What does it mean to be male and a father in a world that is increasingly dispensing with not only traditional gender norms and the who-does-what in the family dynamic, but also with the very idea of gender itself?
If, as we are told by activists, psychologists, and national treasure RuPaul that “it’s all drag”, that gender is a performance, not a reliable marker of identity, what challenges do these new understandings of identity pose for men who want to be good fathers but do not want to rely on outdated gender roles?
What makes a “dad” when we live in an era that does not trust the base identity of “male”?
Dr. Kenneth Moffatt has an idea. A Professor of Social Work and the current Jack Layton Chair of Social Justice at Ryerson University in Toronto. Moffatt is the author and co-author of multiple papers dealing with the current state of social work and its challenges, as well as the highly influential Troubled Masculinities: Reimagining Urban Men, which was first published in 2012 and became a core text in the “Crisis in Masculinity” conversations of the early 2010s.
We spoke to Dr. Moffatt spoke candidly about the difficulties facing men today, especially younger men who take on the role of fathers. While occasionally striking a warning tone, Dr. Moffatt nevertheless wants to remind fathers that while contemporary masculinity is fraught with hurdles, it does not need to be frightening.
You mentioned that your own father influenced your role of the father today. What was your father like, and how did growing up with him influence your thinking?
My father was a child of the Depression. His family lost their farm. That was never talked about and was a source of shame. When WWII came along, my father suffered another shame, in that he was flat-footed and couldn’t fight. That was a really big deal back then, being told you could not fight in the war. And I know all of this from my mother. My father didn’t speak about his own life, ever.
From him I learned that fatherhood is extremely difficult, especially if you are not a man who comes to it easily. My father never came to fatherhood easily. He was trapped in fatherhood, trapped in being part of a family, trapped working in a car factory. So his idea of being a father was one thing: that he was a “provider”. He could never talk about caring for us, only providing for us.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from him?
What I learned from him, and I don’t think of course that I learned the right way, is that fathers have their own life outside the home, but at home are distant, angry, strong, and scary. A lot of my thoughts about how I want to be in the world, and what I want to do with my work, are in reaction to him. I want to be a different man.
There is a whole field of psychology that describes fathers as the being in charge of symbols within the family, which is a way of saying the father holds the “last word”, makes “the laws”, and even though some of that strict gender reading does not work for me, the base idea really speaks to my idea of what a father ought not to be.
It’s a strange time to be a man. You are surrounded by fragility, especially economic and social fragility, yet in order to be a “good man” you have to perform this authority role of the Good Man
Even though you are describing a kind of fatherhood that it would be easy to set aside as being typical of a generation ago, many of these traits appear in contemporary fathers. Is this because fathers beget fathers, and thus the patterns don’t change?
I actually think that the technology sector has become the new factory work – unpredictable hours, abrupt layoffs, having to work constantly, etc. It is creating a new generation of absent fathers. And the technological revolution demands a higher competence from men – men are supposed to know how to work every gadget, how to deal with every online demand, and have no shortage of confidence. We’ve found a new way to make the father the “provider” with our emphasis on 24/7 productivity, and, more insidious, creativity. Young men are under constant pressure now to be innovative, which was not a pressure for my father, for instance.
That’s a terrifying, but apt, comparison.
At this particular moment, men are stuck in a contradiction: there is so much precariousness in the workplace, and yet men are expected to carry that. I know the next thing I’m going to say is controversial, but for all this talk of the new family and changing gender roles, if you are talking about a heteronormative family today, the burden to be in charge of that symbol, the “provider” (even though the reality is that nobody is in charge of those symbols anymore) still falls to the adult males.
And because we are going through a period of rigorous examinations of misuses of power – which I am all for, having experienced abuse with my own dad – young men are under enormous pressure to present, and I stress present, a kind of righteousness around questions of power, when in reality that position they take, of being always correct and rigorous, becomes another version of the “male as guardian” role, which is antiquated.
Young men are under enormous pressure to present, and I stress present, a kind of righteousness around questions of power, when in reality that position they take becomes another version of the “male as guardian” role, which is antiquated.
How can we end this cycle?
It would be better for young men today to learn how to talk about their vulnerabilities than to present this vigilant front. They are playing an old trope of masculinity even if they imagine they are not. Sometimes young men use this righteousness, which comes from a good place, as a way to shut down dialogue — and what could be more old-fashioned masculine than enforcing silence?
It’s a strange time to be a man. You are surrounded by fragility, especially economic and social fragility, yet in order to be a “good man” you have to perform this authority role of the Good Man – even when everything around you says the certainty you need to perform this act is totally not reliable.
So the answer needs to be honesty about your feelings and the ability to admit when you don’t know something?
What would the world be like if more men simply said, “You know what? I’m kind of fragile right now. I haven’t figured everything out. I’m not the best at everything I do.”? I feel we would be in a healthier place if we could engage in discussions about maleness that emphasize a kind of useful de-stabilizing of what maleness is. But I don’t see much hope when the kinds of essentialist readings of masculinity, or gender itself, offered by people like [author] Jordan Peterson are best sellers.
I feel we would be in a healthier place if we could engage in discussions about maleness that emphasize a kind of useful de-stabilizing of what maleness is.
How does this trap play out for men who are fathers?
In a way, the trap could have a liberating effect, once the father realizes he’s being asked to choose between living a life with his kids that focuses on openness and potential versus being the old fashioned Dad, once he steps away from what he thinks he’s expected to do.
For instance, if he has a young boy, and the boy is not forming in a way he is comfortable with – you know, everybody wants the smart kid who is also socially adept and also a bit sporty, all that last generation stuff, which we thought we’d dispensed with but is still very present – instead of seeing the situation as a problem, why not see it as freeing?
Why not engage with who the child is in all the ways that child is a person, and not be worried about whether the child simply meets a standard of maleness? I think fathers have trouble engaging their male children on the child’s own level because how your child performs, in everything from school to social situations, is now part of the father’s own success anxieties. Fathers worry, “Is my kid being productive and innovative and connected?”, while at the same time they know, deep down, that trying to be all that themselves is actually making them unwell.
Fathers worry, “Is my kid being productive and innovative and connected?”, while at the same time they know, deep down, that trying to be all that themselves is actually making them unwell.
That anxiety is all too real.
The father’s anxiety is totally understandable, because he lives in our adult world and sees how precarious everything is. But if being a father is a kind of perpetual awareness of your fatherhood and what it means, why not use that alertness to foster limitless moments for openness, listening, and celebrating?
It’s about changing the norm.
Break the chain of expectations, the linear passing down of these masculine anxieties. If the father does that, he may find all kinds of wonderful surprises in his son’s maleness and especially in his own.