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.

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