningful work and the methods to achieving meaning in academic outputs.

My final thoughts relate to this idea of meaningful research as I see academia as reaching an audience when our outputs can translate to local impact. My wife spoke to me about the impact of our eating habits the other day and this really struck home to me. We started eating a hybrid of vegan/vegetarian and pescatarian food about four years ago and spoke to our family about its benefits to the environment and our health. Although it is easy to feel your individual efforts are limited, we have since observed our close family all adapting their own diets to varying degrees of similarity to ours. In effect, our local impact (though I am sure this was not in isolation from media influence too) has resulted in a multiplying effect for health and environment. I want the same impact to sustain me in my research, which is why I engage in research that has a message for people to access and reflect on, not just accessible in the prestigious journals of academia. Hopefully my parental manifesto will be my first foray into this world, but is crucial that I do not create a narrow demographic space, reflective of my own positionality, as a consequence of this approach.

When my son is ill

This week, my son has been ill with a cold, which has progressed into a cough. It has been a difficult period as it has been his first real experience of illness and he is learning what it means to be unwell. Equally, I am learning what it means to be a parent to an unwell child. I thought it would be helpful to write down these reflections below and link them to concepts of caring masculinity to outline how fathers can embody caring behaviours.

I draw upon memories of my own father when I look after my son and it strikes me that this learned behaviour is not something all fathers can access. Additionally, some fathers may have negative experiences that contribute to uncertainty and fear when interacting with their own children. This fear may stem from a desire to avoid the errors of their own upbringing and establish new patterns of behaviour. This is why I caveat my reflections by stating that I was fortunate to have a father who would sit up with me when I was unwell and comfort me by stroking my back. It is a simple act of physical affection that has stayed with me and remains ingrained as a positive memory. My reflections on this week relate to ideas of how ‘caring masculinity’ behaviours (physical and emotional) can shape people and promote an equal partnership in parenting (where two parents are present). To conceptualise caring masculinity, I will briefly explain why, like my own father, I believe it is crucial for a caring father to show physical caring behaviours to achieve emotional care.

I am a daily carer for my son through routine physical tasks, which combined with separate intentional affection, contribute to an overall emotional connection. My routine tasks include getting him up in the morning, changing his nappy, getting him dressed, making his breakfast, feeding him, later doing his bath and getting him ready for bed. These tasks are performed sometimes wordlessly as I am generally a quiet person. My silence is not indicative of emotional distance, but rather a natural state of calm I feel comfortable with. I believe it is important not to force behaviours with your children that are inconsistent with your personality. Sometimes I sing to him, sometimes I tell him stories or ask him questions (not for answers at he is 8 months old), but often we are simply together. I describe this silence to highlight the importance, in my mind, of the physical affection that a father can show that transcends the emotional connection that is also built through singing and talking.

Togetherness, through a routine, provides many opportunities for additional physical affection. I regularly kiss my son on the forehead as a simple sign of love. I also peck him on the neck as a playful sign of affection and I also nuzzle his tummy to make him laugh. I also like to tickle his feet to make him giggle and play with his feet to make clapping noises. I believe these examples have developed into a parallel routine of intimacy because of the task based intimacy I took responsibility for from the day he was born (nappies & changing). So, what does all this have to do with him being ill?

Physical intimacy and illness are two sides of the same coin. I have felt my physical intimacy increase this week from my usual baseline as I attempt to comfort my son. I am not sure if I would have felt the natural sense of connection and comfort if I had not already built this baseline with him over the preceding months. When I have been rocking him to sleep this week, there have been times when I thought he would never fall asleep, but I knew we had done it many times before and that our emotional connection was secure. It took longer, and sometimes I had to get calpol, but he did settle. It is during moments like those I have experienced this week that I realise the impact parenthood is having on me.

I used to think I was emotionally open and empathetic to others, but now I realise I was only an apprentice compared to the journey I am now on. I believe that my physical caring behaviours have contributed to a new sense of caring masculinity inside me that extends far beyond my family boundaries. I can already draw upon the strong, protective feelings that stir within when I hear my son cry or cough or sniffle. I have banked these emotions as a significant breakthrough in my own construction of masculinity. I hope that what I have learned will benefit others in the future, especially in my interactions with colleagues.

In summary, I return to the feelings of safety and comfort I felt as a boy in the middle of the night when my dad stroked my back when I was ill. Knowing that he was there for me when my mum was at work meant that I never felt alone when I was ill, and always knew I was supported and loved. It was the foundation of my own behaviours as an adult and influenced the person I am today. I hope I can impart that same sense of care and love in my own construction of masculinity, and not be afraid to extend this construction into my identity at work. With the caveat that physical affection must be mutual and never imposed, I believe that those positive emotions of physical care and love can also make a positive impact on working relationships too. I am overcoming my reticence at hugging my peers (something I have always participated in, but often awkwardly), as I know that we are all emotional beings and when we are ill, or sad, or stressed, or scared, we all need the love of our fellow human beings, whoever they are, to comfort us.