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Hannah Perry for Fatherly

The End of Reassurance: How American Dads Lost Their Community

Social progress has been largely good for American families, but the destruction of support systems for men has left fathers increasingly stranded and alone.

Fathers used to know best. Before the cliche of the dithering dad colonized pop culture, patresfamilias were commonly depicted as thoughtful, if distant counselors, dispensing measured advice and measured understanding. Reassurance was dad’s stock in trade. Not so much anymore.

The notion of dad as the family rock (while perhaps a bit generous) made sense in the 1950s and 1960s — provided dad was white and salaried — when men were in prime position to offer stability. Not only did these fathers have the privilege of their gender and of job stability in a rapidly expanding economy,  they also had access to numerous social tools and organizations designed to provide them with support and camaraderie. Men were in charitable orders, unions, and bowling leagues. They knew everyone in the bar on Saturday night and in church on Sunday. They were stable because they were propped up by their communities.

Then everything started to change.

Some of the changes were fairly obvious. According to Pew Research Center data, roughly 47 percent of couples with children under 18 were supported solely on a father’s wage in 1969; today that number has dipped to 27 percent, with dual income earners financing 66 percent of American families. In keeping with these numbers, dads now spend six more hours a week doing housework and five and a half more hours performing childcare tasks than fathers in 1969. While dads have yet to experience actual parity in paid and unpaid labor with moms, there has been movement in that direction.

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Some changes have been less obvious. Principle among these is the decline in organizations that provided fathers with social support. In 1954, nearly 34 percent of eligible workers were unionized. Now that number stands at just 10 percent. Membership in the fraternal and charitable orders that once offered men a chance to serve their community and socialize have also plummeted. In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam puts some numbers to the decline. He notes that at the time his book was published in 2000, membership in the Lions was down 14 percent since the early 80s. It was also down 18 percent for the Elks, 39 percent for the Masons and 44 percent for the Jaycees. There’s plenty of reason to believe those trends have continued.

Church participation has also declined for men. In the Catholic Church, for instance, 5 percent fewer Catholic men find themselves in the pews every week according to research from Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. And neighborhood bars have also been in decline. According to Nielsen research, the last decade saw the closure of one in every six locals. Who reassures the reassurer? At this point, no one.

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James Nichelson, Chairman of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Past National Presidents Advisory, believes the end of men’s extracurricular activities can be attributed to a shift in cultural norms, but he notes there is another factor. Parenting styles have changed. “Generation X and all of the younger folks are very busy with their kids and their kid’s activities and their not joiners,” he explains. “They live on their telephones.”

But just because opportunities to socialize have evaporated, doesn’t mean the urge is gone. And that lack of outlet can become a problem for the whole family when dad ceases to be a rock and becomes a sponge.

“As a tribe, men aren’t the best at talking about their feelings and emotions. We already start out with that deficit,” explains Dr. John D. Moore, a psychologist specializing in men’s issues. “And then, it feels like there are less places to go and talk about feelings and emotions. And what can happen as an end result is that it becomes difficult for them to provide that emotional support for their family when they’re holding a lot of feelings and emotions that are undealt with and unprocessed.”

In Moore’s practice, he often sees men lamenting the loss of institutions of masculinity. It’s not that these men believe clubs, bars and gathering halls have been ravaged by feminism. There’s no bitterness. But there is a sense of personal loss. They envy their own fathers. “These were places where dads could go to talk about everything, including the struggles of what it’s like to be a dad, with other dads,” says Moore.

And it’s not as if friendships are filling the gaps. Men in the United States are increasingly lonely. Part of that can be chalked up to how hard it is for men, in general, and dads in particular to make friends. Research shows that men prefer to have pals over deeply connected friendships but as life pressures like parenthood increase, the opportunity to rub elbows with like-minded men decreases. There isn’t enough time or opportunity to build a rapport, and unless beliefs, ideologies, fandoms and personal circumstances align perfectly, making a friend can feel burdensome for men. At least with union meetings, charitable orders, and church groups, the socialization was regimented and ritualized. It occurred regularly and with good reason. These institutions made it easy for men to bond over shared work or shared ideals. The friendships had fertile soil to grow in.

Traditional masculine norms demand the appearance of stoicism and strength, particularly in public or at home. But in more cloistered spaces, men have a tendency to feel more comfortable talking about their lives. Conversations between fathers are more easily accomplished than conversations with co-workers or even spouses.

“There are things that guys are going to say to other guys that they would just never say to their wife. They’re just not going to do it,” says Moore. “They’re not going to talk about being upset with their spouse or saying something or doing something because they know because World War III, they’re not going to talk about how to hate their mother-in-law. No way.”

And as petty as those conversations might sound, they are important. Both as a function of bonding and a function of mental health. That’s bad news for kids because when emotions get bottled up, men can trip into a vicious cycle of emotions that has huge impacts on those around them.

“The end result is they end up isolating, not interacting with their families, or being short with their kids,” says Moore. “And then the feel terribly guilty about it and struggle to understand why that happened.”

In the worst case scenario, the isolation can deepen into depression. That’s not healthy for a family considering that men often express depression through quiet anger rather than expressive sadness. Consider, for instance, the cliche of the inexpressive dad. Think of Archie Bunker or Walter White. Those aren’t cartoonish depictions of healthy social withdrawal; those are depictions of depression. And being brusque isn’t the worst outcome. Depression can manifest in violence against others and self-harm. Suicide rates for middle-aged men have been rising steadily since the late 1990s. Today, middle-aged men are nearly three times as likely to commit suicide than women.

Is the decline in the influence of the Elk’s Club leading fathers to kill themselves? No. Of course not. But the loss of gathering places for men is certainly a mental health issue — and a big one.

What’s more, as the roles of fathers change, the institutions where they can engage do not always feel welcoming. For instance, as more fathers become more involved in parenting they are more likely to come in contact with organizations like their school’s parent-teacher association. But often dads who wish to engage face barriers in places that were once largely dominated by moms.

Brian Stroh is a father of four and has had a long history of involvement in the Parent Teacher Associations, spending a decade as the treasurer of the organization in his kid’s elementary school. At the outset of his involvement with the PTA, he notes that the school was performing well and that the PTA was largely run by moms. “I was the only guy at those meetings for the most part,” Stroh says. “It felt like I was coming into something where the attitude was ‘Thanks for being here but we got this.’”

Stroh stuck it out and ultimately found some fulfillment helping his children, but PTA meetings never became an emotional outlet for him. It’s not where he found support. After all, it’s hard to talk about dad stuff when you are the only dad.

“I wouldn’t say it was socially fulfilling,” Stroh offers. “It was a bit tough to break into the group as the only dad there. I wasn’t looking to the PTA to be a social outlet, though. I was more interested in being involved with my children’s education and their school.”

However, the solution (if there is one) does not necessarily involve firing up a time machine.

“So, what I tell guys is that you have to rethink your expectations and look for new opportunities,” Moore explains. And because time is often an issue, he suggests wrapping opportunities for camaraderie in activities a dad is likely doing anyway. For instance, he encourages fathers to find a barbershop rather than a hair salon — essentially a place where a guy can build a report with his barber for an hour a month. He also recommends finding another dad to act as a workout buddy. That way conversations and reassurance can be built along with all the massive gains. Less athletically inclined dads can look for clubs that connect to their hobbies or interests, even if that means a monthly poker night.

The point is that socializing should be a regular activity and that structure removes the inevitable awkwardness men feel planning social endeavors. Regularity matters. It is what has been lost. It was what reassured men and allowed them to be reassuring. They knew the shape of their week and discussed the shape of their life. According to Moore, even stressed-out moms are now recognizing the need for outlets.

“Women ask me where their husbands can go to be a man,” he says. “They recognize that their husband needs to have a place where they can be a guy. They recognize that because they’re smart enough and intuitive enough to know that there are just some things their man is not going to talk to them about.”

And perhaps that’s really all the reassurance a dad needs to reach out and find a place to connect with other dads. Is doing so a regressive act of selfishness? Absolutely not. Men need each other — even if they don’t want to say so out loud.