Striving for manhood in a fatherless world
MANHOOD: An action plan for changing men’s lives
by Steve Biddulph
Finch (3rd edition)
Paperback, 240 pages
In this book, Australia’s world-acclaimed family therapist and parenting author Steve Biddulph deals with one of the greatest social problems of the modern era: fatherlessness.
This problem isn’t confined to single-mother families, homosexuals or divorced people; it’s also a syndrome of those nuclear families where men are either emotionally absent from their children and wives, or else are there but in negative, crippling ways.
Biddulph, a psychologist, presents a plan for men to regain being real husbands and fathers – real for themselves, their wives and their children.
Men especially need to be real fathers in their sons’ lives so as to teach them the skills and emotional backbone needed to be husbands and fathers themselves one day.
Fathers also need to be real in their daughters’ lives, as it is from her father that a girl most needs affirmation. If she doesn’t get it from him, she’ll seek it elsewhere and this could be in the wrong place.
In this revised and updated edition of Manhood, Biddulph begins with “seven steps to manhood”. Why does he begin here?
He says: “There is clear and incontrovertible evidence that, all through the 20th century and into the 21st, men have been suffering uniquely and severely …
“The big question is, are malfunctioning men – from Ivan Milat through to Bill Clinton – just the exceptions… where the fabric of healthy society has accidentally unravelled? Or… have we no idea how to turn little boys into safe, life-loving men?”
This might sound unduly pessmistic, maybe even exaggerated. But the reality is that there are a great number of boys and men in society who are “horrendously underfathered”. Fewer than 10 per cent of men are friends with their father and see the relationship as deep and sustaining.
Many marriages are failing, with few men being happy, women rarely understanding men’s loneliness, kids hating their fathers, and men prematurely dying from stress.
According to Biddulph, women in the 20th century have had to cope with “restrictions” imposed by the outside world; whereas men often have to struggle with enemies from inside themselves, such as loneliness, compulsive competition and lifelong emotional timidity.
Biddulph says that we can “never be complete without deep involvement with adults of our own sex”.
He explains: “It takes the help of many men to turn a boy into a man. School doesn’t do it. Watching TV doesn’t do it. Mum, however hard she tries, can’t do it on her own. Boys need exposure to healthy men”.
Some of the “seven steps to manhood” include:
- “Fixing it” with your father – understanding him and even forgiving him. (The alternative of holding on to unforgiveness is like dragging around a corpse that will trip you up).
- Meeting your partner (spouse) on equal terms – learning respect for yourself and the ability to communicate your feelings, as well as to listen, to your wife. Never underestimate the importance of your children seeing you aligned with your wife in thought and action.
- Engaging actively with your kids and getting the “tough-tender” balance right.
- Finding the heart in your work.
Biddulph analyses what has happened in society to the father’s role since the Industrial Revolution. He says that, during this time, the possibility that boys might need fathering for hours a day, not just minutes, was forgotten.
Male psychology today has identified “father-hunger” as the most important cause of grief, loneliness, competition and lack of emotion.
“Father-hunger is the deep biological need for strong, humorous, hairy, wild, tender, sweaty, caring, intelligent, masculine input; for long hours spent learning to be confident and capable in the world … in pleasure of doing and making, striving together and laughing at adversity; learning the joy of being a man from men who know these things and are willing to share them.”
Love and approval
Biddulph outlines how one’s father colours one’s life, and how sons especially need their fathers’ love and approval.
It is from fathers that boys learn confidence in love. Here, Biddulph categorises four different types of defective fathers (king, critical, passive and absent).
It is from fathers that boys should learn about sex and the need for self-control (not just giving in to desire, as popular culture would have it). Biddulph does, however, get a little off the track from a proper Christian understanding of sexuality.
Biddulph argues that our schools need reforming for boys to be able to flourish.
He also emphasises the need for religion and religious ritual in life. He correctly observes that “secular goodness is good, but doesn’t quite do the trick”; but then equates all religions as essentially equal and poetry as good as contemplation.
He says that the more drums and dancing there are in religion the better. But this seems to miss the essence of good religion, in which our relationship with God is more important than what we do.