Most men would be familiar with phrases such as ‘act like a man’ and ‘grow some …’. But what do these phrases say about how a man should behave when his child is diagnosed with cancer? Men are encouraged to show strength and it might seem you can’t say you’re struggling and keep your man badge. So it’s a good thing men don’t need support… right?
There’s been a lot of debate about whether our emotions are determined by our biological sex but our feelings don’t depend on our gender. From a very early age, our brains are storing what feels socially acceptable and what doesn’t so we can act accordingly. The unfortunate outcome of this is that men who have learned they should always be strong and not show emotion are less likely to ask for support when they need it.
Why support for men is important
There are enough stats out there to confirm that some of the rules men learn are a problem. We know that here in Australia, rates of men reporting issues with their wellbeing are much lower in comparison to women. However, rates of suicide amongst men are much higher. Similarly, while Redkite offers support to the entire family, far less men ask for support from us than other family members.
When we do hear from men via our support line and our Dads Connect Groups, they often describe rich emotional experiences of their own. They also describe unique challenges related to their role as a father and their experience as a man in the childhood cancer system. We hear from some fathers that they feel they have to be ‘the rock’ of the family, or that they feel pressure to ‘hold it all together’ so it was hard for them to ask for support.
Of course not all men feel held back by the idea that men should be strong all of the time. You might read this article and think ‘that’s not me at all… I’m comfortable expressing myself and getting support when I need it’. If that’s the case for you, then that’s really positive. You can inspire others.
The qualities we learn the ideal man should have might feel natural for you. That’s alright as well. But if you’re an oncology dad and you find it hard to reach out when you need to, then the information below may be helpful.
What makes it hard for men to get support?
The rules we learn about how men should behave can be called the ‘act like a man’ box. Men can feel pressure to fit into this box, even if it doesn’t really suit them.
The ‘act like a man’ box contains many rules. But some of the ones that are important to highlight when talking about men and support are:
Be strong not emotional.
Be logical not irrational.
Be brave not scared.
Be the provider not the provided for.
These rules are important because of the message they send – ‘the ideal man should always be strong, and must never show weakness’.
They can bring some advantages. They might pump someone up to compete on the footy field, or to achieve success in a business environment. But they can also be unhealthy for men, particularly if they feel they’re not able to let them go when their wellbeing depends on it. So you might like to ask yourself whether you carry any of these rules and if so, how do they show up in your personal life? Are you still able to ask for support when you need it?
If your answer to that last question was no, then the strategies below might help you change that.
1. Get familiar with the contents of your box
Consider what rules you’ve learned about what it means to be a man. You can then build your awareness of when they become a problem for you.
So what rules are in your ‘act like a man box’? When do they show up for you and how do they influence your behaviour? Are there ones that feel positive for you? What about negative? Which ones do you want to work on?
2. Write a pros and cons list for each rule
Our thoughts are much clearer when we get them out on paper. Once you’ve identified what rules are in your box, create a pros and cons list and look at each one individually. You can then start to see their impact more clearly.
Take note of which rules don’t benefit you and hold you back from getting support.
3. Consider what you need as a human being, not as a man
Once you’ve figured out the rules that get between you and support, it might be good to consider what you need as the unique person you are, not as a man. Set aside any problematic rules you’ve listed and write down what support you would ask for if they weren’t a concern for you.
Sometimes when men do this exercise, they begin comparing themselves to ‘real men’. Remember, that’s the rules of your box talking. Real men are themselves.
4. Use the rules of your box to step outside it
You might find it easiest to ask for support from people you’re already comfortable with. While it’s a stereotype that men prefer connecting over a beer or some other activity, if this is the case for you, there’s no need to change that. You can use this kind of setting to feel more comfortable when you want to reach out to the important people in your life.
And remember, you don’t need to share everything all at once. You can start small and gradually build your confidence.
5. Reframe the rules of your box to step outside it
It’s hard to change the rules in your box overnight, so you might like to start by reframing them. For example, consider the rule that men should always show strength and courage. The definition of courage is “the ability to do something even though it’s scary or difficult”. Finding it hard to ask for support, but doing it anyway, takes more courage than suffering in silence.
Let’s look at the rule that men should be rational and logical. Is it rational for you to hold it together at the expense of your wellbeing? You as a parent are your child’s best tool for getting through cancer. What support do you need to stay sharp?
You might be able to think of some other unhelpful rules that you could reframe to your benefit. What are they?
what if people judge me?
Let’s be honest, a lot of men have described being belittled when they’ve acted outside of the box. This is a valid concern. However, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t care about you. People of all genders learn unhelpful rules about how men and women should behave. Try to pick your audience and speak to people you’re comfortable with first, who you know are more accepting.
And remember, if you’re a bloke who struggles quietly, it’s likely other men you know do too. So put the man you are first and get the support you need when you need it. You might encourage the men around you to do the same.
Some men don’t have the benefit of a natural support network. Redkite’s support line will be open this Father’s Day. Alternatively, you can contact us Monday – Friday 9.00am – 7.00pm (AEST) or email email@example.com.