Can Men Survive the Demise of the Bread-Winner Role?

Like many men, my father grew up knowing that he had to be successful as the family breadwinner. Then, as now, it wasn’t always easy to fulfill that crucial role that is at the core of a man’s self-esteem. While his brothers all went into business, my father’s passion was to be an actor. When he was twenty-three years old he left his home in Jacksonville, Florida and hitchhiked to New York to become in search of his dream.

He was successful at first, but the Great Depression soon hit and he found it difficult to find a job. He and my mother got married and they both found part-time work. But when I was born, the gender-roles kicked into place and my mother stayed home to take care of me and my father redoubled his efforts to become an actor, but jobs were few and far between.

We moved to California and he switched careers to writing for the emerging movie and television industries, but he had the bad luck of being black-listed because of his left-wing leanings. His journals at that time showed his gradual slide into depression.

October 10th: “Oh, Christ, if I could only give my son a decent education—a college decree with a love for books, a love for people, good, solid knowledge. No guidance was given to me. I slogged and slobbered and blundered through two-thirds of my life. I can’t make a decent living and it’s killing me.”

December 8th: “Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.”

January 24th: “Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.”

June 8th: “A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Wednesday morning in June, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his June 8th entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. Back then, there was little real treatment. He was mis-diagnosed as being psychotic, though today he would have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, but his real problem was basing his male identity on his role as family breadwinner.

When I lost my job a number of years ago, I became depressed and suicidal. I didn’t even like the job and was planning to leave, but was blindsided when the loss of the job made me feel I was worthless as a man. This is a real dilemma for millions of men today. We consider the breadwinner role essential for our sense of manhood, yet the male breadwinner role is in decline and may be on its way out.

A study conducted by the World Bank, which sampled 19 countries throughout the world, concluded: [Read more…]

The Most Unappreciated Fact About Men: Understanding Why Men Are the Way They Are

There’s nothing more basic than sex. None of us would be here if that one lucky sperm didn’t survive against all odds to be allowed merge with an egg. The resulting union created you and me. Let’s think for a moment about that union. A healthy adult male can release between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells in a single ejaculation. Since only one lucky sperm will be successful in making his way to that magical egg, there’s a good deal of competition.

There’s a joke about one sperm getting ready to compete. At the moment of ejaculation, he launches himself and the race is on, just him against millions of other competitors. Suddenly, he stops swimming and tries to turn around. He screams to the other sperm, “Go back, go back, it’s only a blow job.” From an evolutionary point of view, success is measured by sexual union that produces offspring that live long enough to produce offspring of their own.

Although the human egg is microscopic, it is large enough to house 250,000 sperm. Think of the few successful sperm who make it to the egg and face this massive, round, entity. Each one tries to get through the cell wall to make it into the interior, but only one sperm is chosen. This tells us something important about what it means to be male and why men are the way they are. There’s a lot of competition with other males and we must ultimately be chosen by a female who is willing to let us in.

Here’s another example from the animal kingdom. Imagine you’re a young stallion. Like all young males you have sex on your mind. But in the world of horses, it is the alpha male who rounds up the females and when they are in estrus has sex with all of them. Most males don’t reproduce at all, so there is a fierce competition to become the alpha male. They fight each other and take risks to be #1, because the consequences of not being #1 determine whether you are a reproductive success or failure. The females, on the other hand, can count on having babies. They don’t have to work to find a male willing to have sex with them. [Read more…]

Men’s Business: How Two Unlikely Entrepreneurs Help Men Look Good and Live Well

ebgr1szj3dg-idriss-fettoulI’ve been helping men live healthier, more joyful, lives for more than 40 years. I’ll be honest. It’s been an uphill struggle. Like most guys, I grew up with the belief that “real men” were tough, didn’t complain, and played hurt. I survived high school and college sports with my share of injuries, both physical and emotional. I’ve dealt with everything from back pain to bipolar disorder. Feeling that others might benefit from what I’ve learned in my own struggles, I started a business, MenAlive, to help men, and the families who love them, to live well.

I’ll tell you it isn’t easy making a living helping men. Women tend to be more focused on their health and well-being, but men need health and support just as much as women and women are happier and healthier when the men in their lives are healthy and happy. I’d like to introduce you to two men who have taken on the challenge of helping men live healthier and more joyful lives. Their names are Josh Meyer and Matt Bolduc.

Josh and Matt both grew up in Skowhegan, a small town in rural central Maine. They met in high school and have been best friends since they were sixteen. Good business role models are rare in economically-depressed central Maine. Matt’s parents owned a Christmas wreath shop. Growing up, he saw firsthand how much hard work a successful small business takes. Josh’s parents have always been hard workers. He worked along with his grandfather, dragging brush and doing odd jobs since he was a boy. From a young age, it was instilled in both Matt and Josh that you have to work for what you want. [Read more…]

I’m The Guy with the Female Brain: Expanding Our View of Manhood

11226868054_23014b4c45_zPrior to my birth my parents were sure I was going to be a girl. They had done some kind of tests (Don’t know whether they were medical or swinging a needle in front of my mother’s pregnant belly) that convinced them to begin picking out girl’s names and get lots of dolls ready for me. When I finally arrived they were surprised to see a baby boy. It took them weeks to figure out a name. My Dad finally named me Elliott after his recently deceased nephew. My mother hated the name and cried until he agreed to change it to John, after my mother’s deceased father. No one asked me what name I thought was appropriate.

My first memories were playing with the dolls that were meant for the girl who hadn’t been born and snuggling up at night, or whenever it was cold, with my mother’s big fur coat. I loved the feel of soft fur on my skin. I loved music and listened to my parent’s recording of Manhattan Tower, a story of love for the city where I was born. I think I was a born romantic and am still brought to tears by love songs.

I can still recall the words of Frankie Laine’s The Moon Light Gambler. “You can gamble for matchsticks. You can gamble for gold. The stakes may be heavy or small. But if you haven’t gambled for love and lost, then you haven’t gambled at all.” I was also hooked on romantic movies and would spend afternoons in a darkened theater watching Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Three Coins in a Fountain. I still cry at love stories.

It soon became apparent that I was different from the other boys and in some ways more similar to the girls. But I never felt “girly.” I just felt what I felt, liked what I liked, cried easily, and longed for love.

My first encounter with the gender stereotypes of what it means to be male or female came when I went to the shoe store for my first pair of “real boy shoes” when I was four years old. Up until then I had worn white baby shoes. I was entranced by all the shoes in the store in various colors. I spied the perfect pair for me. I can still picture them in my mind: Red Keds. I pointed them out to the salesman who smiled and told me and my mom. “You want the blue Keds. Red are for girls.” Off he went to the backroom to bring out a few to try on. I was shocked that there were certain colors reserved for boys and red wasn’t one of them. [Read more…]

7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Being a Man

how to be a manMy journey to manhood began early. Shortly after I was born my parents gathered for the traditional circumcision. They weren’t religious, but since they were nominally Jewish, I was held down by my father while the mohel (rhymes with oil), a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques, did the deed. I was present, but don’t consciously remember what was done to me.

However, the story was told that when my foreskin was cut away, I let out a huge scream and sent a healthy stream of urine arching over my head and hitting my father in the eyes. Everyone seemed to laugh at the retelling of the story. Even as a child I thought, “You missed the whole point. My screams were telling the world that what you were doing to me was wrong and my well-aimed response was telling the world, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take your abuse without putting up a fight.’”

In my book, The Warrior’s Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet, I said, “I consider circumcision to be a form of child sexual abuse, since it is a direct attack on a boy’s genitals and his sexuality. It is the first form of abuse most boys experience.” It took me years to remember that what was done was abusive and to recognize how it impacted my later life. It is still not easy being a man today and there are things I know now at age seventy-one that I wish I had learned earlier.

  1. Child Abuse is Common. Our Mind May Forget But the Body Always Remembers.

It’s difficult to know how early abuse impacts our lives. It took me many years to understand that the circumcision was traumatic and had an impact on my adult sexuality. In her book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal, Donna Jackson Nakazawa reports on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE). The ACE study offers irrefutable scientific link between many types of common childhood adversities and adult onset of physical and mental health disorders. [Read more…]

For 2015 The 15 Most Helpful Things Ever Said About Men and Masculinity

listI write about topics that I’m working on in my own life and ones I think will be helpful to men and women as we work out our lives separately and together. Lately I’ve been writing about such things as depression, whether the PSA test is helpful or harmful, and irritable male syndrome.

But I also love to collect quotes that inspire me. For 2015 I offer you a countdown of those I have found that move me and guide me. Let me know if you have some of your own:

15. “Testosterone is a sex hormone, and I think it is the most social of hormones. The major social effect of testosterone is to orient us toward issues of sex and power. By the end of puberty testosterone levels in males are 8 to 10 times higher than in females, but decrease with age.”  –James McBride

14. “The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.” –Simon Baron-Cohen.

13. “There is a biological basis for the observation that ‘Men never remember and women never forget.’ It plays out through our hormones.”  –Marianne J. Legato

12. “If menopause is the silent passage, ‘male menopause’ is the unspeakable passage. It is fraught with secrecy, shame, and denial.  It is much more fundamental than the ending of the fertile period of a woman’s life, because it strikes at the core of what it is to be a man.”  –Gail Sheehy

11. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.” –James Gilligan [Read more…]

What It Means to be a Man Today: The Essentials of Manhood

As I wrapped up my last blog post about men being the canaries in the coal mine I reference Sam Keen and his book  Fire in the Belly:  On Being a Man. In it Keen lays out four simple steps that we must do in order to continue to live on a planet that is conducive to human life.  I’ve found that to heal the Earth, we need to heal ourselves.  We might, then, describe what men need to do as follows:

  • Our new male vocation is to heal ourselves.
  • To heal ourselves, we must learn to love ourselves.
  • To love ourselves, we must get to know ourselves.
  • To know ourselves, we must get more deeply in touch with ourselves.

When I think of what makes me a man, there is no simple formula and there’s no description that applies to all men.  There are, however, some things worth saying about what it means to be a man today.  I suggest we explore the following basics to get us started. [Read more…]

For Love or Money: The New Male Vocation Is….

The cover story in Time magazine headlines:  The Richer Sex:  Women, Money, and Power. It reports on studies showing that almost 40% of working wives make more money than their husbands and goes on to say, “Assuming present trends continue, by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men.”

This raises some interesting questions:  Will present trends continue, or will things shift back again towards men carrying more of the load to support the family?  If present trends do continue will it be good for men, women, and children?  Could the new male vocation be learning how to love more rather than learning to make more money?

I think there’s a wonderful opportunity here.  I’d offer it in the form of an equation (thanks to author Chip Conley for the idea of turning big ideas into short equations):

________    =  Happiness

Love divided by money equals happiness.  I know for most of my adult life, I thought I created happiness for myself and my family by working harder and harder to make more and more money.  I put a lot more effort into making money than learning the skills to love myself, love my wife, and love my children.  I knew I loved them, but I thought I expressed it best by making money.

My equation of effort might have looked like this  1/10 = 0.1.  I put in 1 unit of learning to love for every 10 units on making money.  Now, with so many men finding it difficult to make money, perhaps we can reverse this equation.  10/1 = 10, where we can put ten units into learning to love for every unit on making money.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Time Magazine Cover March 26, 2012

The Masculine Mystique and Male Depression: Embracing Your Vocation of Destiny


There is something amiss with men today, and I’m still trying to figure it out.  I’ve been working with men, and the women who love them, for more than 40 years.  Actually, I’ve been on a quest to understand what is happening to men since 1948.  I was five years old that year and my father was 42.  I knew he was unhappy, but I never understood what troubled him.  He would disappear for long periods of time and when he was home he seemed irritable and angry much of the time.  My mother was perpetually worried—about him, about me, about money, about the state of the world.

The Masculine Mystique

I still remember the day my mother told me my father had been hospitalized.  She might have been crying, but she covered her emotions and simply told me my father was in a hospital.  She never explained exactly why he was there or when he would be coming home.  It was years later, when I was already in graduate school, that I found out he had tried to commit suicide.   My father was a writer and had boxes of journals with plays, poetry, radio shows, and short stories of all kinds.  I had read many of them, but they were hand-written and not easy to decipher.  When I came across a big box with personal journals I read them with a mounting excitement and apprehension.

Here is a note from my father’s first journal, written when he was his old self, full of hope and joy for life:

“I feel full of confidence in my writing ability.  I know for certain that someone will buy one of my radio shows.  I know for certain that I will get a good part in a play.  Last night I dreamt about candy.  There was more candy than I could eat.  Does it mean I’ll be rewarded for all my efforts?  Has it anything to do with sex?”

Journal number three was written a year later.  The economic depression of the time and the depression going on within his mind had come together.  His entries are more terse, staccato, and disheartening.  I still get tears when I feel how much was lost in such a short time.

“June 4th:

Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work,  Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.

August 15th:

Faster, faster, faster, I walk.  I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family.  I try, try, try, try, try.  I always try and never stop.

November 8th:

A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out.  Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried.  All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.

I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying.  Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself.  Though he survived physically, emotionally he was never again the same.  For nearly 40 years I’ve treated more and more men who are facing similar stresses to those my father experienced.  The economic conditions and social dislocations that contributed to his feelings of shame and hopelessness continue to weigh heavily on men today.

The Feminine Mystique:  The Problem That Has No Name

I’ve been reading Birth 2012 and Beyond:  Humanity’s Great Shift to the Age of Conscious Evolution by Barbara Marx Hubbard.  In the book Hubbard, talks about those key figures that had influenced her personal and professional life.  The two primal people she mentions, the psychologist Abraham Maslow and feminist author Betty Friedan, also had a profound influence on me.

The Feminine Mystique

I was in college when I read The Feminine Mystique.  I still have my original copy written in 1963 with a quote of support from anthropologist Ashley Montague, “the wisest, sanest, soundest, most understanding and compassionate treatment of contemporary American woman’s greatest problem.”  In her book she talked about the fact that in the years following World War II American women seemed to have it all.  She described “the American housewife—freed by science and labor-saving appliances from the drudgery, the angers of childbirth and the illnesses of her grandmother.  She was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home.  She had true feminine fulfillment.”

Yet, with all that she had—a husband, children, a nice house, T.V. and new “labor-saving devices,” she was becoming increasingly unhappy.  In the secret confines of her heart and soul she knew there was more to her life than a husband, house, and children; and she felt ashamed for wanting more when she had so much.  “She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction,” said Friedan, “that she never knew how many other women shared it.  If she tried to tell her husband, he didn’t understand what she was taking about.”  When she’d go to a psychiatrist for help, he didn’t understand either.  Until Friedan called it “the feminine mystique,” it was a “problem that has no name.”

Barbara Marx Hubbard remembers her reaction to The Feminine Mystique.  “When I read that book, I realized that I was depressed because I had accepted the role of wife and mother as my exclusive identity….Once I read Betty Friedan, I was encouraged by one major thought:  I knew I wasn’t alone.  And I wasn’t willing to accept this depression as normal for me.  The meme of the feminine mystique liberated and encouraged me to keep seeking.”  She shared the feelings of so many women of that time.  “So much was given to me, yet there was this feeling of depression caused by a loss of identity—a deep longing for something more.”

The Masculine Mystique:  Why Men Are Angry and Depressed

It doesn’t take social science research to prove that men are angry and depressed.  One measure of this trend is the increase in the rates of homicide and suicide we see in males.  According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), homicide rates for males are 3 to 4 times higher than they are for females.  Among persons aged 20–24, the male homicide rate is 6 times higher than it is for females and it is much worse among minorities than among whites.   For those ages 10-19, the homicide rate is 10 times higher for blacks than for whites.

Differences in suicide rates are even more dramatic, according to the CDC.   Overall, males kill themselves at rates that are 4 times higher than females.  But as with homicide, certain groups are even more vulnerable.  The suicide rate for those ages 20-24 is 5.4 times higher for males than for females of the same age.  In the older age groups suicide is predominantly a male problem.  After retirement, the suicide rate skyrockets for men, but not for women.  Between the ages of 65-74 the rate is 6.3 times higher for males.  Between the ages of 75-84, the suicide rate is 7 times higher.  And for those over 85, it is nearly 18 times higher for men than it is for women.

Why are men so unhappy?  The Feminine Mystique told women that they should be satisfied with being wives, mothers, and homemakers.  The Masculine Mystique told men that they should be happy to compete with other men to find a woman and then compete with other “breadwinners” to create ever greater material wealth for themselves and their families.  We were told that “he who dies with the most toys, wins” and “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  Both women and men become depressed trying to fit into roles that no longer work for us.

Men are losing out on three fronts.  First, as women become more self-sufficient, men don’t feel they are needed as the sole “breadwinner.”  Second, as the economy continues to move from one based on continued material growth to one based on sustainable living, more males are losing their jobs.  Third, as stresses from economic and ecological imbalances continue to increase, men are no longer able to succeed in love and work.  More women are seeking divorces than ever before and more men are stuck in dead-end jobs working longer and longer hours for less and less pay.

Anti-depressants and psychotherapy aren’t the answer.  Both the feminine mystique and the masculine mystique would have us believe that we are depressed because there is something wrong inside us—with our brains, our serotonin levels, or self-esteem.  The “experts” tell us that we need to take something or do something to better fit into the world as we know it.  Liberation for men and for women requires that we break free of the old constraints and find our true purpose and direction in life.  Depression isn’t merely an illness.  It is a wake-up call from the soul.

Depression is More About Loss of Love Than Loss of Serotonin

We’ve all seen the pharmaceutical ads for the latest antidepressants.  They show two nerve fibers greatly magnified with a few little black dots representing the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the synapse between the nerves.  The ad informs us that too little serotonin causes depression and when we take their anti-depressant we immediately see many more little dots of serotonin flooding the synapse and connecting to the next nerve.  But as usual, there is more to the story than the pharmaceutical companies would have us believe.

Depression is About Loss of Love

Andrew Solomon is a well-known writer who has dealt with depression in his own life. Although he acknowledges that anti-depressants can be of help to some people who suffer, he describes the problem in much different terms than the simplified view we see in the ads.  In his comprehensive book, The Noonday Demon:  An Atlas of Depression, he begins the book this says:  “Depression,” says Solomon, “is the flaw in love.  To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.  When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.  It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself….In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident.  The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”

The Male Vocation of Destiny:   How to Love Ourselves, Each Other, and Embrace Our Calling in Life

Many men are ready to shed old roles, but don’t know what it means to be a good man in these changing times.  Barbara Marx Hubbard says we must embrace our “vocation of destiny.”  I suggest that our work requires that we learn to devote ourselves to three, inter-related, grand, causes.

  • We must learn to love and accept ourselves just the way we are.
  • We must learn to love our partner (wife, spouse, lover, or “special someone”)
  • We must learn to love and embrace our calling in life.

Part of the masculine (and feminine) mystique is that men must be a certain way and women must be different.  In fact, it tells us that the very things that men must be women cannot be and vice versa.

For instance, psychologist Ann Neitlich says that men must be and women cannot be:  Cool, stoic, economically powerful, physically strong, logical, aggressive, athletic, hairy, muscular, outspoken, rugged, and tough.

She says that men cannot be and women must be:  Nurturing, tender, feeling, loving, beautiful, soft, curvy, thin, passive, receptive, nice, sweet, hairless, quiet, giving, and apologetic.

It’s not easy going against the mystique of masculinity, but we must do so if we are going to truly love ourselves.  “When I get to heaven,” said the Hasidic rabbi Susya shortly before his death, “they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ but ‘Why were you not Susya?  Why did you not become what only you could become?’”  The first grand cause is to learn to love ourselves.

When I first heard Ann Neitlich talk about the things that women must be and the things that men cannot be, I wasn’t surprised to hear words like “beautiful, soft, curvy, thin, passive, receptive, and hairless.”  But I was surprised to hear words like “tender, feeling, and loving” included.  But the more I thought about it, I realized it was true.  Even qualities as important and universal as these, we are taught are for women, not for men.

I hate to admit it, but learning to love my wife and even my children at the same level that my wife loves me and our children, has been a real challenge.  The second great cause of our lives is to learn to love those we are closest too.  If we’re not married or “in relationship,” we all have someone special in our lives that we need to love more fully and unconditionally.

Finally, we have to learn to embrace and love our calling in life.  I believe that we each have a calling, something that goes far beyond our job or career, something that we were born to do.  It isn’t always easy to find, embrace, and love, but we must do so if we are going to be the men we’ve always wanted to be.  Barbara Marx Hubbard says, “So, the question for each of us is, ‘what is my unique way of expressing my essence that is both self-rewarding and of service to others?”

I’ve found that for many of us our calling emerges out of our wound.  It was my father’s attempted suicide when I was five that started me on the path of my life’s calling.  It wasn’t always obvious to me, but became more and more clear that my calling has to do with awakening the masculine soul and helping men, and the women who love them, to live long and well on this beautiful planet we all share.

As men, we must come home to the essence of who we are in order to love ourselves, our partner, and our calling.  We live at an important transition time in human history.  An old way of life is coming to an end and a new path is opening before us.  David C. Korten, author of The Great Turning calls it the transition from Empire to Earth Community.  Psychologist and philosopher Sam Keen puts the challenge we face simply:

“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:

1.    The new human vocation is to heal the Earth.
2.    We can only heal what we love.
3.    We can only love what we know.
4.    We can only know what we touch.”

Are you ready to step up and embrace the challenge to accept and love yourself?  Are you ready to reach out to others and love more fully and unconditionally?  Are you ready to seek out and embrace your life’s calling?  Let me hear from you.  We can help each other on our journey.  As my friend Joseph Jastrab reminds us, “The world needs a man’s heart.”


Photo Credit: commons