Sunday, January 27, 2008

Is it Really Tough to Be a Guy in Hard Times? - Speculations on the Biology of Limits

As I wrote in my latest post over at http://www.depletion-abundance.com/, I've been thinking about the likelihood of collapse lately. And one of the things that struck me is that nearly all the source material I've ever looked at on what a crisis looks like suggests that it is really, really tough to be a man in a changing society, particularly a middle aged man - in fact, that it is so tough that sometimes they die of it, or very nearly.

For example in the recent essay "Survival in Times of Uncertainty: Growing Up in Russia in the 1990s" http://www.sott.net/articles/show/147683-Survival-in-Times-of-Uncertainty-Growing-Up-in-Russia-in-the-1990s, the author observes,

"Personal survival and the survival of the family depended on a right mix of flexibility, on one hand, and staying true to oneself on theother. The more invested people were in their job-related identitiesand past achievements, the worse it was for them. In general, women fared better than men. The elderly were in trouble. When it came to the world view adjustment, the middle-age men were hit hardest; too many were paralyzed with all the changes and were content to sit around in their cold and empty engineering or accounting offices, drinking tea or stronger drinks and swearing at the government. Oftentimes it was their wives who buckled down and traveled the railroad with the striped coffers in hand."

Dmitry Orlov makes much the same point in his essay "Post Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century," observing that women did better than men, and middle aged, career oriented men worst of all. The high rates of alcoholism and mortality are mentioned in both cases, with Russian men still averaging a lifespan 12 years shorter than Russian women.

This is a theme that shows up around other areas. A while back, Rob Hopkins had a very widely discussed post, "Is Peak Oil Pessimism A Generation of Men Coming To Realize How Useless They Are?"http://transitionculture.org/2006/12/04/is-peak-oil-pessimism-a-generation-of-men-coming-to-realise-how-useless-they-are/ in it, Hopkins argued that some of the doomerism in the peak oil movement (and its male dominated character) is based on the sheer shock men face when they realize that their whole lives have been focused on things that may not be there in the longer term. This post was widely discussed in the community, and seemed to touch a nerve.

In Jeane Westin's book _Making Do: How Women Survived the '30s_, she notes that a recurring theme in her interviews was the husband who just couldn't handle the job loss and loss of his role as provider. Women, she argues, seem to do better. One woman, "Pauline" notes: "My husband was ready to roll over and die, but the kids still had to eat, and so I didn't have the choice."

The final quote I'll offer on this theme comes from Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen's _The Subsistence Perspective_. In it, Mies talks about going to speak at a conference where she was the token woman. In response to an MIT scientist's claim that we are all doomed to ecological collapse, Mies notes that the same predictions were made at the end of the Roman empire, and that her father used to grow potatoes on the old Roman road that fell apart at that "end of the world." She goes on to speak of a strain of apocalyptic thought she observes, particularly in scientists (and mostly but not exclusively male ones) who, at the end of their careers, begin to fear for the state of society. They are, she says,

"...those prominent male scientists who, at the end of their lives, are horrified when they look at themselves and their works, and when they realise that the God to whom they have devoted tehir whole life - scientific progress - is a Moloch who eats his children. Some of these men then convert from a Saul to a Paul. But they rarely give up the whole megalomania of the project of modern science. If they can't solve humanity's problems by almight science and technology then at aleast the catastrophe has to be total and all-encompassing. Note even a single blade of grass is allowed to grow on the ruins of their deeds." (Mies, 25-26)

Obviously, there are limits to the utility of any generalization on gender, and I'm covering territory already discussed. Nor am I claiming in any sense that either this will be easy on women or that all men are like those described by Mies. What I'm interested in (perhaps because I'm married to a man rapidly approaching middle age and care very much about other ones) is why a changing society should be so very difficult for men to adapt to. Is this as true now as it was in the Soviet Union, the 30s, and as Rob Hopkins implies it is now?

Or perhaps it might be better to ask the question another way - what makes it easier for women? My own personal theory is this - women are better able to adapt in large part because we have fewer choices about this. This is a deeply essentialist argument, but I'm not sure that makes it less true. That is, even among the most career minded women I know, there's the simple biological reality of our reproductive system to remind us how powerless we are. As my friend George Franklin once observes, "there's nothing fair about pregnancy and childbirth" and that's true - but even among women who don't have children, there is, I think a constant awareness of the possibility of getting pregnant. Perhaps the celibate and post-menopausal childless are free of such anxieties, and thus can establish strong professional identities without ambiguity, but I couldn't find enough of a sample size among my acquaintance to establish such a fact.

The truth is that it is a big old wrench to spend your youth training and establishing yourself in a career, allow it shape your identity and your place in your society, only to have that completely overturned. The thing is, most of the women I know who have children have already been through that giant wrench - and most of those who don't and are young enough to still be fertile know they could be.

Rob Hopkins ties the difficulty of the transition to the lack of skills that contemporary men have - but contemporary women are in the same boat. Does that mean we're going to be as lost as the Soviet men? Is Rob right, is this change going to be hardest on young to middle aged guys? I love a whole bunch of them, and I don't want to see them die young, like Russian men have.

Most of my female (and a few of my male) peers are a lot like me - overeducated, middle class, married, partnered with kids or were when they got knocked up (with a few single mothers by choice thrown in) and aren't now, and elaborately trained for some professional career. And most of those with kids (and a good number without) aren't doing what they thought they'd be doing in their 20s. In fact, it is something of a joke among us - we call it the mid-30s "What do I want to be when the children grow up" crisis.

I've changed the names to protect the innocent, but there's Miriam, who managed to keep her career as an engineer through her second child, only to quit when a colleague kept sexually harassing her while she was pumping breastmilk. Now she teaches math at a public school and has "teacher's hours," while her partner Shannon, who didn't give birth gets the engineering promotion. Or there's Mela, who was in Medical School until she accidentally got pregnant by her boyfriend. She's going to go back when her daughter is in kindergarten...unless she has another baby, since she's worried that otherwise, she will be entering what she calls the "amnio years" of reduced fertility by the time she can take time out to have another child - and she thinks that might matter more to her than the career. Samantha doesn't have kids yet - but she wants them, and she just gave up her high powered academic career that required her to live in another state from her husband and see him only two weekends a month. Amy used to be an IT professional, and now she works part time from home, after a lengthy struggle with various bad childcare providers - her younger son goes to school this year, and she's thinking about going back, but not sure how her years out of the workplace will function, and doesn't know what to do about summers. Binjan quit her job as a research chemist after her first child was born - she couldn't do the work with toxic substances she'd been doing, and the only option open to her was effectively a demotion. She's taken a much lower-level job, well below her qualifications, that allows her to work near home. Laura and Paul agreed that she'd stay home while she was breastfeeding, and then he'd take his turn afterwards, but now that her child is weaned, she's not getting offers that match his - she notes that her fellow physicists treat time off to bear and raise a kid kind of like she'd skipped out to go to a bowling convention. Kate did her Ph.d, her post-doc, put up with sexual harrassment, an advisor her treated her pregnancy as a personal betrayal and finally gave up when her boss told her that she'd be expected to work 10 hour days for six straight months while she was nursing an infant. Now she edits academic papers from home. Carly has a farm now and teaches online courses at night while her husband Jack, who she met as the two new hires in their academic dapartment, still goes off to commute. They tried keeping Carly at work, but when their daughter Jenna announced to Grandma, "Mommy is my Mommy at bedtime and Lisa (the daycare provider) is my Mommy all the other times" Carly gave it up. She calls it wimpiness - but points out that as long as there aren't many male daycare providers, Daddy's never going to have to deal with a "day Daddy."

Now there are men in this paradigm to - the one wonderful social change of my generation is that the guys aren't sticking the women with all the responsibilities. But no matter how principled you are about sharing equally, society doesn't make that easy. That is, every man in the families above would be willing to consider it being him who took the time off, or made the change - but when the babies are little, he can't nurse them. He's not the one who spends a couple of months puking and another couple waddling. If someone is going to take time off, it just makes sense for it to be the one with the boobs a lot of the time.

In our own case, I was always more ambitious than Eric was. In fact, our early deal was that Eric, who was more flexible, would follow the banner of my academic career, since I cared much more about success than he did. But then his jobs paid more, and gave better benefits, and reproduction and nursing took up a lot of time, and without really planning it, I became yet another woman, wondering what I was going to be when I grew up (turns out a writer ;-)). It may yet turn out that we shift things around - but we're a long, long way from my making enough to support the household, and we'd need universal healthcare or for writers to start getting insurance. Not going to happen soon.

I do know men who have take the burden - Jim works 4 days a week, six hours a day supporting Karen's high powered, tenure track job, and raising their 3 adopted daughters - but Karen readily admits that she didn't have to take maternity leave. Raj quit altogether, and takes care of his two boys and his sister-in-law's daughter while his wife, Jasu pushes her limits as an urban reporter. Mick and Linnie did the switch - she stayed home for three years and two babies, and the moment she weaned the second, Mick quit his job as an editor and started doing a bit of work in the evenings, while caring for the boys. But these cases are exceptional, a growing number of families where the men are both willing and able to shift their identities and the jobs and culture and able to support women in this.

That is, my own observation is that women who have kids pretty much have no choice but to get over the notion that their careers are their identity in a way that many men don't have to. We've already gone through a radical transformation - the transformation between the identity we were prepared to have and the identity that we actually got. More men have done this in my generation than in the past, but I still think that this happens less frequently to men than women.

I also think that the men I know who have taken a bigger part in parenting and the transition than their fathers and grandfathers did are probably better prepared for a shift - I live among committed, passionate fathers, who do an awful lot of their childcare and domestic work, often on top of physically, intellectually or otherwise strenuous jobs. That is, I don't know a lot of men who haven't had to shift their identities in some deep way from "Consultant" to "Consultant/Daddy." My hope is that that means the 30 something men I hang out with will handle the shift in their identities better than their fathers would have. But there's still something different, I think, in what most of them seem to experience in fatherhood - that is, fatherhood adds a dimension, but in many cases, doesn't subtract anything.

Women I know, in contrast, have already slammed hard into the wall of limitations - or they've watched their mothers, sisters, girlfriends in the world around them do it. We've confronted the reality that all the technology in the world can only change our biology so much - the minute we have sex, we come crashing up against the danger of pregnancy, and *everything* changing. I've never met a woman, no matter how reliable her birth control, who hasn't had a pregnancy scare or three, a moment when she realizes how *not* in control of her life she could be. For those who actually do get pregnant, do have children, even those who keep the same jobs and work through the experience, there are subtle changes in career culture in many cases. If there aren't, it is usually because a husband bears those burdens - or because they can afford lots and lots of paid help. For those who were the primary nurturers (and that goes with a strong commitment to nursing in many cases - I know women who went back to work at 6 weeks and pumped until a child was 18 months, but I know more women who couldn't pull that off, and if they had the means, often preferred to nurse, even if it cost the income and career, rather than formula feed - poor women generally just have no choice but to move to formula if their bodies won't handle pumping, or their workplace doesn't support it), often they describe the first few months or year of motherhood as a loss, or a drowning, a massive shock. It isn't that they don't love parenthood - they do. But the change in who you are is such a vast shock that it is hard to negotiate it smoothly.

I wonder if the shift in identity that women face in adulthood is something like what men face in a changing economy and society. That is, we came bang up against the reality of limits early on, and for all that we live in a society that encourages us to pretend there are no biological differences between women and men, even young girls know that isn't true - that there really is only so much a commitment to egalitarianism can do to balance the reality of biological limits. I know my decision to have a child at 27, rather than waiting until I had my Ph.d and tenure (as I was advised by a number of people) was shaped by having watched my mother's friends who waited into their middle 30s or even 40s, and their experience of infertility. Even as a teenager, I knew that the notion that I had all the choices was false/

The truth is that while technology can do some things, it can't carry a baby for you, and motherhood has at its roots for most women (there are high tech exceptions on both ends) a purely biological sex at one end, a whole lot of squatting and pushing at the other. I wonder, then, if the idea that there are biological limits, or that our identity must shift in response to changing situations, aren't ones that many women have already had no choice but to confront?

What does this mean for men? My own feeling is that men of my own generation are going to have, in general, advantages over the middle aged men of the Soviet 1990s, or the men of the 1930s - our culture's shifts to more common ground may turn out to be a survival strategy for men. That is, even if they've never done it, most men of my acquaintance have at least some level of preparedness to shift roles, and have had to connect with biological limits in their wives' bodies, perhaps not as directly as the wives, but nonetheless. They may love their work, they may be good at it, but most men I know have a level of flexibility that I think will serve them well. Across class, race, religion and cultural lines, they've been forced to change their own roles in the public world simply by having children or wanting them - because they know that the women in their lives aren't going to be able to do it alone. I can't imagine any father I know rolling over when his kids needed to be fed - if he was no longer making the money to do so, he'd be out there growing the food.

Still, I also think that it may be important for men now to start putting a foot in the informal economy, to start finding identity in their families or their off book work, or in anything than the career they trained for. As Hopkins observes, they don't necessarily have the skill set for a low energy future, and that part is scary, and less scary if you begin to acquire one. It may be the integration of skill set and flexibility that makes them capable of handling the change.

When we got married, I was 26, Eric was 28. I told him that after we'd been married for 75 years, we could renegotiate the deal, and if he wanted to consider seeing other people, we'd talk about it then. But I made him swear to give me 75 years. I think of my role in pestering him into learning new skills and planning for a future on our land as an investment in that deal - if he hits the wall of limits, I want to be there to be reassuring, to be behind him saying, "Look, you may not be an astrophysicist any more, but you are still a star gazer with a bit of dirt, a loving family and a damned fine ass. So you will not be moping around waiting for the world to start up again, or dropping dead of a coronary and leaving me alone with all these children. Have a hoe - you still have 65 years of undifferentiated hell until you are rid of me." I recommend this approach to all the man loving women and men in my audience ;-).

Sharon

90 comments:

homebrewlibrarian said...

As one who has never borne any children but been (negligently) pregnant twice, that axe hangs very tenuously over my head all the time. At 48, I'm still concerned but not nearly as much (celibacy is a very effective form of birth control ;-)).

When I think about my co-workers, men and women, who find identity through their work (including my unpartnered female supervisor who practically lives at the office), I worry about them. I've made a profession out of the library field where flexibility is the name of the game. But only once for a two and half year period did I live my job. I can't imagine doing that again and find it troubling when I see it in others.

Actually, I think that anyone who is not aware that major changes are coming will be in for a series of progressively larger shocks that could cause considerable disruption in their lives and the lives of their children. Perhaps the women will weather it better than the men, but women with children have been known to snap under duress and abandon, misuse or betray their own children.

What can be done? It's tough now for my friends and acquaintances to even consider peak oil and its consequences. Not being thought of as a prognosticator hinders me when I try to bring it up. Sometimes I feel helpless because I don't know what I can do to help people begin to take a wider view. I try to live as an example of a simpler, more flexible life and hopes somebody notices.

Then I read Crunchy Chicken and Little Blog in the Big Woods and feel better...

Kerri

Iaato said...

Hi, Sharon. I appreciate the great links to gender-based reactions to stress experiences. The essay from Russia was particularly revealing.

I agree with you that one reason for female resilience and hardiness in the face of stress is the diversity of womens' roles. The increased roles also improves the size and resilience of social networks for women.

One thing I'd like to add is the concept of gender difference in stress response. Most of the early Selye stress response research was done on men. Only men. So the whole flight or fight theory works great if you're a primitive male going out to fight a mastodon. It doesn't work so well if you're a civilized gentleman in the 21st century sitting at your computer trading futures. And it doesn't work so well when applied to women. The aha moment that women might be different came about in the 1990s, about the same time the medical researchers realized that research about mens' health might not necessarily be extrapolated to women.

http://xrl.us/bexnq

A researcher at UCLA looked at the issue and decided that a better description for the female stress response was tend-and-befriend. Women will circle the wagons, and reach out and nurture/befriend. It's pretty fascinating stuff, and its why I think the women's response to crisis of building community will be much better than the male response of either stand and fight or flee to the hills. Economic collapse is coming, and I'd much rather see community relocalization than nuclear wars for resources. I think the take home lesson from this is that more women need to speak out here.

By the way, speaking of women and their voices, I noticed that your voice changed when you posted over at The Oil Drum last week. What was that all about?

emily said...

Sharon, as a female grad student, I am well aware of many situations like the ones you mentioned. My husband and I joke that I will have the "hotshot" career while he raises the children (after the nursing's through, at least), but the harsh reality is that I'm in art history and he's in physics. I will never get paid as much as he can get paid, and it will be harder for me to find a well-paying job outside of academia, too, should it come to that.

I am glad to see you mention pregnancy scares and the realization that things could change drastically, and fast. I am crossing my fingers that nothing happens, because I need to spend 9 mos in Russia for my archival research, and my husband speaks no Russian; I will be going alone. I don't think he realizes just how nervous I am about "something" happening, and my entire PhD being made impossible.

Americans still have much more conventional ideas about marriage than they realize, I find. When my husband has had to leave town for his work (5 weeks at a time), people think it's great that he has the opportunity, blah blah blah. And, oh yeah Emily, will you be able to join him on the trip? (WHAT? What do you think I do when he's home, sit around and watch him work?) But I left town for 8wks for my work, and people thought our marriage was in trouble... But I should stop here.

RedStateGreen said...

As someone married for twenty years with two sons: I think women are more socialized to change than men are.

Men are in control of their finances, their churches, their work schedules, their sex lives, their reputations, their families, their names, and just about everything else, whereas women are only now beginning to feel they have control over any of that.

Women are taught to 'make the best of the situation', not to rock the boat, to go along, in other words, to adapt to men. Men very seldom have to adapt to anything, and when something huge changes they are seldom ready for it or able to handle it.

I hope these young men you describe are able to adapt to what's coming. If not, I suppose us women will end up taking care of things, as we usually do. LOL :)

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Anonymous said...

Good post Sharon. And, even when a woman doesn't and won't have children, employers still assume she has/will and employ the glass ceiling. That is why there are so many women entrepreneurs, and I suspect there will be more women leaders when the environmental crisis begins. Women will figure it out because they want their children or their friends' children to survive.

I had an off-on relationship with a powerhouse guy academic for a number of years, but realized he literally was nothing else but his job. As my priorities changed and I matured, I went from admiring him to feeling sorry for him. He is still the same after 10 years, rewarded by a system that encourages minute specialization into arcana. I couldn't imagine him vegetable gardening, or really even outside of the library!

Cheers,

Anna Marie

Mavis said...

Hi Sharon,

As always, I enjoy your posts.

And in the back of my mind, I always think "and she did this while unschooling and raising 4 kids and running a farm". Which is why I think you've become something of a touch-stone for me.

My experience of combining obsessive career with mothering three young children has had an interesting side-effect that I think relates to iaato's post. My response to stress (and my life is hugely stressful) does run along the tend-befriend line. But, because I don't have much time to spend with friends or in the garden, this translates into practical care and feeding stuff, and a LOT of fantasizing about gardening.

Warning: gross gender generalizations follow. I have many friends and acquiantances who are trying to accomplish so much with limited resources (and conequently experiencing stress). One thing reveals itself is porn-addiction in men - as a typical stress-response. I know a lot of stressed out women, but they don't have time to be addicted to porn, but they have their diversions too. For example, I'm an over-stressed permaculture fantacist. When I think about the diversions the men choose, they cluster around things that don't do a lot to prepare them for low-energy economies (think videogames, sports reporting and statistics, following stocks & related news stories, gambling or, yes, porn.) While the women I know divert themselves with fantasizing about homedecor-type renovations, cooking, gardening and crafts. So does this prove the theory? No. But it is revealing, don't you think?

Melissa said...

Sharon, one of your best posts.

Brian M. said...

I'm a guy and I was the only guy in all my gender studies classes as an undergrad. I think about this stuff a lot, and I think Sharon is on to some of the issues, but not all of them. I rarely venture to be a masculinist in public, and have tried to avoid it on this furon a few times, but here goes.

First, it is easy to underestimate the impact that second wave-feminism has had on females. If you measure "success" in terms of income or political power, US men are in better shape than women. But just about any other sane measure: ability to spend money, self-report of happiness, lifespan, likelihood of being a victim of violence, likelihood of mental health problems, external measures of happiness, etc has US women coming up in better shape than men. Often by a lot. The simple fact is, that more than a generation of brilliant folk (mostly women) have devoted themselves assiduously to trying to improve the female gender role. They worked to make it more flexible, more encompassing, more valued, more satisfying. They have succeeded, perhaps not as much as they'd hoped, but they have deeply changed it. Feminists have worked wisely for decades on making women happier.

The parallel work on the male gender role has not been done, has rarely been attempted and has had little success when attempted. There are many reasons and it is easy to slip from trying to understand the situation to casting blame. Men have resisted gender role work (so did the women at first, which was why the encounter group format was developed to get past these resistences). Feminists have often focused on the males as victimizers, rather than as being at once both-victims-and-victimizers. Males have been unwilling to work to help other males in gender solidarity. The male gender role is prickly and defends itself against many attempts at change. Indeed, just as the capitalist system deeply influenced feminist to form a kind of dual-income-feminism, rather than a transform-the-system-feminism, it also subverted any robust masculinism from getting started. After all, capitalism WANTS income rather than happiness to be the standard of success, so the argument that begins, you know males make a lot of income, but in many other ways our lives are not so great ... Capitalism needs to stop this line of reasoning.

But understand this. Even in relatively good times, since the 70s US women have been consistantly happier, more satisfied with their lives and more psychologically resiliant. I would certainly expect the disparity in psychological resiliance to continue in bad times.

So why does this happen? Well, your essentialist biological arguments may be part of it, but I think there are other factors too. For one thing, consider the biology of male and female hormone cycles. The female monthly hormone cycle has some obvious markers, and often involves what is sometimes called "moodiness" by which is meant something like irritability. Males have a roughly monthly hormone cycle too, although they often don't notice it themselves. And it links to "moodiness" in the sense of bouts of depression or pointlessness. Indeed, other activities that cause sudden crashes in testosterone often also lead to feelings of pointlessness. I've seen some interesting research on tracing male emotions during the day to testosterone levels. My point is that it may be that at the purely biological essentialist level, males are more vulnerable to depression and feelings of pointlesses, because they have to periodically undergo at least mild versions of them as part of their hormone cycle.

But as related points, consider where a healthy rational feeling of self-worth would come from. Child raising frequently involves disrupting careers, and there is lots of evidence that women often have to shift their identities around in the process of it. But it seems (even statistically) to be satisfying after an adjustment period. Indeed, it is easy to see the genuine value of these activities. Nursing mothers frequently report deep satisfaction during nursing. The careerist, (male or female) on the other hand is involved in creating things of dubious value, or refined abstract value, or cultural value. I teach my classes and wonder am I really doing good? My wife reported that when she left grad school and became a baker, she was struck by the tangible way in which baking bread was clearly producing something of worth. Careerists produce things that society tells us are of value, and maybe we tell ourselves too, but many other jobs, (including mothering) involve work that is clearly of value, whether that value gets dollar attachments or not. I think careerists, male or female have to do more mental work to feel the value of what they are doing.

Likewise, since the female gender role was changed a lot by Feminism, but there was fairly little changing of the male gender role, women got stuck in a lot of both-and double-binds. They had to be careerists at their careers but still do a lot of the cooking and cleaning and birthday-letter writing at home. The "second shift" phenomena is very real and well studied, but it has meant that women typically have much broader skill sets. Also it gives a classic self-worth back-up. If the career-identity isn't of deep value upon further reflection, maybe the suffering-saint identity who keeps the family going at great effort IS of value. Females in our culture usually have multiple potential bases for their self-worth, whereas males tend to specialize in a single basis for self-worth.

Indeed, this hold the possibility of a reverse strategy for men. In our family, my wife does the vast majority of the work for the greater good, that our family does. She organizes milk-groups, sets up co-ops, and tries to keep local food going around here. And I try to make money reliably enough to allow her to keep doing good work. Sounds basically like the Victorian compromise eh? The male gets to make the money, and the female gets to do the good.

This gender role came about as a response to 19th century problems, but they hardened and became brittle for both males and females. Early 20th century women often chafed under the restrictions of their roles. Whatever else Feminism has done, it has made the female role broader, and more flexible, and less brittle. It isn't just that becoming a mother is a powerful transformation and that makes women flexible. That's true. But it is also that Feminists worked hard to make it culturally possible for their to be two ways to be a woman, the mommy route and the career route. It's hard to keep both open, and there are Mommy wars, but there is and has been real work done keeping both gender-roles open. Many feel trapped by circumstances into one route of the other (and infertile women often feel just as trapped out of the mommy route, as mothers feel trapped in it). But there is not parallel flexibility in the male gender role. The male gender role is still extremely narrow and brittle and prickly. A man who cannot provide for others in our society needs to question his manhood, and indeed his self-worth or excuse for being alive.

Further, I don't think you've described how women in our culture experience their limits, but not quite understood the male psychology of limits. Males experience themselves as bumping up against limits out of their control over and over from a very young age, in the form of older, more powerful higher status people. Males limit each other, often systematically or even oppressively so. And this is experienced as a limit. (Young males usually experience mothers and teachers as limiting them too). And the US male gender role is extremely aware of nuances of hierarchy and status. The thing is, these limits are not experienced as permanent. Indeed the normal experience is of becoming slowly older, more powerful, and higher status. This means that smooth continuous changes are part of the process. The young rebel fighting against the system graudally comes to be the establishment fighting off the young rebels. But it means that the myth of progress, of slowly removing restrictions and becoming more powerful and growing, is deeply built into the male gender role. Change, change in identity and crashing into limits are all normal. But the progressivism of science and politics, and many other areas of male triumphalism are at least partially results of the nature of the male gender role. This makes reversals in the inexorable march of progress far more disturbing. Also rare and disturbing are sudden, discontinuous non-smooth changes, although revolutionaries and those hoping to rise through the ranks faster than normal might welcome those as opportunities. So doomerism, like science does have some roots in male experience. Losing one's job and depending on women for survival, feels like regressing to childhood, depending on mommy, and losing one's manhood. We can and will role-shift, it will just feel like losing our manhood when we do it, because our damn culture defines manhood so narrowly and inflexibly.

Sharon says "I can't imagine any father I know rolling over when his kids need to be fed - if he was no longer making the money to do so, he'd be out there growing the food." Some will respond as you suggest (I hope I do), but I think it is deeply misguided, to expect that all will. There will be plenty that don't. First, many fathers will TRY to make money to feed there kids even when they are doomed to fail. Males in our culture are breadWINNERS not breadGROWERS or breadBAKERS. Others will make money, only to find that money won't buy food anymore. Second, by the time the kids need to be fed, it is too late to start growing the food, much less to start learning HOW to grow food. And we are profoundly unequiped to start growing food. And growing enough food to feed a family is not something you can learn in one season. Stealing food, or even risking one's life for food will seem far more tempting to many, than trying to learn to grow it. Even suicide to avoid the shame of being unable to feed one's kids, (and to have to watch it) will probably become common.

My goal is not to whine, or play who has it worse, or cast blame. Everyone will have it bad, everyone will need to whine occasionally, everyone shares part of the blame for why our culture is as it is. But there will be differences between how males and females experience troubled times. Female will feel more tied to the fate of children and the elderly, who probably will be a vulnerable populations. But the males will show less psychological resiliance, and less flexibility. Males who love females are going to have to help them take care children and the old. Females who love males, are going to have to help them feel of value and stay sane.

-Brian M.

Brian M. said...

In your "Let Her Go Down" on the other blog (which I can't post on without a blogger account) notice what happens to the captain!

He goes down with the ship.

Oh he orders his younger subordinates to survive. Not just for themselves, of course, that would be cowardly, but for their wives and children. But he is in charge, and his perogative is to go down with the ship. He "steered our wounded ship to the bottom of the angry sea." For what value is a captain without a ship? No one would trust him. Better to die nobly than live on as a burden to others. Could he have swollowed his pride and been a mate to some other captain? Did he have a wife or kids, or anyone to support? But no, he couldn't take the blow of fate humbly and adapt, even while seeing that that was the right course for others and ordering them to take it. He chose to die instead, and none dared curse his cowardice for going down, rather than swollowing his pride and surviving. The brittleness of middle-age men and their pride is an OLD OLD story in most cultures ...

And what of the last sailor
"he saw the ship go down in the fading light/
and he knew he could have saved her./
he said, "the captain lied when the captain cried,/
there's none of us here can save her"
He'll torture himself to the end of his days believing he could have saved the ship and captain, if only ...

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Brian M. hit the nail on the head. I started to write a very similar post yesterday, but I am terrible at typing (it would have taken me days).

My husband and I have been working towards self sufficiency for a while. For ten years we have been buying really messed up houses and I fix them up. My husband worked a regular job for money. He paid for supplies and handled the finances (I hate money). I do all the building, patching, plumbing, painting, everything. As well as most of the the "homestead" stuff. Milking, baking, cheese making, cooking, homeschooling, etc.

About two years ago we hit a point where we needed so little money that my husband was able to accept a part time telecommuting job. He now works two hours a day, making a fraction of what he should be making per hour. It was very hard for him at first. He would spend a lot of time working more hours than they paid him for out of boredom. The rest of the time he hung around feeling like he didn't belong. Over time we found that there are jobs that I won't do (like electrical) or don't like doing (like splitting wood, or teaching algebra)that he loves and is really good at.

We were also able to become more self sufficient. He took up hunting (not for fun, for food). And we decided to start doing our own butchering (sorry veggies). We have a system. He does the stunning and bleeding, and helps me get them hung. Then I skin, eviscerate, and cut the meat. Which saves us .40 cents a pound plus a $30. dollar kill fee per animal. He now takes pride in providing for his family in a more "real" way. Not to say that he doesn't like his job. He loves what he does. But he has more "balance" in his life. If he were to lose his job it would pinch, but we wouldn't starve, or freeze.

Our family is stronger too. If I had nagged or harassed him in the beginning we might not be together. Instead we have become an unstoppable team. It took years for me to feel secure with "not bringing home a paycheck", but I was lucky to have a very supportive husband.

I also think there will be many that will roll over in bed while their families starve, but it won't be entirely their fault. Society says feeding your family means having a good paying 9-5 job. You know what I say, HA!

Greenpa said...

Boy, Brian M & Sharon- you guys have brass balls, philosophically speaking.... I wouldn't dare tackle the whole subject of gender/stress/change. :-)

I'm impressed with your thinking and discussion, for sure. Probably learned a thing or two, jogged some neurons, which is always a good idea.

For me, though, it's too much. I can't find a reliable handle on the topic- I'm male; which is enough reason for the scientist in me to not trust my grasp of female reality- and I'm not sure the females I trust are able to communicate it to me.

Are there differences? Oh, yeah. The PhD thesis I didn't write was specifically about how deeply genders actually function as different ecological species- across every taxon I could find- right down to rotifers. So I'm kinda familiar.

I prefer to focus on anything that looks more universal. My own rubric - "The genus Homo is bad at change. Why? Because, historically - your best chance of having grown children is - to do exactly what your parents did. They succeeded. Deviate, and you invite failure. The problem comes in that our world now requires change for success- often rapid and extensive change. And as a species - we stink at it."

I think that aspect operates across genders. The deeper specifics- either escape or scare me- :-)

RedStateGreen said...

Brian M.:

"Sharon says "I can't imagine any father I know rolling over when his kids need to be fed - if he was no longer making the money to do so, he'd be out there growing the food." Some will respond as you suggest (I hope I do), but I think it is deeply misguided, to expect that all will. There will be plenty that don't. First, many fathers will TRY to make money to feed there kids even when they are doomed to fail."

If you read the stories of the Depression, time after time husbands and fathers abandoned their families 'in search of work'. Many neither returned nor ever sent money back to their families, using their guilt and shame as a means of escape. Meanwhile, the kids still needed clothes and shoes, and food on the table. Guess who provided it?

I don't think people have changed all that much since then. I predict that we're going to see a lot more families dissolving and a lot more single mothers in the future, unfortunately.

I do believe you have identified the issues. Men who don't provide or act in the narrowly defined role that society has presented them with are 'bums', 'gay', 'freeloaders', etc, which is unfortunate.

jm said...

Hi Sharon,

I read your blog from France. Your energy and this last column remind me of "Time Enough for Love" written by Robert Heinlein.

I'd like to make an e-mail (translated) interview to put on the website www.test-organisation.org


Would you mind doing that one of these days?

Polly said...

I've been married for 20 yrs and have 4 children and a degree in journalism and political science. My own opinion is that bad things happen when men and women abandon their God-given vocations. Case in point - Adam and Eve.

As Wendell Berry writes, there was a time when men and women were married and they had to work together for a common goal - survival. Now that that has been taken away from us by our technological society, there is a lot more time for pondering our belly buttons and wondering if our needs are being met.

People would be happier if women nutured and men provided.

jewishfarmer said...

Polly, I thought G-d provided for Adam and Eve - and did the nurturing ;-). My own take, which you can read here:

http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/02/home-economics-sustainability-and-mommy.html

if you are interested is that men and women actually used to blur roles far more than they do today - both partners provided, working together as Berry puts it - and that the origin of our problem may be the ways the economy forces us to be apart into rigid roles.

Brian, I agree with almost everything you say, and perhaps didn't articulate the distinction that I see in younger men very well - that is, I think that the male role for younger men, particularly second generation men dealing with feminism (that is, children of baby boomers and some war babies) is more capacious than the traditional model. I agree with you that less cultural work has been done on making it so, but the work done on female roles seems to me to have passed over into male ones.

Some of this is probably generational - both my husband and I are something somewhat unusual - we're older Gen X (I'm 35, he's 37) children of baby boomers - that is, most of our peers have parents who are depression or war children (technically Eric's Dad was a war baby, but only by months, and the zeitgeist was definitely boomer for him). We were born in the 1970s demographic trough when the boomers were just starting to have babies and the older folks just finishing up.

And in our case, both of our parents were strongly influenced by feminism - not primarily from passionate inclination, but because of another boomer reality
DIVORCE. That is, we're both the children of fathers who had to father without a woman around all the time to cover things. To be fair, both our fathers also were open to adapting gender relationships as well. But the major factor was this - our mothers worked, our fathers parented (my Mom was a lesbian, which made feminism a bit more of a pressing issue in my family, but Mom's not much of a radical).

So while I think all the factors you describe are true, we're also coming into this - and more and more and more people my age and bit younger are doing this - in a society that has had a full generation to deal with the changes in society the women's movement created, and from the perspective of the children of families that were dealing with this, I think things really are different.

That's not to claim that men aren't more vulnerable than women - I don't say that, I think. But I think that in the end, the movement towards relocalization, which necessarily involves gender role adaptations, and the changes that feminism has perhaps enabled in a generation of younger men (insufficient) in how the male role is created do give them a little bit of an edge at adaptation.

I think actually, the relocalization movement may be particularly powerful in mitigating the difficulties older men have - I don't know how many times I've had a man in his 50s or 60s or older come tell me that he cooked his first meal ever, or baked bread, or did something that he would never have done in his marriage because of peak oil. I get that far more often than I get women telling me "I got up on the roof and figured out how to fix the leak." (which I'd also like to be seeing - and I need to do some writing on). That is, I think one of the glories of the relocalization movement is that it does in its very structure, begin expanding the male role in helpful ways.

Finally, again, without disagreeing with anything you say, you mention your wife's satisfaction in baking bread vs. your sense that work isn't as filled with "accomplishments" - that's true, although I think you leave something important out - the "and it is all undone by the end of the day" nature of cyclical work.

That is, most professional work is oriented heavily towards "You wrote/drew/built/fixed/made" this and now it is there, and present and exists in perpetuity, and you can point to it. A large chunk of domestic labor is falls in teh category of "you've no sooner finished than you have to do it again." That is, you bake the bread, you eat the bread, you start again. You clean the house, the kids trash it. You mow the lawn or weed the garden, and nature keeps ahead of you anyway.

Learning to do things that permanent as part of your central work, that sometimes seem utterly futile (and having taught for years, I recognize that sometimes there's some common ground ;-)) is, I think a tough adaptation for both men and women. For all that women get satisfaction from it, it is easy to overestimate that power and the sense of frustration that goes with constantly producing nothing lasting.

And the way that most women I know deal with this is to concentrate on the lasting elements of this - to try and take the longer view. That is, it isn't just the 43 diaper change this week, and the
4th load of poopy diapers I've washed, this is a step in getting them to manhood or womanhood, to toilet training, to the next step and the long view.

And what's good about female culture - and this has nothing at all, I think to do with feminism, in fact, this is strongest among older women and women who didn't buy feminism - is that women have a culture of exchange about precisely those things. Our humor, for example, tends to involve a kind of self-mockery for what you can't accomplish and the diaper explosions. That is, I think one of the strongest things is that a cyclical model of thinking is part of the culture of femininity going back - the "this too shall pass, you are accomplishing something."

My own perception is that that isn't a part of male culture per se (I asked my consultant on all things male, and he said this was true). But that it is common to *parent* culture - that is, the men who are doing more parenting are also making jokes, both with each other and with their wives, about the endlessness of it all, and about how hard it is to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And that strikes me as a subtle but important psychological shift towards unity of male-female culture (which I think is going to be more powerful than most of us think) but also toward a longer vision than male culture ordinarily encourages.

Again, I'm not sure I really disagree with you, so much as think that there are some reasons to be optimistic.

Sharon

Polly said...

Sharon - I guess you missed my orthodox Lutheran point. The Fall happened because Adam abandoned his vocation and wasn't taking care of Eve.

Brian M. said...

Yup, as usual we agree about lots and lots. The gen X male gender role is a little bit more flexible than earlier generations. Further, relocalization may help mitigate a little even for older men. I doubt either effect is very strong. Further there is some research that this is much more pronounced at upper income and education brackets. Middle and lower education/income brackets in the US tend to have far more rigid gender roles (for males as well as females). Many of your example women seemed pretty well-off/educated.

You are clearly right about the frustrations of the cyclic nature of domestic work, heck economists even call it "reproductive" work rather than "productive" work, theres a gender-loading for you. And you are right that parenting male or female, involves putting more work/self-definition into the reproductive sector. But notice that in a growth economy, reproduction looks secondary, and production is king. But in a declining economy, reproduction, that is keeping things together, is king, and production looks like a vague hope. Declining economies will shift the social prestige of these two kinds of work, which DO still have strong gender associations, especially at middle and lower income levels.

Maybe we disagree on just how the male gender role has changed (or maybe not), but my opinions there are complex and off topic. More pressingly I think we disagree on optimism. Gen X is a little more flexible on gender than the Baby Boomers, but it isn't clear to me that we are more flexible than 90s Russians. And it is not at all clear to me that the Millenial males share this trait, I think they may be even more gender restricted than US X-ers are.

Facing the challenges of peak oil and economic shift is an enormous blow to the typical US self-understanding, and I think this is a big factor in why people haven't planned ahead enough. It is simply very psychologically difficult to face the future forthrightly. I think this is true for males and females, but a little moreso for males. We are encouraged, required almost to feel ambition, and a desire to move ahead on the social ladders of status. To voluntarily choose a path that entails losing status is difficult. And that is how preparing for the peak, learning to farm, cutting back on car use etc looks to the males I am teaching. Many are environmentalists and WANT to do what is right. But they also want to be successful, rich, attractive to females, own a house someday, be respected by their male peers, make social status progress etc. And looking at the future what are we to say? You may well marry and have kids, but most of your other ambitions are likely to be in vain, because America as a whole will be poorer, and you'll have trouble affording even the things your parents and grandparents did, but hey maybe you'll be happier for it in the long run? There's a tough sell. Americans have a lot of trouble IMAGINING a re-localized lifestyle. It just looks like poverty, or being low status. And it IS a lot like being impoverished. Re-localization efforts often increase the status of females, they gain more friends, social bond, more complex social networks, and those are some of the tokens of female vs female status. For males, at best re-localization looks like you are opting out of the male status game, but usually it looks instead like you are doing poorly at it. Many males will blame themselves for what are essentially macro level problems. Hey young males, face up to the fact that you'll probably never be as successfully-male as your grandfather and father were. And the male gender role is all about pitting males against each other. If we want to transform male behavior at the statistical level, we have to transform the currencies of status, and that means targeting the male gender role, rather than just hoping that the realities that emerge will cause the gender role to change as a lagging indicator. We need to create heroic masculinities of the decline. If Mad Max isn't your cup of tea, can we come up with a better attractive masculinity for young males to emulate?

Our current masculinities emphasize material success via hard work, competition and risk-taking. If jobs dry up, males are going to fall back on risk-taking. Get a little more debt to squeak through. Bet again at double or nothing. Fight with others for scarce resources. Go look for work in other countries, and maybe sent back money if you happen to succeed.

If we want to change that, we need role models of high-status males that the kids can emulate. Who? It is easy to think of fictional (and real) mothers who heroically worked to help families squeak through hard times. That's well explored mythic-space. But do we even know of good fictional or real declinist, re-localizer male role models? Boethius is the best I can think of, and there's a hero only a philosopher could love. Aeneas? He's certainly the proto-type of Mad Max, but again I'm not sure classical Rome is the way to go... There's Guevara, but that's got a whole set of different political resonances besides just cool/tough localist male ... Hmm. I'm drawing blanks. I fear "V" may be the best we can do.

-Brian M.

Brian M. said...

Samwise Gamgee!
Of course why didn't I think of him earlier!
And comes to that Cincinnatus, and of course to a lesser extent ...
George Washington.
-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Now there's a fun party game: relocalizing, detechnologizing male role models.

Pa Ingalls, Farmer Hoggett, Manuel O'Kelly Garcia (who is a fairly integrated model), gotta be more, including some sexy ones who will have cross gender appeal ;-).

I have to go, but will definitely play this one again, Samwise. Movies and tv probably have even more play.

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Inman, John Henry (both of them die, though, but heroic death isn't necessarily a bad thing for male models, I think).

Oddly, I think you could make a case (although because it requires a case, no one would ever read it, so it doesn't matter) for Harry Potter actually - Harry just wants to be part of the regressive, low tech, semi-medieval small scale community within a community, but there's this Wizard... ;-).

Movies might provide some better fodder.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Grizzly Adams leaps to mind.

Kate

The Conservative Pagan said...

Hello,
I'm a 27 yr old mom of 5 that is still trying to cope with the mom/career problem. I went back to school to invest in myself, finding instead, the likes of my kind were not wanted. Asking for a little breathing room for family emergencies, had me treated like a leper. I have since given completely up on an academically enhanced career.

I am now working on getting into our local farmers market. I have two small at home businesses, and adding a solid line like food would greatly enhance my income gathering capacities. My current income is too weak to sustain the family entirely. My husband has graciously gone back to work after 2 years being unemployed by choice so I could go to college. He feels like I have given up half way through, but supports my decision. He promised me if my "crazy" home businesses take off, he will once again take off of work to help me "on the farm". He is 32, and more flexible than any man I have ever met. I hope this flexibility will give him grace in hard times.

My children and I have recently studied the Great Depression and the idea of my husband running off looking for work on his "experience" seems silly at best. I think I'd rather be dirt poor.

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