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Last Updated: 03/12/2018


Article of Interest - Parenting

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Bridges4Kids LogoBoys Don’t Cry: So What’s a Man To Do?
by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.,
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A common stereotype is that men bury and sometimes deny their emotions. On the other hand, I have many experiences as a psychologist and as a father and many sources which tell me quite the contrary. My own story and those of the men who seek my counsel have to do with being the father of a child with a disability or special healthcare needs. These extraordinary experiences are often a catalyst that defies the stereotype.

“Men may excel at building empires, but we’re not much for taking care of ourselves” according to Geoffrey Cowley (Newsweek, June 16, 2003 in the cover story on the male body and mind.) As a striking illustration, we know women live 7 years longer on the average than men, who are less likely to receive needed medical care as well as social and emotional support. Yet men and women live on the same planet and face similar stresses.

Much of the gap both perceived and real has to do with how hard it can be for men to admit or even recognize our vulnerabilities. As Michael Addis and James Mahalik note in their article “Men, Masculinity, and the Context of Help Seeking” (January 2003 issue of American Psychologist), “Not all men are the same, nor does it make much sense to assume that individual men behave similarly in all help seeking contexts.” Their article explores why some men are able to seek help for some problems under some circumstances but not for others. While sometimes useful, the authors note that the problem in comparing men and women as groups is that the generalizations can become stereotypes that constrain both women and men.

I have taken notes from the men in the support groups I facilitate for fathers of children with special needs and my psychology practice. These are men whose circumstances have been a channel for them to open up as we discuss what it’s like to be a father of a child with special needs or developmental disabilities. In groups they have the opportunity to help each other and to experience that their difficulties are “normal” in their situation. They experience acceptance from other men when they open up and share their pain. Here are some of their stories with their names and identities disguised:

“If my dad gave up on me, I’d be the school janitor. I was mad at the world. My dad helped me to find my passion, and helped me to overcome my obstacles.” This came from Frank who has a learning disability himself and who has a son with a disability. Today he is a successful executive of a Fortune 500 company. “When my son was first diagnosed, I thought he might never make janitor. Now 10 years later, he is doing well, and it looks like he can go to college (with a support program). I took a lesson from my own father about how to believe in him.” Frank was an inspiration to the group.

But the symptoms and the outcomes vary. “They tell me it’s hard to be the father of a typical kid. I wouldn’t know.” This came from Larry who has a son with Aspergers disorder and another boy with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder). He feels depressed now that school is out, and his children cannot go out and play with the other children in the neighborhood for they do not know how to interact.

Maurice who has a child with Down syndrome shares his dilemma. “I come here and talk with you guys, and I get my feelings out. I feel cleansed. Then I go home and act like a husband—it’s like I think I get points for being remote. So that’s how I have been acting. I hear what you guys are saying about opening up at home, but I still act like my wife and kids need me to hold it in and appear strong. I’m not sure I can get over that. I’m not sure I want to.”

Jeff also has two children with PDD. “You can’t fix it, so you learn to live with it. My wife feels like she is to blame, and I haven’t been able to help her get over that. We try to give each other hope, but it’s hard. She says I don’t smile enough. I’m not sure I can remember the last time I smiled. I love my boys so much, but between me and my wife it’s like one beggar who found a piece of bread sharing it. I just want to smile more.”

Tony has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She’s a teenager who still isn’t toilet trained. “I learned how to accept her limitations many years ago. She’s been a great inspiration to me. My wife had a harder time than I did coming to grips with it. I’ve learned here that maybe she felt responsible for my daughter’s disability in the beginning. It took me longer to accept my wife’s imperfections. I’m grateful that she’s forgiven me for that and that we’re still together and happy with each other.”

Phil is the father of another girl with Retts Syndrome. “I’m so happy. She took 7 steps on her own. She’s beating the odds according to her neurologist. I thought we might not get this far. Now I’m not sure what to hope for next.”

It’s a delicate balance of hope and reality—accepting the bad news about a child’s condition and working for the best. Men in particular struggle with their anger through the process. “My fuse is much shorter now,” according to Sal, “I’ve started to exercise, and now my fuse is getting longer. I’ve just got to be nicer to my wife and children. Julie accepts me, but I don’t always deserve her.”

“I can’t melt down. I’m there taking care of my family the best I can. Someone has to be the rock. I cry when I’m alone in the car, but I stay rational at home.” It’s not like every man can change--especially overnight. What helps? The men I talk with tell me they want to be appreciated for their loyalty to their families. They want to be recognized for trying their best. They are real men.

At, we read “The old myths are far flung -- and deeply held -- that men are hard driven, inexpressive, pragmatic creatures, devoid of strong emotions or the capacity to nurture, always more at home with work than with their families.” The numerous articles and photos on that web site shatter those stereotypes. There we can read accounts by many fathers about their journeys through grief and depression as they love and care for their children.

Kyle is the father of a child with an intractable seizure disorder. Recently he told me that his son has brought out the best and the worst in him. On the one hand, his son has taught him patience and understanding. On the other hand, he has come to realize and admit that sometimes the pain of watching his seizures is just too much, and he doesn’t always want to spend time with his son.

Al has a son with a bleeding disorder. “Some days my son’s pain is overwhelming. I can’t bear to see him go through it. It feels like my pain. He’s an extremely tough kid with lots of courage. He’s taught me that I am stronger than I thought. I worry about who will want to date him. I worry more than he does. The way he takes each day as it comes makes me realize that sometimes the son teaches the father.”

On June 14, 2003, I participated in the “Ride for Autism,” a fundraiser for the New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community, Inc. There I met John Fisher Gray and his son Ian who lives with autism. They rode 50 miles on a tandem, and left the rest of their team from, this writer included, gasping for breath on the hills. John and Ian have found something they enjoy doing together, and on every possible evening after work, John and Ian ride around the streets and parks of Delaware.

The examples in this article come from my work as a psychologist with men and my life as the father of an adult child with autism. As I wrote to my son Tariq, "I have tried so hard to change you, and in the end it was you who changed me. Instead of becoming the son I wanted you to be you made me become the man I needed to be.”

On a broader scale, many of the same principles apply to men reaching out for help when needed. On the National Institute of Mental Health web site, we read, “In America alone, over 6 million men have depression each year. Whether you're a company executive, a construction worker, a writer, a police officer, or a student, whether you are rich or poor, surrounded by loved ones or alone, you are not immune to depression. Some factors, however, such as family history, undue stress, the loss of a loved one or other serious illnesses can make you more vulnerable.”

Included at are real life stories from soldiers, police officers, and fire fighters, and professional men as well. These stories go a long way in breaking down the traditional masculine stereotypes which emphasize self-reliance, emotional control, and power. It is in looking beyond these generalizations that we can understand and appreciate men as they struggle to live with their inner lives.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a visitor to my web site, “Thank you for giving a father's perspective -- especially in a world where a man's masculinity is still judged by how much emotion/feeling he can keep inside. Your book has helped my husband quite a bit.”

So what’s a man to do? Make no mistake about it, in all walks of life, individuals, women and men alike, benefit from reading or hearing a genuine version of masculine perspectives and passions. It takes strength and courage to open up. Hang in and do your best, whatever it takes!


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