By ADRIENNE GARSIDE
Call me crazy, but I don’t think many of us will look back on 2020 as the best year of our lives. Among the many lowlights for my family occurred when our beloved red cattle dog, Molly, had to be euthanised in February. Everyone was understandably upset. As he ascended the back steps after burying the dog, my Dad suddenly burst into tears. This completely reasonable response to the situation rattled me. As I hugged him, I realised why – it was only the
second time I’d ever seen my father visibly sad.
Such emotional reserve is partly down to nature. That’s because men produce significantly less prolactin, a hormone found in emotional tears, than women. But physiological differences are certainly not the only factor at play. As a woman, I’m allowed to cry in a broad range of circumstances. Sad movies or beautiful music. Good news and or bad news. Unexpected acts of kindness. Pre-menstrual tension. The act of crying is cathartic, like loosening the valve on a pressure cooker. After a good cry, I usually feel drained and ready to rest, or relaxed and ready to take on the world. Crying is a healthy and normal response to emotional stimuli. So, why do we only allow half the population to do it?
The answer, in large part, is gender roles. As the phrase suggests, gender roles are about performance and perception. Almost from birth, boys and girls are coached by family members, peers and pop culture about the ‘correct’ physical and emotional traits of their gender. One of the most pervasive messages given to young males is that ‘boys don’t cry’. Crying is associated with weakness, vulnerability and – horror of horrors – womanhood. It is completely at odds with traditional constructions of masculinity. Even in the 21st century, men and boys are explicitly and implicitly encouraged to suppress emotions (except anger), to refrain from discussing their feelings and to avoid seeking support to manage problems.
Some observers may believe that encouraging boys to express emotions and to cry is an attempt to ‘feminise’ them. That it implies that ‘female’ behaviours are good, while ‘male’ behaviours are bad. Rather, it is to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everyone’s wellbeing if we stopped ascribing gender to our children’s emotions and behaviours so readily. In many countries, including Australia, men suicide at about three times the rate of women. There are many reasons for this disparity. But ingrained stereotypes about men being strong and self-reliant at all costs are certainly among them. Parents and other caregivers have an important role to play in shifting such outdated and often harmful perceptions.
Normalising help-seeking: It is important for adult family members, particularly male ones, to model healthy help-seeking behaviour. Let boys see you treating your own mental and physical health as something valuable. Seek out support and advice from friends, neighbours, co-workers and healthcare professionals before problems escalate into catastrophe. Encourage boys to approach you or other trusted adults about their problems. Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers; that humans often find the best solutions by working together.
Helping boys connect with their emotions: MensLine Australia likens identifying and expressing feelings to driving a car – it is a learned behaviour that takes practise. This process can begin in early childhood by teaching boys to name their feelings and the reasons for them. (“You seem angry! What’s happened?”) Encourage boys to express themselves through their preferred creative activity, such as drawing, writing or building projects. Demonstrate through your own behaviour that emotions can be managed without resorting to insults, threats or violence. And, most importantly, show boys they can share their feelings without fear, ridicule or shame.
Adrienne Garside works for Iris Foundation, a charity that aims to reduce the risk of suicide on the Central Coast. The Foundation achieves this by facilitating and supporting awareness campaigns, programs and partnerships which enhance community connectedness and well-being. For more information, please visit: www.irisfoundation.org.au.