Where have all the cowboys gone?

I’m worried about the boys. Or rather, men. Really, I am. Over the past couple of years, a hefty percentage of the chaps I know, or who are married to people I know, appear to have dived, lemming-like, into what I can only describe as a mid-life crisis of some kind.

I spent a couple of days last week with some amazing women, on a goal-setting day run by our fabulous coach Amanda Alexander. We all run our own small – mostly one-woman-band – businesses. We all have professional backgrounds, some at a very senior corporate level. We all have young children. We’re all planning significant income for the year ahead, some of us into six figures. And as we talked – in the collaborative, open, non-competitive, supportive, sharing, and sometimes emotional way that a group of like-minded women talk – it became clear that most of us had something else in common. Problems with our men.

Between us, the grown-up boys in our lives had been through, or were still going through, a whole smorgasbord of bad stuff, including: anger management issues, depression, unemployment, family illness, and bereavement. Divorce and separation – past or impending – was mentioned by around 50% of our group. Counselling, medication, suspected infidelity, obsessive fitness, expensive new hobbies, and the purchase of powerful motorbikes had all been involved. Other themes included husbands and partner’s disengagement, absence, lack of support for their women and children (whether emotional, financial or in terms of childcare), really quite shit communication skills, emotional constipation, and general flakiness.

Seriously, where's this guy when you need him?

Seriously, where’s this guy when you need him?

And it’s not just this group of women. In conversation with friends, The Trouble With Our Men comes up again and again. But please don’t get the wrong idea, boys: we’re (mostly) not sitting around bitching about how crap you are. We’re properly worried about you. We love you, and we care about you, and we’re worried as wives, as mothers of sons, and as friends of women and men. We’re worried about what these mid-life crises – because this does seem to be happening to a ridiculous amount of men in their late thirties and early forties – mean for you, for us, for our marriages, for our children, and for society.

A couple of months ago I heard that men aged 35-49 are now the highest suicide risk in the UK, according to government figures for 2008-2010. I was saddened, but not at all surprised, by the stats. Men in this age group – our husbands, our children’s fathers – are under an awful lot of pressure. I’m no psychologist or sociologist (or any other ‘ist’, unless you count piss artist), but it seems pretty obvious that men’s place in the world is not as straightforward as it used to be. For a whole load of complex reasons, men are no longer necessarily respected as the head of the family, authority figures, breadwinners (hunter gatherers…). The old testosterone-fuelled ways of running businesses and indeed countries – power, aggression, competition – don’t seem to be working quite as well. They are also expected to step up and achieve their earning potential, be active and involved parents, share the running of the household, be great in bed, and be emotionally intelligent.

I’m being simplistic here, but it seems as if we want men to be softer and more sensitive, and yet we still expect them to be strong. Meanwhile, women are busy changing the world while changing nappies. No wonder men are confused. No wonder they feel rather emasculated. No wonder they need to be in control. No wonder they feel like they ‘can’t do anything right’,  and ‘can’t go on like this’, and ‘need some time out’ and ‘we don’t show them enough affection’. Chuck a recession, job and money worries into the mix, and you’ve got a timebomb on your hands.

In some cases it seems almost like post-traumatic stress disorder: something very bad has happened, and they just haven’t had the tools to deal with it. My own DH won’t mind me saying that he found my diagnosis of breast cancer and 18 months of treatment incredibly hard. He had to be strong, for me, for our babies, for his employer, when he felt shocked, scared, anxious, and really very upset much of the time. He had additional responsibilities with the children and the home as well as working full time, his wife (who would normally have been his confidante and coach through a crisis) was throwing up after chemo, losing her hair, recovering from surgery, and then working out how to be herself again. When it was finally all over, he just hadn’t dealt with any of it, and this manifested itself in getting increasingly shouty and exploding  about nothing at all. We’ve pretty much sorted it out now, and I think we’re better at talking, and loving each other, than we ever have been in our 23 years together. But, you know, there was definitely a point at which our marriage could have swung the other way.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to bear, when our men dissolve into tears, or are distant and numb, or avoid coming home from work, or drink too much, or yell at us, or even attempt to find solace in another, less frosty, bed. There is, it has to be said, an element of frustration, impatience and resentment in our feelings about all of this. It might even seem, when they are being particularly rubbish, like selfishness or self-indulgence, because mothers have to keep buggering on, basically. The kids’ tea isn’t going to make itself, no matter how shit we feel. Even when I’ve been in the depths of depression, we’ve all had clean pants. But resentment is not a fertile ground for love.

I am worried about the boys, because I love all of the men in my life, and I want them to be happy. I’m a feminist, but not to the extent that I want an alarming number of men to feel like killing themselves because they can’t live up to expectations. I don’t want men to feel useless, and fearful, and powerless, and pointless. Because we’re a team, right? We need each other. We’re on the same side. And I don’t want to be doing all of this on my own. At some point we need to stop resenting our men who aren’t manning up for whatever reason, and feel pity, and express compassion, and show them love. To treat them with humour, patience and praise, a bit like recalcitrant children. To make it easy for them to talk to us. To be their safe place. And gently encourage them to put on a smile and some metaphorical lipstick, face their adoring public, and keep the show on the road.