Ode to an unsung hero

Featured Image by Kheel Center on Flickr, used under license (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic/CC BY 2.0).

For as long as I can remember, feminists have portrayed the working life of men as a privilege. Work was a gift to be sought after. Men escaped the drudgery that confronted the housebound wife. Work was freedom.

Some of what feminists said about work was true. Some, perhaps many men, preferred to march off to their job each day rather than stay at home. It would certainly, in some instances, have been more stimulating and engaging than changing dirty nappies (diapers). Of course the unrivaled joy of bonding with your flesh and blood, watching first steps and hearing first words is never mentioned by feminists. I remember my mum playing her weekly games of badminton and going to other classes with her best friends, our neighbors, while their hubbies worked. Mum worked hard at home, but she also socialized, laughed, drank tea and ate cake in the company of people she called friends, hardly hell on earth.

Would some women have longed for something more in their lives? Yes, of course. So what?

How many men who were breaking their backs digging ditches at 7:00am on a frosty morning and longed for something more?

Some men would have felt enormous pride and satisfaction at the end of their work day, having accomplished tasks that were challenging. They built and created with their hands and their work gave them a sense of purpose and identity. But many would have felt nothing but loathing for the physical grind or monotony of their jobs which they confronted year after year with retirement a distant light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

The first question a man is asked when introduced to a stranger is “What do you do for a living?”

Decades ago, if any man responded with “nothing” or “I stay at home and look after the kids,” his social standing would be at ground zero.

Feminists would quickly point out the fact that today it is more acceptable for a man (though still rare) to be a house husband and claim credit for changing this public perception.

Of course, the only way any man can be a househusband is if his wife chooses to allow him that role. She will also decide the length of time the man stays in that role. In reality, men’s choices when it comes to their working life are as limited as they have always been.

This is the crux of the matter; choice. But it isn’t just the lack of choice young men have as their lives stretch out before them which is the raw wound. For me, it is the total absence of any kind of recognition, validation or acknowledgement of this fact. The subsequent silent sacrifice most men make from the commencement of their working life till the day they retire is never publicly acknowledged.

Men, as they always have, are still digging ditches, laying tiles, working the late shift and missing magical moments with their family.

Women are lauded regardless of what they do. Most women have choices men can only dream about. Despite the occasional catty comments a working woman may make about a stay at home mum, the overwhelming consensus in the opinion of those who matter; our mass media and government, is that simply being a mum is a vitally important job, the most important job you can do.

We call women super mums. We praise their multi tasking skills, their nurturing “instincts.” We are told repeatedly that there is no love to match a mother’s love. Motherhood is continually referred to as the “toughest job in the world” by the likes of Oprah and others in positions of influence.

The comedian Bill Burr had some insightful things to say about women’s remarkable capacity for self congratulation.

 The irony of those Oprah shows was never lost on me. Her audience was packed with glamorous looking women, done up to the nines, out for a day on the town and a seat in the Oprah audience while simultaneously whining and moaning about how hard their lives were. Where were their husbands and partners? They were at work, experiencing that joy and freedom so obviously lacking in the lives of their wives.

Show me any equivalent statements about men and the role they play in providing for their wife and family. When did you last read an editorial or article in mainstream newspaper recognizing the commitment and work ethic of so many men who often grind away in jobs they detest for the simple but powerful fact that they love their family.

No, even this loving sacrifice is presented as some kind of privilege.

Like so many aspects of the male experience, it is invisible and entirely taken for granted.

The total invisibility of this sacrifice has been repeatedly thrust in my face during the decades I have been a teacher.

I am close to many of the women I work with and over the years many of them have confided in me. I recall one woman speaking to me by the photocopier. She had recently divorced her husband and she was distraught.

“I never envisaged working full time for the next 20 years,” she said with genuine shock and self pity. I loved this woman and one part of me was empathetic and yet another stronger voice was screaming “But you were quite happy to have your husband do just that so you could pursue your passions and explore new horizons!”

Would she ever have even considered asking him what his dreams for the future were?

 I never raised this point and never have on the many occasions women have cried on my shoulder. It wasn’t appropriate given their emotional state and the fact that they were talking to me as a friend not the local MRA representative. But I’ve often wondered about the possible responses these women could have given if I had. Here they were, tormented by the terrible sense of being trapped, chained and bound to a job they found exhausting and overwhelming, yet they lacked the ability to step back and look at their male colleagues or partners and wonder how they might feel.

How many young women throughout my teaching career have announced they are resigning or going part time because they are stressed or not coping? The response is always the same: “You go girl!” “Follow your dreams!”  “I hope you find what you are looking for!”

I quietly wonder at their sense of entitlement and the unspoken assumption that hubby will pick up the slack so she can pursue something more to her taste.

I have had female colleagues tell me about the depression their husbands were experiencing due to work pressure and dissatisfaction. They have talked about their husband’s disillusionment. Many of these women were working one or two days a week and I wanted to ask if they would be willing to pick up some extra work to help their husbands though their difficult time, even if only temporarily. One or two must have read my mind or expression because they openly and unashamedly said: “There’s no way I’m going full time!”

Others proudly boasted that what they earned was theirs and what hubby earned belonged to both of them. Laughter always seemed to ensue.

The other aspect to the constant harping about the hardships faced by stay at home mums which always riles me is the fact that children grow and they start attending school for a large portion of the day. So there is a period of intense exhaustion and child/baby care, and after four or five years they attend kindergarten and school. Mum has time on her hands. I see these mums in the cafes and nail salons that abound in Melbourne’s shopping centers. These places are overwhelmingly occupied by women (of all ages). Where are the men? They are at work. The intensity of motherhood eases dramatically in a few short years. Backbreaking work does not become any easier as the years pass, in fact it gets harder.

I was struck down by a serious illness a couple of decades ago. I had a leg amputated and while I was recovering the phone would ring. My friends would ask:

“What are you doing?” and I would spiral into a garbled, panicky self justification of my existence.

“When are you going back to work?” sent spasms of guilt coursing through me. Are they accusing me of being a slacker?

Of course they weren’t, but the man within me felt enormous guilt over the fact that his wife (my precious Maggie) was working fulltime to provide for her family. Would a woman recovering from illness feel that same unspoken pressure? I doubt it.

Maggie. Not once in our lives together has she ever suggested or even inferred that I should do anything because I am a man. When I was incapable of working, she happily took over and did it all with the grace and loving goodwill only the purest of beings possess. She still insists on taking out the heavy wheelie bins each week and collecting them the following day. On the rare occasions I remember it’s bin night and make a move to put them out she says, “Don’t be silly, it’s much easier for me!”

She has worked for most of our time together, despite a number of debilitating health issues and her own encounter with cancer. I am saddened when I read of the terrible experiences so many of the men associated with the AVFM family have endured in their relationships.

I understand how blessed I am. I see how wonderful all of our lives would be if within each relationship we cared for and supported each other as two friends do. When one is down, the other steps in to ease their burden, be it physical or emotional. To be gender blind and simply see the humanity in our partner is not too great a task for those who claim to love each other…is it? Sadly, for many men this seems to be a Pollyanna Pipe dream.

So today, much has changed for those women who may wish to be more than a ‘stay at home’ mum. Those who desire nothing more than to nurture their children and tend to home may do it if their financial well being allows. Some perhaps like to get out of the house but the idea of a full time job with all of its obligations and demands understandably horrifies them, so part time work appeals. Many women are doing just that and achieving a lovely balance in their lives. In my profession, if they choose to have a baby their job is waiting for them to come back to a few years down the track. Others may choose to pursue a full time career and they too can do so.

For men, nothing has changed. As Warren Farrell put it, men have three choices; they can work, work or work. Privileged indeed.

Twenty years ago, my passion about the invisibility of male love and sacrifice was burning as brightly then as it does now. This is one of many poems I wrote on the subject.


The Train of Broken Dreams

As evening looms
At a long days end
Sitting in a slightly dazed stupor
Gazing out of dusty windows
Or reading the news of the day
Are the grey, faceless men
You pass by
And forget a moment later

Look more closely

There across the aisle,
Paper lying limply across his lap
He was once a small boy
With fire in his eyes
And a mop of wild blonde hair
No brush or comb could tame

He attacked each new day
With the frightening
Exhilarating energy
Only the soul of a boy could possess

Climbed trees and wrestled his dog
Climbed Everest and
Hunted werewolves in the moonlight

As he grew, he dreamed
He would see the world
Find his true love
Leave his mark upon this earth
Did it matter?
He would find a way

Time was his dearest friend

Somehow time betrayed the boy
The world demanded more from him
Than his dreams

He took a job
As all men must
A temporary stopover
On the way to his destiny

That was long ago
Now the day’s end
Is what he longs for
A good dinner
Television to numb the mind
Better not to think…or remember

Most heroes are rewarded
Acknowledged and lauded-
Not this quiet soldier
He will live and die
Almost anonymously

He will be on the train
Again tomorrow morning
He is the most courageous of people

See him

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