A woman really wants to see her man without his mask, a friend once confided. She’s not alone. Many women complain that men are not open about their feelings. And children say the same thing about their fathers.
I understand their frustration. Many men act almost as though they have no feelings, seeing feelings as problems to be solved. So for Father’s Day, here’s a peek behind the male mask.
Ronald Levant, past president of the American Psychological Association, has said that because boys learn early to suppress certain emotions, such as confusion, fear or vulnerability, they can become genuinely unaware of their feelings as adults.
So they don’t cry. Some don’t even allow themselves to show sadness and anxiety, let alone feel them.
At the earliest stages of life, males and females are pretty much the same in expressing emotions. In the March issue of the journal Science, researchers describe how 18-month-old babies of both sexes exhibit a rudimentary ability to understand when someone else needs help.
Reading that, I thought of my grandson Sam, who as a toddler saw me cry at my father’s funeral and insisted on climbing onto my lap. His response – totally spontaneous and instinctive – was that of a young boy who had not yet learned what it means to be a man.
By the time they hit puberty, many boys will no longer climb on a lap to comfort a grieving grandfather. They figure out how to exaggerate their strengths and minimize their vulnerability.
Boys tend to do this in the presence of girls, and especially with one another. It begins as a necessity, but hardens into a mask. We boys grow into manhood convincing ourselves that we are tougher than we really are.
But then, what happens to the tender feelings? Most of us know that they remain inside, yet are inaccessible. Or perhaps as Levant suggests, we lack the words to express them.
We men love deeply. But we have different ways of showing love. In Letters to Sam, a book I wrote for my grandson, I described my father because I wanted Sam to know how he worked at a job he did not like for 38 years. My father was unable to articulate what he felt for his family. But I recognized that his work – however much he disliked it – was his own expression of love. And, being male, Sam and I may show our love in similar ways. Not with articulate expressions of compassion but with the male equivalent – work, devotion, problem-solving, or gestures of concern that only hint at our deepest feelings.
Often men will be sarcastic with one another or playfully competitive. That’s how we love other men. It’s our way of putting our arms around one another.
But once a man is in a safe, compassionate place, feelings emerge. Men in my office are almost always able to identify their fears and insecurities once they feel cared about and are helped with language.
Trust me, we feel dependency and longing. Like our female counterparts, we wish for love, security and understanding. Despite how it may look, we also have separation anxiety.
On this Father’s Day, I suspect many children and spouses will not hear the full expressions of love they’d like from their husbands and fathers.
But trust that the mask is not everything. Underneath, you will find love and insecurity. You will find wisdom and power, clarity and confusion. You will find a wish for understanding. And you will find that our mask is never far away because sometimes we need it.
Happy Father’s Day.