What does it mean to be a man? A pointed question. One that’s likely provoked many an hour of chin-stroking in people far more learned than me. It feels pertinent to me as a carer. Whether other male carers feel the same, I can’t say. I can only say that the question lodges itself in my head from time to time and provokes a good deal of self-analysis.
Recently, I found myself listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. I’m not so narrow-minded as to assume “Ugh, women’s stuff – not for me.”, or that I couldn’t find it interesting, so I didn’t tune out. After a few segments, the programme featured an interview with Jody Day. Ms. Day has founded Gateway Women, and written a book, Rocking The Life Unexpected, both of which were inspired by her search for support whilst grieving at the realisation that she will never have children. I listened to her story and how she described her feelings and experiences as a woman at the time her peers were becoming mothers. She recalled feeling at odds with people around her, as though she was viewed with a little suspicion. Perhaps she wasn’t fulfilling the stereotypical role of “woman as nurturer/carer”. This caused my pointed question to lodge itself once again.
Ms. Day’s story touched a couple of raw nerves. 1. I am a carer. 2. I have no children and won’t be having any.
If a woman’s role in life is to be nurturer/carer (I don’t believe this to be true, by the way, but please bear with me for the sake of this post), then what role does a man have? What’s the male stereotype? Provider? Hunter/gatherer? And do I fulfil that role? While I see this stereotype to be as outmoded as the idea of a woman’s sole role to be a nurturer/carer, it doesn’t stop me from questioning my place in the world. A feeling similar to that described by Ms. Day. I sometimes wonder how people view me because of what I do for MW. I suppose it shouldn’t matter but it does. It’s important to me to feel like I fit in somewhere.
I grew up in a shipbuilding area during the 70s/80s. The “hunter/gatherer” stereotype was everywhere you looked; originating at home, and reinforced at school or with friends. Add the same messages from the media and you have a powerful influence around you. When I was a kid, I assumed this was the stereotype to follow. When I began my working life (albeit not in industry) and started having relationships, I still assumed that I would be the ‘hunter/gatherer’ – especially when I thought about marriage and a family in my future (more on this later). I didn’t foresee that the ‘role’ I would have in my 40s would be so different from that stereotype.
Prior to being a carer, I didn’t know a single male carer. None whatever. Of course, I do now. I’ve met quite a few, either in person or via Twitter. But prior to 2005, I had no concept of what it entailed to be a man who is a carer. It was a cultural role that never existed for me to learn about. It’s very rarely, if ever, covered in the media. I know there are occasional media references to men who are carers but their role in the cultural world around us is never explained. It’s as though they’ve just beamed down and started caring. I didn’t get beamed down. I’ve been through (and am still going through) a self-examination in terms of who I am as a man, similar to Ms. Day’s self-examination as a woman. I’m not the “provider” that I expected to be. I’m not going to go into detail about our financial affairs but our circumstances dictate that MW’s share of the household income is higher than mine. I am a full-time carer. A role that doesn’t appear to be valued too highly, regardless of gender. I am a male, full-time carer. I have assumed the nurturer/carer role that society appears to deem only suitable to women. Even anthropologists are making inferences to the size of caring males’ testicles!! (Don’t believe everything you read!) When I tell someone I’m a full-time carer, the reply tends to start with, “Oh…..”, followed by a pregnant pause. They’ve no frame of reference for meeting someone who has that role by circumstance rather than by choice, as a care-worker might. It’s as though what I do – and by extension, who I am – isn’t “natural”. I might as well be an alien, or a talking animal. So, what does this make me in the eyes of other people?
The second raw nerve was about children. The Women’s Hour interview continued, and referred to women who find themselves childless by circumstance. (That is, they’ve not actively chosen to be child-free.) This is a truth I’ve had to come to terms with myself. I don’t have any children, and I’m not going to have any. Both Ms. Day and the interviewer acknowledged that there are a number of men who find themselves childless but their experiences are different. She’s right. But it’s no less hard to come to terms with. Just as I’m not a carer through choice but by circumstance, so I’m childless in the same way. MW and I wanted to have a family. We tried for ages but it didn’t happen. Abortion has been part of both our lives so we assumed that there was no biological issue. We considered IVF. However, at that time, our energy was taken up coping with my Dad’s illness. MW’s symptoms began very soon after Dad died. The severity of MW’s initial MS relapse put a stop to our dreams at the time, and its ever-debilitating progressiveness has done the rest. Although we both know what the reality of the situation is, we don’t discuss it often, save for brief “I wish we could have been parents” conversations, prompted by a TV programme or seeing a cute child when we’re out. But these conversations never last long. Rationally, I realise that caring for MW is too demanding to consider adoption or fostering. But I feel very much unfulfilled as a man – a propagator of my species. The prospect of my genes dying with me leaves a visceral scar.
Meanwhile, all my friends have gone on to become parents. (MW’s friends have tended to be a bit older than her so the dynamic is a little different) Ms Day spoke about how she felt a greater distance from her peers as they all had a common thread that maintains their interaction – i.e. having children. I guess it comes naturally for parents to talk about their children: schooling, growth spurts, etc., even to strangers. Becoming a carer is a great way to lose friends. Not becoming a parent is another. I sometimes sense people my age struggling to talk to me once they ascertain that I don’t have children. It’s as though their entire catalogue of conversation is geared towards their children – either as a conversation starter or as a specialist subject to the exclusion of everything else. Since I don’t have children, it’s assumed I won’t have anything in common with them – which I find strange – so conversation stops. Perhaps I should turn the tables and act awkwardly towards non-carers? No, maybe not.
You might read this and say, “what does it matter what other people think?”. And you would probably make a very valid point. The thing is, I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and wonder how I match up against the archetypal male ideal (which may or may not exist) that society/media would have me measure myself against. I also wonder how other people score me against that same ideal. Not enough to keep me awake nights but I do think about it.
So, what does it mean to be a man? Maybe it’s all just bollocks.