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.




  1. “What would Mary Berry do?” – sometimes we women need to look at our inner goddess (nurturing) versus our outer battle hardened war winner and ask how can I be kinder to myself and to him regularly. How can I be kinder to myself and to my man/family here and now no matter the faults and the “you did, I did”s. Think your spot on with this Maja.

    • Thanks lovely lady. That’s a really cool way of putting it: we can choose to be nurturing goddesses or we can choose the battle. Kindness is underrated, I think. x

  2. We’re simple creatures really. Lots of praise, lots of sex and a shed/garage/workshop/all of the above to do tinkering/fixing/breaking/masturbating/all of the above in and we’re OK.

    • Ollie, that’s brilliant. I can just see DH nodding with recognition and approval. Men and sheds… x ps Yeah, I do owe you some royalties for using that pic of you 😉

  3. What a loving and thoughtful article. You make some great points. I was touched by your thinking through how women could better be there for their partners, husbands, rather than just decimating their efforts in dealing with a bewilderingly fast changing world. By raising these concerns with compassion, its a wonderful starting point. You are obviously a caring person who can see past the obvious and over-simplified answers. I think that men need to also show up for each other and I know of quite a few men in my life doing “men’s work” and making seriously beautiful and inspirational transformations, and a mature kind of cowboy emerging out of that – to use your language hehe 🙂 but many more who are not doing this work and who I do sense, if I am honest, are living a shadow of the man that they could be. The ‘elder’ men I think are very much needed to support the younger men so that they work out a way to be in this world without chucking the baby out with the bathwater so to speak 🙂 Perhaps by spreading the word to the men in our lives about the possibility of doing men’s work, this would be planting a seed at least. And also I think, expressing what we want to see of them, but with that compassionate tone that you so beautifully demonstrate.

    • Thank you so much Sofia. You’re right – many of the beautiful, special, funny, adorable, smart men I know are living a shadow of the life they could experience if they were brave enough to do some of that ‘touchy feely’ stuff… x

  4. This is really good stuff Pinchy, and spot on. But it has resonance with an old bird like me too – it probably started with my generation which was the first to make demands of men that not all of them could meet. We have come a long way but in the end it is about hanging in there until you reach the next stage. The middle years of marriage and childrearing are hard, and storm will follow storm. Dealing with the storms rather than running from them is the key. And before you know it you have reached comfortable middle age, loving each other in a different way, knowing how glad you are to have this dear friend til death us do part, and making the most of what you have in all its imperfections and variety.

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