The ‘masculine mystique’ why men can’t ditch the baggage of being a bloke

Far from espousing the school run, most men are still trapped by rigid cultural notions of being strong, dominant and successful. Is it leading to an epidemic of unhappiness similar to the one felt by Betty Friedans 50 s homemakers?

Back in the 90 s, it was all going to be so different. Not for our generation the lopsided approach of our parents, with their quaint postwar the idea of father-breadwinners and mother-homemakers. We would be equal; interchangeable. Our young lady would run companies, embassies, hospitals and schools, while our young men , no slouches themselves, would punctuate their careers with long, halcyon spells dandling newborns and teaching toddlers how to build tiny volcanoes out of vinegar and baking soda.

That equality would have formidable knock-on effects. The gender pay gap would constrict. Sexual harassment wouldn’t vanish, but decoupling professional power from gender would do a lot to erase it from the workplace.

A generation or so later, it is clear: this is the revolution that never happened, at the least not in the UK. The home-dad innovators among us who once flamed a trail , now look on aghast as successive waves of men scurry past and say:” Right. Back to run .”

What happened? Latest statistics for England demonstrate more than 80% of fathers still run full period, rising to virtually 85% for papas of very young children. This rate has hardly changed for 20 years. The ratio of part-timers has flatlined only above 6% throughout this decade( having risen through the 90 s and early 00 s ). Just 1.6% of men have given up run wholly to take care of the family home. New rights for fathers to share parental leave with moms have poor take-up rates.


You can glimpse this paternity gap at 3.30 pm on weekday afternoons at school gates up and down the country. Far from being overrun with gaggles of enlightened humen in clothes covered with baby sick and badges saying ” World’s greatest dad”, the father quota is, in my own limited experience, disappointing. There are often more grandparents doing the pickup than dads.

At the same time, there is no deficit of surveys discovering legions of men saying they want to find more time for family life. So exactly what he stopping them?

In 1963, The Feminine Mystique, a seminal volume by Betty Friedan, helped launch the second wave of feminism by positing that American females faced” a problem that has no name “: they had basically become typecast as uber-feminine moms, home-makers, cake bakers and sexual slaves to their spouses. Forcing girls to live up to this idea of femininity left an entire generation depressed, frustrated or hooked on Valium.

The question is this: 50 years later, are humen facing their own” problem with no name”, a” masculine mystique” which imposes rigid culture notions of what it is to be male- superior, dominant, hierarchical, sexually assertive to the point of abuse- even though society is hollering out for manhood to be something very different?

Men who do change their working lives to accommodate their children generally say it can feel tough, lonely, incongruous, even emasculating. When, 15 years ago, I gave up run wholly for a year to do childcare, it took a while to get used to being the only daddy in the park; the strange human arguing with a difficult child outside the library on a damp Tuesday morning. People stared.

David Early and his son Jonah …’ There is a stigma when people see you doing a role that isn’t traditional .’

Little has changed. Father-of-two David Early, 31, from Glasgow, says he still feels in a minority when he is out and about with his toddlers.” When I’m with the children, and I have her in the sling and him in the buggy, I have people looking and thinking:’ What’s that guy doing with two children strapped to him ?'” says Early.” There is a stigma when people see you doing a role that isn’t traditional. It can impact on your professional life .”

For Early, it certainly did. When he asked for additional parental leave after his first child was bear, his directors for his data management task were not impressed. He eventually quit and detected work elsewhere to be able to balance his work and family in the way he wanted.

Paul Cudby, 36, was luckier. A business analyst for the National Grid in Leicestershire, he found his director more receptive, and worked out a highly flexible work pattern that leaves him free to do the afternoon school running before turning the laptop back on again in the evening.” There comes a few moments in every dad’s life when there’s a choice. You’ll find yourself missing something at home and the question is: what do you do about the emotional ache? Do you say:’ I’m just going to have to suck it up ,’ or do “theyre saying”:’ Something’s got to change ‘?

” I get plenty of little gibes about being a part-timer. They are well entailing, but I can understand how some people get offended. I think there possibly is a knock-on consequence on my career .”

And that’s just it- humen are finding out what girls have known for years: that parenting properly is necessarily upend your career. For many men, so thoroughly programmed to identify who they are with the work they do, this can seem like an existential threat.

Tormod Sund …’ The traditional human … breadwinner … those various kinds of notions are rooted in the past. Photo: Mark Rice-Oxley for the Guardian

Tormod Sund, 42, is a parent, an anthropologist, a charity worker, a Norwegian and a Londoner- and has been the primary carer for his son for more than 10 years. He says he still feels like” a little bit of an oddity” in a society that still expects men to be alpha.

” The traditional man … breadwinner … those various kinds of ideas are rooted in the past, but you don’t get rid of them in one or two generations ,” Sund says.” Those notions are still quite strong socially .”

” When you satisfy new people, the first thing they ask is:’ What do you do ?’ I would say:’ I work from home .’ The notion of what is successful and normal if you’re a man is that you should have a career. It’s less acceptable for a man to say:’ I’m staying at home with the children .’ We work. Our identity is connected to that .”

The barriers are not just psychological. They are professional and fiscal as well. Jasmine Kelland, a human resource analyzes lecturer at Plymouth University, interviewed scores of fathers and managers, trying to find out more about the male reluctance to reduce hours. She found that of all the working permutations- part-time, full-time, humen, females- the part-time human was held in lowest consider on a range of metrics including proficiency, commitment and even ability.

” In the workplace, parents do not get as much supporting as mums ,” Kelland says.” When they say, for example, that they need time off because a child is unwell, organisations are less supportive. There are quite a lot of negative perceptions about fathers who want to work part-time .”

Dr Alpesh Maisuria has experienced this first-hand. The 37 -year-old London-based academic says that even in more “enlightened” parts of the economy, boss are not always understanding.” My value as a bloke in this country is to do with my productivity and output, much more than being a parent ,” he says.” I proposed to in many instances, even as an academic, the fact that I’m a parent might be a obstacle to my boss .”

The” part-time paternal penalty” is not just a British peculiarity. A 2013 US survey found that men who engaged in childcare risked a workplace backlash.” Men who lack complete focus on, and dedication to, their work and who do the low-status’ feminine’ run of childcare and housework are likely to be seen both as failed men and as bad workers ,” research reports found. At the other end of the scale, however, Sweden incentivises all parents to take at least three months paid paternity leave. The result has been a far more even-handed approach to” latte pappas “.

Dr Alpesh Maisuria …’ The fact that I’m a parent might be a hindrance to my boss .’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

” When I take him out to playgroups or cafes in the UK, I’m usually the only bloke in there ,” says Maisuria.” In Sweden, you’ll find a whole loading of these blokes alongside you .”

There are, of course, financial considerations: a great many households won’t be able to afford to sacrifice even part of a father’s wage. With the gender pay gap persisting, the default stance tends to be humen working full-time while women do the childcare and perhaps work part-time.

” Involved fatherhood is quite a middle-class idea ,” says Dr Helen Norman at Manchester University’s school of social sciences.” It’s only really accessible to middle-class men who can afford to change the performance of their duties; the fathers on lower incomes don’t have that[ option ].”

A support worker with a housing association in the West Midlands, Richard Watkins, 32, ran all the hours he could, until separation from his partner and problems with their children forced a rethink. Now, his six-year-old son lives with him and Watkins felt he had to cut back his hours to nurture his child.” We came very close to relying on food banks ,” he says.” The only route I can survive doing this on my budget is to have it[ all] mapped out for the next two years .”

Ultimately, he says, he will have to go back to work full-time. Which is a shame. The benefits of full-on fathering- the dad dividend if you like- are both obvious and subtle. There are no end of advocates agitating for progress, from Fathers Network Scotland and its” Dad Up” campaign to Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute.

Martin Doyle, 37, a Bristol-based communications manager for Lloyds bank , noticed that, after “hes been gone” part-time, there was a big a difference in the son that he and his husband had adopted.” It’s been massively beneficial- our son is a lot more determined and a lot more relaxed than he was ,” he says.” His confidence has grown, his self-belief has grown. I’ve been able to be there to support him .”

Engaged parents can also liberate females to resume careers- indeed females will never get close to true equality until humen bend over backwards to meet them halfway. And according to Norman, there can be a positive effect on relationships, too: in households where humen do sole childcare a few times a week in the early years, this will have” a positive effect on the relationship over period”, she says.

But could it be that the biggest recipient of all would be men themselves?

From his office overlooking the Royal Festival Hall terrace in London, Ted Hodgkinson is putting the finishing touch to a celebration that is all about the male predicament.

The Being a Human celebration, running from 24 -2 6 November, aims to get under the skin of the masculine identity, prod it around a little, see if it falls apart. The furore over sexual harassment will tinge some segments, particularly a session called ” Standing Up for Her Rights “.

But the event aims to be far broader than a single news story. Novelists, performers and musicians, including Robert Webb, Alan Hollinghurst and Simon Amstell, will explore the relentless levels of expectation heaped on men and assess whether this is responsible for statistics that indicate it is truly dismal these days to have a Y chromosome.

Suicide is a predominantly male tragedy( a human takes their own lives every minute somewhere in the world ). Ditto gambling, drug overdoses, rough sleeping or merely disappearing. Rape, murder, terrorism, war, people trafficking and domestic violence cases: all are predominantly masculine disgraces. Wherever you go in the world, men always make up more than 90% of jail populations. Flick through today’s newspaper and the opportunities are it will be full of all the bad things that humen are doing. Of course, recent weeks have been dominated by sexual harassment, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Mass shootings and sickening murders , not to mention terror attacks and the brutality of war.

Then there are our role model: misogynist presidents, groping politicians, narcissistic sports starrings, self-satisfied billionaires, airbrushed performers, heroic superheroes, alpha humen, all of them. Even the average shape of a man has changed in 20 years: firearms, pecs and necks wider than heads in some cases. There is no room for the winsome, the vulnerable, the uncertain.

I ask Hodgkinson if he guesses a” masculine mystique”- a cultural insistence on” strong, dominant, successful” kinds as the only valid show of manhood- is inducing us unhappy in the same style that the feminine mystique depressed women in the 50 s and 60 s.

” In one sense it seems as though men are holding all the cards ,” he says,” but the statistics prove otherwise: three out of four suicides are humen, 73% of adults who go missing are humen. They feel they have to walk out of their own lives for one reason or another. We have to look at what masculinity means to understand this. Often it equates demonstrating emotion with weakness. There is a bottling up of disgrace; not wanting to let people down .”

The good news is there is no shortfall of volumes, documentaries, artists working to challenge old patriarchal notions, from Professor Green’s acclaimed documentary about men and suicide to Grayson Perry’s 2016 volume The Descent of Man.( The downside: two-thirds of men say they don’t read much .)

” There is an awakening around these things. There is a shift there ,” says Hodgkinson.

Jonny Benjamin concurs. He became a mental health campaigner after contemplating his own suicide on Waterloo Bridge and being talked down by a stranger. He says he sees changes coming through in the new young generation.

Jonny Benjamin …’ We need more sports superstars, more footballers to talk about their vulnerabilities .’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

” The good thing is that now it’s being questioned ,” he observes from his own work talking to young people about mental health.” There is work in schools challenging this whole kind of’ big-boys-don’t-cry’ position .”

Benjamin says it is notions of pride, disgrace and accolade that still do men such damage. Men need to know that it’s OK to show vulnerability, subjugate every now and then, lose, shout, express their emotional commotion. It’s not just women who suffer from comparing themselves to the perfection they see in the public space.

” We need more athletics superstars, more footballers to talk about their vulnerabilities ,” he says.” Just to say:’ I do struggle sometimes, I do get anxious. Life isn’t all money and autoes .'”

There are nascent campaigns calling for a more honest dialogue about the connection between maleness, depression and suicide, most notably the work done by the Campaign Against Living Miserably and the Movember foundation.

But will that ever build into a full-blown motion that reforms maleness from the inside and changes its relationship with the world? It’s hard to say. Thus far “masculinism” has shown itself principally in niche areas such as detention law or male victims of violence, or simply as strident misogynist voices pushing back at feminism.

And it’s hard to see how to make a movement when you are essentially still in control of much of society. As Sund says,” we are not a minority who the hell is oppressed in any shape or form, so it’s hard to find that moral space “.

The crisis of manhood, if it exists, is very different from that faced by women in the 50 s and 60 s. In some senses, it’s a mirror image. Women- some at least- were saying:” Some of us might want to work .” Men- some at least- are saying:” Some of us might want to work less .” Women were saying:” We want to be taken seriously in public life .” Men- some at least- are saying:” We want to be taken seriously in our private life .”

Both sexes are trying to live up to cultural projections rather than satisfy their own complex human needs. Man today may have greater selection than women did half a century ago, but that doesn’t make it easy.

Women had an oppression to rail against; the outcome was a broad awakening that would not be subdued. The “oppression” of men is far more subtle, even self-inflicted.

The awakening has barely begun.

Being a Human celebration runs from 24 -2 6 November at Southbank Centre. More info and tickets available here: being-a-man

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at .

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