Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stand By Your Man

I am writing today to my women readers. I believe I have two or three male readers, and you can feel free to read along too of course, but this isn't really directed to you.

In recent years my family has faced unemployment three times. In 2007 my husband was laid off and was not able to find a new teaching job until the last week of July (a mere two weeks for us to tie up everything and move from Utah to Alaska). In 2009 we left Pelican, but he did not get a job offer until the first week of July (better than before, but still several months of stress and uncertainty). Last year he was again laid off, and even though we had a good Plan B (of going to school), he has still been unemployed for this last year, and that takes its toll. Now we are actively job hunting again, and the ups and downs of it are really hard. I have watched the way these events have affected my husband each time, and I have seen and heard similar things from my friends about their own situations with unemployment or job hunting. In all cases, our men have struggled in a way that goes beyond just finances.

When a man has a family, and has taken on the responsibility of being the financial provider for that family (whether in part or in full), then if he is unable to provide for them it is a major blow to his ego. (I'm sure there are occasional exceptions to this, but based on what I have seen they are a minority.) It has been my observation that when a man is not able to provide, it hits him deeply. He may feel less of a man. He may feel that he's a failure (first at providing, then at anything/everything else). He may feel worthless. He may become withdrawn or stand-offish. His libido may suffer. He may get short-tempered. He will very likely face some degree of discouragement or depression.

Now let me interrupt myself for a moment by pointing out that I know that there are people out there who believe that gender roles are are taught, and who would fault me for being so male-centric in this post. I know that a lot of aspects of gender identity are taught, but I do believe that some things are definitely inborn. I have offered my sons a wide variety of playthings, but do they play with the play food or the baby dolls? Nope. Not for more than a couple of minutes. Then they go back to building rockets and swords and catapults and guns. Even when I didn't allow any toy weapons in the house, they would use their legos and lincoln logs and tinker toys to make weapons. They are sweet and affectionate boys, but they are very much 'male' regardless of my efforts to not push roles on them one way or the other. For that among other reasons, I feel unequivocally that there is an inherent difference between boys and girls. I believe that the role of providing is something that is hardwired into the average man as part of his protective nature. It is then no wonder that an inability to provide would leave him feeling like less of a man. Obviously if a woman is the primary provider for her family she would likely feel the same kinds of things as a man would, but culturally there is a precedent and also usually an expectation of a man to be a provider, so I write here primarily of men.

Speaking from my own experiences (both with my own depression and with seeing it in my spouse), when you are the one who is depressed, it is really hard to self-diagnose. All the feelings of inferiority seem justified. All the malaise seems normal. Even milder manifestations of discouragement can still affect spouse and family.

What he needs the most in this situation is to have his wife's unfailing support. The specifics will look different from one couple to the next, but the basic principle is the same. He needs to know that he is still man enough for her. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but if it is his manhood that is threatened, then it is his manhood that needs to be supported. You may find that it helps you with your own frustrations or disappointments as well. Even when your man is happily employed and everything is hunky-dory, little reminders of your love and support will not go amiss. So here are a few ideas of ways to support your man:
  • Tell him that you love him.
  • Tell him why you love him.
  • Tell him--and show him--that you find him romantically and sexually appealing (support an aspect of his manhood that is not out of work!)
  • Compliment him, especially about things that demonstrate his manliness (his strength, his skills, his physique, his intellect, his ability as a lover, etc)
  • If he is applying for lots of jobs, help with whatever you can, whether that is proofreading his resume, helping collect applications, or finding new ways to cut the budget.
  • Bring up concerns if you need to, but try really hard to avoid complaining (about finances particularly).
  • If you are eligible, get some help, whether it's from family or church or government. For example, if you're able to get food aid, then you'll be able to continue to eat well in spite of your financial pinch, and a good meal can help things feel normal even when they aren't.
  • If you can help bring in money, go for it. If you are both on board with the idea, seek employment to help the family through. If he does not want you to get an outside job though, I think it's also important to respect that. If he is unable to provide, and then you do so, that could make the situation that much harder for him.
  • When he's gone all day applying or interviewing, try to have a meal ready for him when he gets home--just as you would have when he came home from working all day.
  • If he is at home a lot, ask him to help with things, help him stay occupied and productive. A Honey-Do list is one option. You might also ask or encourage him to take on a large project, such as putting in a garden or refinishing some furniture. Especially try to find 'manly' things to ask him to do. For example, the average guy will probably feel more excited about washing the car, moving heavy items, reaching things from high shelves, or changing the oil than he would about scrubbing the bathroom or cooking dinner. Not that he shouldn't help with those latter things too, but try to find a balance.
  • Spend time together doing fun things. Picnics, frisbee, hikes, parks, playing board games, stargazing, trips to the beach, etc. If you have kids, be sure to include them in many of these, but be sure to do some things with just the two of you as well. It doesn't have to cost money to bring happiness and make great memories.
  • Encourage him to do things that he enjoys with other adults, for example going to play ball with his friends, or game nights or movie nights with the guys. There are a lot of socializing and entertainment options that are inexpensive or free. Get a little inventive.
  • Just as you give him nights out, keep some balance, and take your own nights out too. It gives him a chance to have daddy nights with the kids (if you have them), or to have a quiet night at home alone.
  • If nothing else is helping, seriously consider seeking therapy or medical help. Depression can be a very dangerous thing in its more severe manifestations. It's probable that he won't feel that help is necessary, but if you feel it is, then it probably is.
  • And no matter what, you vowed to do it when you married him, so stand by your man. ☺


MooMama said...

Interesting post.

I was down-sized in 2001 when the college I was working at faced a severe budget shortfall and axed several directors/faculty.

I experienced the same feelings you wrote about - " He may feel less of a man. He may feel that he's a failure (first at providing, then at anything/everything else). He may feel worthless. He may become withdrawn or stand-offish. His libido may suffer. He may get short-tempered. He will very likely face some degree of discouragement or depression."

Just insert woman for man.

I do believe that some experiences may be gender specific but my experience didn't seem to be so.

I think it's also important to point out that I was the primary income provider for our family. My husband (who I had only been married to for about a year and a half then) was a Ph.D. student and earned very little through his graduate assistantship.

I also was part of a culture that did not separate roles of women and men and I felt very responsible for providing for my son's needs.

The lay-off completely turned my world upside-down and I can say with all honesty that it took me years to recover from it psychologically and emotionally.

Tim said...

I think that, at least in the LDS culture, it might be comparable in some ways to a woman who is unable to conceive. Society gives us roles, and the inability to fulfill those roles, despite our wishes and efforts to do so, can be incredibly frustrating.

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