Neil
Chethik
 

For 20 years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find out what men really think -- about family, relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He is the author of two best-selling books, Fatherloss (Hyperion) and VoiceMale (Simon & Schuster). He’s been a nationally syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now, the national media’s go-to guy for what men really think about their everyday lives. Contact: Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or 859.361.1659 or E-Mail or www.NeilChethik.com

The Centerfold Syndrome
Dumping the Soul Mate
My Coming of Age
Preparing for the Death of a Father
Should We Circumcise Our Son?
Siblings and Rivalry: Do You Like Your Brother?
‘Son, I’m Proud of You’
Summer Dads
The Value of Dad
What I Learned on My First Hunting Trip
What Sons Need From Their Dads
Where Are the Male Clients?
Where are all of the Male Teachers?

Where Are the Male Clients?


Where are the men? Ask any bereavement counselor, hospital chaplain, or hospice administrator to give you a breakdown, by gender, of those who use their services, and you’ll probably get a similar response: Somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of their clients will be women.

In part, these lopsided figures reflect the fact that men die earlier than women, and thus, are less apt to face bereavement over the loss of a spouse. But every year, millions of American men lose their parents, children, siblings, and other loved ones. And yet, even in those instances, men seem to stay away from grief services in droves.

Why is this the case? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

I recently finished writing a book on how sons come to terms with the deaths of their fathers. As part of my research, I conducted in-depth interviews with 70 men whose fathers had died. Based on those interviews, as well as the valuable work of Thomas Golden, Kenneth Doka, Terry Martin, and others, I intend to suggest in this article that 1) men avoid grief services in part because those services tend not to reflect their styles of grieving, and 2) grief counselors can help more men by shaping some of their services differently.

In the course of my research on father-loss, I always asked my male interviewees whether they sought grief counseling. More than 90 percent said no. As one 34-year-old man put it: “Why should I go to a therapist? She’ll just try to get me to cry.” This statement goes to the heart of why men tend not to seek grief counseling: They perceive grief services as being for women.

They’re only partly wrong. Over the past 40 years, tremendous strides have been made in our understanding of grief and mourning. But because widows are more numerous than widowers – and more willing to participate in grief studies – most of the research thus far has focused on how women handle loss. Thus, affective expressiveness – especially crying and talking about the loss with others – has come to be seen as the accepted norm for grieving. Those who cope with loss in other ways are often considered to be doing it “wrong.”

And yet, the few studies of men’s grieving indicate that men tend toward a different way than women, and that this way is often just as effective.

In the mid-1990s, Marion and Sidney Moss of Philadelphia’s Polisher Research Institute, along with R.L. Rubinstein, interviewed 43 mid-life men who’d lost elderly fathers. They found that men tended to control their emotions after the death, emphasizing action and thinking instead. Some of the sons turned their attention outward, focusing on funeral planning, taking care of the estate, supporting relatives, and similar activities. Others turned inward, mentally reviewing their relationships with their dads, or rationalizing that the father’s death was best for all concerned.

The surprise for the researchers was that these mourning strategies seemed to be effective. The researchers noted: “We suggest that the male orientation (toward grief) is essentially adaptive. Rather than leading to a vulnerable self, action-oriented coping may enhance immediate mastery and bolster self-esteem. A cognitive orientation to loss may better enable a long-term processing that is slow and incremental rather than sudden and jarring.”

In their provocative new book, Men Don’t Cry... Women Do, Doka and Martin also assert, based on decades of clinical experience, that men tend toward a style of grieving that focuses on thinking, mastering feelings, and action. The action, which may include running, lifting weights, stacking wood, or chiseling a tombstone, seems to serve as “a way to restore normalcy and a sense of security” after a loss, the authors write.

The men I interviewed about the deaths of their fathers also tended toward active grieving. Among the four categories of male grievers I identified – Dashers, Delayers, Displayers, and Doers – Doers were most common. Men told me that after the deaths of their fathers, they coped by walking, running, gardening, building with their father’s tools, and taking over the father’s business, among other activities. Through these activities, they said – often repeated many times – the men were able to gradually release the energy that built up inside them after the loss.

It’s important to stress that gender is not an absolute determinant of styles of grieving. About 20 percent of the men I interviewed said crying and talking were their primary ways of coping with the loss of their dads. And some women with whom I’ve shared my research told me they mourn through action.

However, given that men tend toward a different style of grief than women, is there anything counselors and death educators can do to better serve men in grief? Following are three suggestions, representing a consensus among researchers and therapists with a particular interest in men and grief.

1) In setting up grief groups, innovate. Many men avoid bereavement groups because they expect to sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. The Canadian psychologist Philip Carverhill suggests re-framing grief groups as “mutual story-telling” sessions in which men have an opportunity to simply relate their loss experience.

Maryland therapist Thomas R. Golden goes as far as to suggest that grief groups for men be held outside of a standard clinical setting. For example, Golden says, a hospice counselor might invite local widowers for a day-long fishing trip in honor of their deceased wives. In Golden’s experience, men are more likely to show up for such an excursion than for a group session in an office. When the boat trip is over, Golden predicted, the men will “walk off in pairs and threes,” having made connections that might even continue on outside a formal group.

2) In individual therapy with men, be open to non-traditional styles of grieving. Doka and Martin suggest that in the opening sessions of individual therapy with a bereaved man, therapists focus on assessing the client’s past grief patterns and adaptive strategies. Language is very important during this phase. When a therapist asks, “How did you feel?” it implies that “feeling” is the primary domain worth exploring. Doka and Martin suggest asking: “How did you react?” or “How did you respond?”

If the client and therapist can identify an effective coping strategy from the client’s past, they should play to that strength. In the self-help book, When a Man Faces Grief, Golden and co-author James E. Miller speak directly to bereaved men: “Are you a quiet one? Then write rather than talk if that feels right. Or take slow walks. Or listen to soothing music.... Are you expressive emotionally? Then cry or laugh, rant or rave.... Are you precise by nature? Then try keeping track of your grief with a daily record.”

3) In all kinds of therapy, be a witness. Carverhill contends that male clients are generally not that interested in feedback, analysis, or judgment. Carverhill writes: “The bereaved male tells his story to others as an attempt to make meaning of his loss experience. By being a reflecting surface, the therapist can aid him in his search.”

In the interviews for my book on father-loss, I personally experienced the power of witnessing. As a journalist, I was interested primarily in recording exactly what happened to each man, step by step, before, during, and after his father’s death. So my main question was, repeatedly: “What happened next?” Most of my interviewees seemed to appreciate this approach. In fact, toward the end of each interview, I asked each man what had helped him most in dealing with the death of his father. More than a few said talking with me.

In the end, it is unlikely that male bereavement clients will outnumber females in the foreseeable future. But as we learn more about men’s styles of grieving, and apply that knowledge to the act of therapy, I believe that more men will seek help, and when they do, get what they need.

Preparing for the Death of a Father


Sigmund Freud called it "the most poignant loss" of his life. Sean Connery termed it "a shattering blow." Norman Mailer likened it to "having a hole in your tooth. It's a pain that can never be filled." Each year, more than 1.5 million American boys and men lose their fathers to death. And like the three men mentioned above, most are unprepared.

But preparation is possible. Recently, in writing a book about father-loss, I asked 70 ordinary men what they did - or wish they'd done - to ready themselves for the deaths of their dads. Here's their best advice for sons whose fathers are alive:

* Make peace with your dad.

This was by far the most common suggestion. Sons put it in a variety of ways: "Say what you have to say before it's too late." "As quickly as you can, resolve those old issues." "If you have any conflicts, clear them up."

The reason for peacemaking: Sons who are estranged from, angry with, or otherwise unresolved with their dads have the hardest time recovering from a father's death. In addition to their sadness over the loss, these sons often wrestle for years with regrets, resentments, and might-have-beens.

On the other hand, sons who are at peace with the fathers tend to mourn intensely in the short-term, but rebound more quickly.

How can a son make peace with his father? Some feel a need to clear the air, to express lingering disappointment or anger. Others need only to thank their dads. One man told me that at the age of 37, he spontaneously hugged his dad, "and then there was just this melting. I don't recall ever resenting him again."

* Care for your father if he is ill.

Many sons told me they were never closer to their dads than during the weeks leading up to the father's death. They often felt free to comfort him, to care for him - to father him.

One son, who'd sat by his father's bedside, swabbing the older man's forehead and lips, during the days before the death, said: "It was hard. But I wouldn't have traded it for anything.... He took care of me, I'm taking care of him. There was that mutual, coming-full-circle aspect of it."

Another son took his widowed dad into his home for the last two years of the father's life. After the death, this son relished the memory of that time together: "It was an important period because I'd kind of lost fellowship with my father. He was more of a stranger than a father.... It was a time for me and my dad to get to know each other again."

* Talk with your father about his death.

This may seem morbid, or just plain rude. But most of the men who did this told me their fathers were glad to talk. Sons, it turns out, are often more afraid of a father's death than is the father himself.

Still, finesse is important. One son handled the conversation deftly, approaching his 87-year-old father with these words: "I'd like to be able to carry out your wishes after your death. To do that, I need to know what your wishes are."

The result was a conversation in which the son learned what kind of medical treatment his father wanted in late-life, what kind of funeral he wanted, and what he wanted done with some of his prized personal possessions.

The son also got a bonus: He saw that his father, who'd had a stroke, was not resisting death. Knowing this helped the son accept the death as well.

* Expose yourself to death.

For most sons, the loss of a father is the first death in their immediate family. They haven't before watched the dying process up-close, and they don't know what to expect from themselves or family members during the crisis. For such sons, it may help to acquaint oneself with death before it occurs in one's own family.

One man did this by volunteering at Hospice, keeping company with people in the last days and hours of their lives. This man told me: "Death is something we tend to avoid... until it's thrust upon us.... Doing something like (Hospice) - a familiarity comes. I got accustomed to death."

Reading about death also can help, whether it's biblical scripture, poetry, even self-help books. One Christian man told me that as his father was dying, he read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to get a Buddhist view on the life-death cycle. It helped him enormously. "If you see (death) as a natural thing," he said, "it takes a lot of the sting out of it."

Of course, no matter how thoroughly you prepare for a father's death, you cannot fully mourn it in advance. And you generally can't predict how you will respond. Some sons told me they expected to be crestfallen at the loss, but felt only relief. Others knew the death was coming, but still were shocked at the finality that it brought.

Nonetheless, consciously preparing for loss has value. By removing at least some of the surprise of the loss, and by intentionally bringing closure to relationship with the dying person, it can take the hard edge off the mourning to come.

‘Son, I’m Proud of You’


Each year when Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of the most important words my father ever said to me.

The year was 1984, I was 27 years old, between journalism jobs, living just a few blocks from the small Miami Beach apartment my paternal grandfather had set up after his retirement. It was the first time in my life that Grandpa was close-by, and along with meals of pot roast and potatoes, I soaked up the stories of his harrowing childhood in Eastern Europe, desperate emigration, and eclectic life that spanned the century.

Then one day I got a phone call from a doctor. "I'm sorry to tell you this," came the voice, "but your grandfather has had a heart attack, and he has expired."

The next day, my father flew to south Florida from his home in Michigan. I picked him up at the airport, and we drove in silence to the hospital to identify Grandpa's body, collect his watch and wallet, and make arrangements to ship the body north for burial at my grandmother's side.

Then my father turned the key to my grandfather's home, and we began sorting the material remnants of the old man's life. We discovered curled black-and-white photos from the early years, key-chains from more recent times, passbooks, matchbooks, coins, coupons, and a pack of stale generic cigarettes. Working in different rooms, we'd occasionally exclaim to each other about a special find. Mostly we sorted in silence.

We kept at it until the glow of the afternoon sun had waned. Then my father and I collapsed in my grandfather's heavily pillowed living-room chairs, glasses of the old man’s scotch in hand. We shared memories for awhile, then quiet. Finally, as the room faded into near-total darkness, I heard a guttural groan. At first, I was startled. Then I realized what was happening. I had never before heard my father cry.

I rose, and knelt by his side. After a couple of minutes, he spoke. "I am crying not only for my father, but for me," he said. "His death means I'll never hear the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised and the life I've lived."

And then my father directed his voice toward me, and he uttered the words that continue to resound. "So that you never have to feel this way too," he said, "I want to tell you now how proud I am of you, of the choices you've made, of the life you've created."

Much of the pain that is inherent in father-son relationships dissolved for me in the calming resonance of that blessing. And in the months that followed, I felt stronger, more confident, especially as I re-started my career.

In the years since my father’s pronouncement, I’ve discovered that father-pride is a prominent theme in many father-son relationships. Our mothers can shape us in myriad ways, but it is generally our fathers from whom we seek a blessing.

So this Father’s Day, as we fathers accept gifts from our sons, let us remember the gift that so many of them desire, but will not request. Simple words, expressed sincerely: “Son, I’m proud of you.”

Where are all of the Male Teachers?


Walk into most any elementary school, and you'll find the usual: There'll be lists of classroom rules, crisp American flags, brightly colored name tags in the shapes of lions, bears, and dinosaurs. But unless you stumble across the janitor or gym teacher, there's one species you're not likely to confront: men.

While law enforcement, medicine, engineering, and other professions have changed markedly in their gender make-up since the 1960s, elementary education remains a female citadel. Nationally, only one in 10 grade-school teachers is male.

Interestingly, while school officials rightly put resources toward recruiting and retaining ethnic minorities, they do not do the same to bring in men. And yet, a school without male teachers may be just as detrimental to a child as one without black, Hispanic, Asian, or other ethnic minorities in the teaching ranks.

What's the potential damage? Listen to Mike Carr, the director of human resources for my local school system, in Lexington, Kentucky. When I asked him recently why the county targets ethnic minorities to fill teaching positions, he responded: "It's good for (children) to see all different kinds of people as role models."

In other words, schoolchildren, regardless of their background, benefit from having a culturally diverse array of teachers. The lives of minority children are especially enhanced; they feel more welcomed and understood in school, more comfortable in the education culture.

The parallel with boys is clear. If there were more male teachers, wouldn't boys naturally feel more welcomed in the schools? Wouldn't they understand more fully that education is as important for them as it is for girls?

Last year, a friend's son started kindergarten at a local public school. During the first week of class, his female teacher routinely required the boy and his classmates to sit quietly in their seats, hands in lap - or lose privileges.

Not surprisingly, virtually all of the children reprimanded were male. It's not surprising because 5-year-old boys are not designed to sit and stay; rather, because of testosterone, they're chemically engineered to be on the go. Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys, puts it this way: "Boys tend to use up far more space than girls."

Rather than trying to squelch this tendency, Gurian and others say, teachers should be designing their classes to accommodate it. Sadly, by the end of the first week of my friend's son's class, a handful of his most active classmates already were being labeled as "the bad boys." (In an ironic twist, children who disobeyed rules in this class were not allowed to go out for recess, the only 15 minutes of the school day when intense physical activity was encouraged.)

Certainly, there are female teachers who understand "boy energy." And there are male teachers who do not. But I can't help believing that the presence of more men in the elementary schools would generate interest and conversation about the important differences in educating boys and girls.

If boys were excelling in school, I suppose all of this would be moot. But they're not. New research shows that boys are more likely than girls to be expelled or suspended from school, to drop out before graduating high school, and to end their education before college. While girls certainly face obstacles in school, boys are the ones now losing ground.

What can be done to attract more male teachers to the grade schools? Not much, says Carr, the Lexington, Ky., schools human resources director. He told me that few men seem interested in the starting salary he can offer: $25,600 a year.

For the long run, then, those of us who see the value of men in the grade schools can advocate for higher teacher salaries, which all teachers deserve anyway. We can also support special recruitment and retention efforts for male teachers. And we can suggest that school officials take a look at such books as Raising Cain, Real Boys, and The Wonder of Boys, all of which present the latest research on how boys learn.

While we wait for results, however, we fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and other males are needed where it counts - in the classroom. As this academic year begins, we can go to our local schools and offer ourselves as tutors, mentors, advisers, consultants. Even if we do nothing more than read a book to a class once a month, we'll send the message - to both boys and girls - that men care about their education, that we care about them.

My Coming of Age


I think of my Grandpa Willie as a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus. He was a round man with thick white hair, flushed cheeks, and a hearty laugh. He’d come to America in 1920 from Poland, in a harrowing escape from the pogroms, when he was just 16 years old. He passed through Ellis Island, then nestled into Brooklyn for the next half-century, raising a family and running a string of small businesses.

As a kid, one of my favorite times was our family’s regular pilgrimage to pick up Grandpa Willie at the airport. He’d fly in from New York to spend Passover with us in Michigan. In those days, you could wait in the gate area for the passengers to disembark. My parents, siblings and I craned our necks in anticipation as Grandpa came off the jet-way.

We could usually tell it was Grandpa even before we saw his mischievous grin. He was the waddling man toting shopping bags full of food: foot-long salamis, whole roasted chickens, fresh bagels.

I have two brothers – one older and one younger – and the first move Grandpa made upon coming off the plane was to line us up, left to right, and call us to inspection. “Let me see those muscles!” he’d declare. The three of us boys struck our most brazen Jack LaLanne poses, bending elbows and pulling up shirt sleeves to exhibit six pebbly biceps.

I recall one special visit that Grandpa made in 1970. I remember the exact year because it was on that visit that Grandpa bestowed upon me what I now affectionately call my shotgun Bar Mitzvah.

My parents were secular Jews, and had not prepared me for this rite of passage into manhood. But Grandpa was Orthodox, and he couldn’t have faced God knowing that I had turned 13 without it. So – with my father’s permission though not his presence – Grandpa drilled me day after day on the Hebrew prayers that I needed to know for the ceremony.

Anyone who has tried to learn Hebrew in a fortnight will understand Grandpa’s need to scale back his expectations. And yet, on the morning of my 13th birthday, he decided that I was ready. He took me by the hand and walked me to the nearest synagogue. In an anteroom off the sanctuary, a quorum of elders watched as I took the mantle of manhood.

In that anteroom, I felt embarrassed, disconnected from the alien syllables I was muttering. Nonetheless, I still remember with fondness Grandpa’s soft palm on mine as we strolled together toward the temple.

Years went by. I grew up and Grandpa grew old. And in 1984, now in my mid-20s, I had the chance to move to Miami Beach, just a few blocks from where Grandpa had set up his retirement home. He was 80 now, and a widower, but still flushed with life. In the decade since my grandmother died, he had married and divorced twice.

About once a week, we spent an afternoon together at the beach. Afterward, we tramped to his apartment, where he cooked a succulent kosher meal of brisket or roasted chicken. After dinner, I plied him with schnapps and pumped him for stories about the old country. These were among our closest times.

Then one day, shortly after one of these dinners, I received a phone call at home. It was my grandfather’s doctor. These were his exact words: "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your grandfather has had a heart attack, and he has expired."

The statement took my breath away. The next day, my father flew to south Florida from his home in Michigan. I met him at the baggage claim, and we drove to the hospital to identify Grandpa's body.

Later, at Grandpa’s apartment, we began sorting the material remnants of the old man’s life. We found curled photos, key-chains, matchbooks, and in the bedroom closet, a shocking array of pastel leisure suits.

We kept at it until the glow of the afternoon sun began to wane. Even as the apartment darkened, however, neither of us flipped on the lights. We just kept sorting until we could barely make out the items in front of us. That’s when my father and I poured scotch over ice and collapsed in Grandpa’s heavily pillowed living-room chairs. We shared memories for awhile, then quiet.

Finally, as the room faded into near-total darkness, I heard a guttural moan. At first, I was alarmed. Then I realized what was happening.

It was the first time I had heard my father cry.

After a few minutes, his sobs abated. Then he made two statements that have stayed with me for 22 years. First, he said: "I am crying not only for my father, but for me. His death means I'll never hear the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised and the life I've lived."

My father paused, and made a second pronouncement, this one directed to me. "So that you never have to feel this way too,” he said, “I want to tell you now how proud I am of you, of the choices you've made, of the life you've created."

Any residual pain from our previous relationship struggles dissolved for me in the calm resonance of that blessing. And in the months that followed, I felt stronger, more confident. It was as if my father represented not only himself but the larger world of men, and I had been accepted into it.

Up until that point, I had sometimes wondered why my father didn’t attend my Bar Mitzvah back in 1970. Those statements he made to me in the wake of his father’s death helped me understand. Indeed, his direct expression of pride in me that day, served as the closing prayer in that long-running rite of passage.

What I Learned on My First Hunting Trip


I had never before shot my own dinner. At 38 years of age, I'd lived most of my life in suburban America, where hunting usually referred to searching for parking spaces at the regional mall. I had never in my life picked up a loaded shotgun, let alone aimed it at a living creature with the intent to kill.

But over the recent holidays, I lost my innocence. After four years of enjoying an annual quail dinner at the home of my in-laws, I was informed this time around that I'd be expected to help put the meal on the table. If I was willing to eat the bird, they suggested, shouldn't I be willing to see it die?

We headed out at first light -- six male adults and two teenaged boys -- driving west from Tallahassee, Fla. It was a crisp late December day, blue-skied and just below freezing, and as we drove, I savored the calming beauty of North Florida's pine woodlands.

A day earlier, my brother-in-law, Tim, a military veteran, had taken me to a woods near his home for a crash course in marksmanship and gun safety. It was a miracle to me that I regularly hit the milk cartons we set up, and even more astounding that on that very same day, the state of Florida -- with no testing whatsoever -- issued me a permit to shoot at living targets.

Now, as we emerged from our vehicles to begin our hunt, I had to carefully observe my comrades to ensure that I was holding my gun in the appropriate way.

Tim and I were the first shooters. My father-in-law had hired a guide for our hunt, a young man whose family had for more than a century stalked deer, duck and bobwhite quail on their 2,000 acres of land. Tagging along with us was his dog, Belle, a pointer whose job it would be to find the quail and flush them out.

As we walked, waist-high in brush, into the hunting field, I learned more about our prey. These were not wild quail. Like cattle and chickens, they had been raised for the kill. Released the previous day from the huge pens in which they had been fed and bred, their survival skills were limited.

Nonetheless, they could bob and weave in flight, and I expected not to hit a single one. The first three times Belle flushed a covey from the bushes, my gun was barely up before the quail were out of range.

As we prepared for the next flush, however, I summoned all my concentration. And when the birds scattered, I found one in my line of sight. Instinctively, I pulled the trigger. Pop! The animal froze for a moment in mid-air, flipped, and then tumbled from the sky.

When Belle brought the dead bird back to us, its tiny head dangling from a puffy chest, that was enough for me. I felt neither regret nor exhilaration; I just knew that the hunt had given me all it could.

And what was that? For one thing, it had offered me a taste of the sport's allure -- the challenge, the quiet, the unity of purpose among a group of men. I also could begin to understand the dignity possible in a sacred hunt, in which the hunter enters the animal's natural habitat, patient, reverent, attentive to the sounds and smells of the deep outdoors.

Yet despite these positives, the hunt also challenged my meat-eating way of life. I'd always known, of course, that beef is cow and pork is pig, but somehow, as I bit into a cheeseburger or glazed-ham sandwich, I'd always managed to deny the essential link.

I no longer can. I still eat animals, and may forever. But these days, just before I begin a meal of meat, I'm connected to its source by a persistent image of one quail's final desperate moments: the shot, the flip, the flutter, and the fall.

Summer Dads


It's June, the season of migration for the children of divorce.

Another year of school behind them, millions of American kids are hauling duffel bags, favorite pillows, and yes, grand expectations, as they flock from Mom's house to Dad's. Otherwise ordinary men, meanwhile, are changing their routines, habits, and linens, as they prepare to take on the role of Summer Dad.

Not that the fathers are complaining. Having their children within arms reach - quite literally, touchable - is pleasure enough for most of them. Some speak of the almost primal contentment they feel when they lay beside their kids in a tent, nestle with them for a bedtime story, or gab with them over a meal at a restaurant.

And yet, as any seasoned Summer Dad knows, visits from the kids are not all sunshine. Routines are upset; emotions roil; clashes are inevitable. To help fathers make it through the normal pressures of summer with the kids -- and to help them realize the deeper pleasures -- several experienced Summer Dads share what they've learned.

Prime the Pump

Kids like to know what's coming. So the first duty of a Summer Dad is to talk with your kids before their visit starts; let them know what they can expect from your time together.

Charles Metzker, a Kentucky father of two teens, says that each spring he calls his sons to remind them of the house-rules at his place, and to find out what activities he should arrange for them. Then, Metzker says, he tries to have extra patience as he and his sons "find the comfort zone" for a couple of weeks they're living together.

"The moms can really help in preparing the children for summer,” Metzker says. "I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, and she makes a big difference by building up positive expectations as the kids prepare to come live with me."

Act Natural

There's an urge among many divorced fathers to drop everything and spend each summer moment with their kids. If you've got such an urge, experienced dads say, squelch it.

"While their parents are important to them, kids don't want constant attention, especially as they get older," says Phil Holman, a divorced father of two from Michigan. Holman's two teen-aged daughters, he says, "want to sleep over at their friends' houses, and spend a lot of time on their own. I'm always reminding myself not to hold on too tight."

Holman suggests that fathers slightly reduce their daily work hours, if possible, and take some vacation time over the summer. But otherwise, act as normal as possible.

Create Memories

Having fun with the kids is the essence of the season, and you can count on Summer Dads to take their kids to amusement parks, baseball games, movies, and the like. Henry Tyszka, of Michigan, says that these can be great relationship-building activities, but that fathers should also consider quieter, more natural settings.

Tyszka recalls taking his son and daughter camping when they lived with him several summers ago. They're still talking about it. Tyszka also found that his two daughters, who live in a big city most of the year, had never been to the country on a clear evening. "One night, we grabbed a blanket and laid down and just looked up at the sky," he recalls. "In my mind, I gave my kids the stars."

Go One-on-One

Each child is different, and reacts differently to summers with Dad. Summer Dads can take the opportunity to talk individually with each child. Some may want to talk directly about the divorce, or family life; others will want to focus on happier topics. Fathers should allow the child to lead the way in these conversations, and not pry where the child does not want to go.

John Davis of California says that while one of his two sons was quiet and sullen in the first summer after the divorce, the other was furious. "Usually, his anger would surface around setting limits," Davis recalls. "Eventually, we'd both end up in tears.... It was cathartic. It was the acknowledgment that we missed each other."

In addition to the heavy conversations, fathers should spend some fun time alone with each child. Metzker says that through the years, he's asked friends to help with child-care so he can be alone with one child for dinner or an activity. It is while spending time one-on-one with each son, Metzker says, that he sees “the true flowering of the kid's personality."

Say Good-Bye

"There's a point where you start to ... feel the pain of the separation," Metzker says. The kids feel it too, he says, so it's important to acknowledge what's happening, and to say good-bye in an intentional way.

Metzker often does it by saving a special trip for the end of the summer. Sometimes, he’ll drive his kids back to their mother's home, several hundred miles away. Holman says that on the weekend before his kids leave his house, he'll usually sit down and talk about how things went, and what each person will carry with them through the year.

"It's a lot like a grief process," he says. "The tendency is to ignore it, avoid it. But I think it's best to recognize it, and take it as a rite of passage.

Enjoy Your Freedom

While it's hard for him to admit, Davis says that he sometimes looks forward to the end of summer. "I have some feelings of relief," he acknowledges. He's got his own life back. He can see his own friends again. He can keep the refrigerator stocked. Davis says, "Part of the challenge in life is keeping a balance, and there are some advantages in being a part-time parent."

Should We Circumcise Our Son?


I know it's wrong to take a newborn child, strap him down so he cannot move his arms or legs, and then, without anesthesia or a compelling medical reason, slice off a perfectly healthy and functional piece of an extremely sensitive body part.

I know it's wrong. Yet I still may do it to my child.

That's the power of the cultural pressure to circumcise infant males.

These days, many American parents barely give circumcision a second thought. Sometime during the pregnancy, they decide that Junior should look like Daddy, and so they give the go-ahead to "get it over with" before the baby leaves the hospital.

As a writer on male issues, however, I bumped into the other side of the circumcision debate long before my wife became pregnant. And now, two months before delivery, still not certain if it's a boy, I find myself torn between my instinct to protect my child from physical harm and the pressure to conform.

The decision to circumcise wouldn't be so difficult if there was a decisive medical reason to do it.

While religious and ritual circumcision started thousands of years ago, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that U.S. doctors began doing medical circumcisions, proclaiming them a cure for masturbation, laziness, alcoholism and a host of other "ills."

Nonsense, the American Academy of Pediatrics finally said in 1971, when it deemed circumcision medically unnecessary. By then, however, about 80 percent of male infants in the U.S. were having their foreskins removed (compared to about 20 percent in the rest of the world).

Studies in the past few years have found that circumcision may reduce urinary tract infections and some sexually transmitted diseases, but the Academy still does not recommend the procedure routinely. Neither does baby doctor Benjamin Spock, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and TV-radio doctor Dean Edell.

Why not? Because, they claim, it's a painful and unnecessary operation. (In most cases, anesthesia is not used because it can cause complications in newborns.)

Their argument goes something like this: If we removed all healthy body parts because they might someday become diseased, we'd be pulling healthy teeth to prevent decay, amputating healthy breasts to reduce cancer. We don't do these things because teeth and breasts serve a purpose.

And so does the foreskin. It exists to protect the head of the penis from becoming injured or desensitized. There is even evidence that men with foreskins experience a more intense sexual response.

So why would I even consider circumcision for my son?

Because, frankly, the pressure's on. Our doctor recommends that a father and son "look the same." Almost all of our friends have circumcised their sons. And, while circumcisions in the U.S. have steadily decreased in the last two decades, most Jews still carry out the practice, even if they don't do it in the traditional ceremony. (I'm Jewish; my wife is not.)

So going ahead with circumcision would seem to be the easier route for us. Yet if there's one thing we've learned about parenting, even before the birth of our first child, it is this: Don't confuse our needs with the needs of our child.

Circumcising might be easier for us, but what about him? Is it really "no big deal," or does it have subtle, long-lasting effects on a boy's psyche? Is being different from one's father really damaging, or can problems be overcome by openly discussing sexual issues? And what's worse: losing the chance to be initiated into a religious tradition, or losing a body part without one's consent?

There are no right answers for these questions. No study has been developed that can isolate the impact of circumcision on a boy's future life.

But it seems to me that if my wife and I choose to circumcise our son, we should do so only after carefully answering these questions ourselves, and not simply because it's the easiest thing to do.

What Sons Need From Their Dads


I recently finished writing a book called Fatherloss, for which I had the opportunity to interview 70 men about how they dealt with the deaths of their fathers. In the course of those interviews, I also had the chance to ask about the fathers' lives. Specifically, as the father of a 7-year-old son myself, I wanted to know: What makes a good dad? How does a father's role change through the life-span? And what, if anything, can a father do to help prepare his son for the father's death?

Here's what I learned:

In childhood, boys need from their fathers something that can broadly be called "affection."

The men I interviewed didn't always use that term. Affection has the connotation of holding, cuddling, hugging, kissing, and other forms of physical contact. And indeed, when that occurred between a father and son, it seemed to have an unusually positive effect on the child.

For many of the sons I spoke with, their fondest memories of childhood were wrestling with their dads, being tossed into the air or carried piggy-back, or some other form of direct physical play.

One son told me: "On Saturday mornings, when my dad had been gone all week, I'd climb into my parents' bed. He had horrible breath in the morning. We played a game where he tried to breathe on me, and I hid." This son actually remembered this game with fondness! It's an indication of how much sons want to be close to their dads.

I wondered why wrestling, bad-breath games and other physical affection so warmly remembered by sons. I eventually came to see it this way: Physical contact between a father and son gives the son a close-up view of the beast he will one day become: a man. The boy experiences, in his body and bones, how a man moves, feels, smells. Just as importantly, when the father's touch is playful and loving, the son learns that men are strong, but that strength can be harnessed, restrained, and used in a safe way.

Of course, some fathers do not easily go to physical affection. Perhaps they were raised without such contact with their own fathers, and find it alien, even unmanly. Fortunately, I discovered in my conversations with sons that affection could be administered in a variety of ways. Ultimately, affection was less about physicality than about loving attention by a father toward his son.

Some fathers show affection by simply talking with, and listening to, their sons. Others showed it by playing chess, checkers, and other games with their sons. Still others played catch, coached little league teams, helped with confirmation or Bar Mitzvah preparations, took their sons to concerts, ball games and the like. The key was to focus attention, especially on activities that the son initiates.

When a son doesn't get affection, in any form, from his father, the resulting wound can be deep and lasting. Second only to the abuser in generating resentment among the sons I interviewed was the faraway father, the distant dad, the patriarch who was unavailable or uninvolved. Whether the father meant it or not, the message to the son was clear: You don’t matter.

One man's comment struck me a little close to home because I love to read. A man I spoke with told me this: "One of the memories I carry from childhood is Dad's bookshelf. My dad read a lot. He would come home from work, sit in his chair, and read for most of the evening. Maybe it was his escape.... Sometimes, I'd go to that wall of books, and try to figure out what was there that was more fascinating than me."

Now, I'm realistic. I don't expect myself, or any other parent, to always be attentive to our children. It's not possible, or even healthy. But it has been good for me to pay attention to how much I pay attention to my son, and to remember how good for him it is to have my active presence in his life.

If "affection" was the key word that arose when sons described what they needed in childhood, another single word captures the essence of what adolescent and young adult sons need from their dads: Blessing.

One man I interviewed, a business executive, said he received a traditional Mexican blessing - a bendicion - from his father when the son left Texas at age nineteen to look for work in California. The blessing, which his father gave to him in Spanish, affirmed that the son was ready for the journey ahead, and called upon God and humankind to look after him. It also softened the son's feelings toward a father who had often been harsh and uncompromising.

In the introduction to my book, FatherLoss, I speak of a blessing I received from my father when I was 27. I was living at the time in Miami, near my grandfather, my father's father. My grandfather died suddenly, and I spent a day going through my grandfather's apartment alongside my father. In the course of the day, my father recognized that he never heard his father express pride in him -- and with the death, never would. So my father offered me a blessing: He told me how proud he was of the life I was creating, the choices I was making.

My father's blessing was especially important to me because I was concerned that I'd disappointed him. He'd put me through college, and then, five years into my career, I'd quit a good job with no plan for what I'd do next. When my father told me he was proud of the choices I'd made, I took it to mean that he supported me in my decision to stop and re-evaluate my career direction. I felt the pressure lift, and began to trust myself to make the right next steps.

My father's expression of pride was straight-forward, but blessings can be subtle too, delivered, like affection, in ways unique to the father and son involved.

One son told me he felt blessed when he was asked for business advice by his father. Another appreciated it when his father showed pride in the son's selection of a wife, when the father enjoyed playing with the son's children. Sons often felt blessed when the father asked for help from the son when he's sick or having a problem of some kind.

One man I interviewed, who'd been beaten by his doctor-father in childhood for failing in school, steered clear of his dad for nearly twenty years after leaving home. Then, when the son was in his late thirties, he invited his father to visit him at the son's home 2,000 miles away. The younger man had become a carpenter, and during his father's visit, led his dad on a tour of one of the million-dollar homes for which he had crafted oak staircases and cabinets.

The son recalled the awestruck look on his father's face, and a blunt apology from his dad: "I've underestimated you." In the years following, the son accepted from his father fine tools as gifts, and offered the older man advice on how to build things out of wood.

And that was enough for the son. It seems, in fact, that most sons will forgive almost anything if they can hear - in whatever way, and at whatever age - the genuine affirmation of their fathers.

In the course of my many interviews, there was one more thing that sons said they needed from their dads: a proper farewell. This need is illustrated by the story of a man named Clyde.

Clyde was 34 years old when his father informed him just before dinner together one night that he was dying of cancer. The news "knocked me back like a boxer," Clyde recalled. It had been just five years since the two men had begun a reconciliation following a long period of anger and estrangement. In the weeks after his father's diagnosis, Clyde visited the older man regularly, first at his father's home, later in the hospital. And then the father, a physician, took a sharp turn for the worse.

In the father's hospital room one evening, a memorable incident occurred. Clyde told me that retelling it was "like walking on sacred ground."

In the hospital room, Clyde had been sitting on a couch a few feet from the side of his father's bed. Clyde had been there for most of an hour, as his father alternated between turbulent coughing fits and labored breathing. The older man still maintained his barrel chest, and full gray-black beard. The skin on his face, however, as Clyde could see from the couch, had become pasty and drawn.

During a break from his coughing, the father reached out a hand toward Clyde. Clyde rose from the couch and clasped the hand. He stood beside the bed. For a long moment, the father gazed at his son's face. Clyde noticed that father's eyes, normally brown, had gone gray.

Then, in a gravelly voice, the father forced from his ravaged throat the few words he felt he had to say. Clyde recalled that they went like this: "You've got a beautiful wife, and a gorgeous child. You've got a good life. You're going to be fine." The father then beheld his son's face again, brought it to his own, and pressed his lips against Clyde's cheek. Then he said: "Good-bye. Now get out of here! Go, go, go!" He then released his son toward the door.

Clyde left the room without looking back. He wept as he drove home. Several hours later, his step-mother called. Clyde's father was dead.

In retrospect, Clyde marveled at "how much selfless effort it must have taken" for his dad, "being pulled in the other direction," to offer such a good-bye. Had the encounter not occurred, Clyde told me, he would "probably have doubted a lot of things. I would have wondered if he was still angry. But I never worried about it.... (The good-bye) reduced my mourning to the sadness of losing him."

Indeed, we may think that it's hardest to lose family members we are close to. But my research indicated that the sons who struggled the most with the loss of a father, and for the longest time, were those who were at odds with, or estranged from, their dads. Instead of dealing with their sadness after the loss, these sons were weighted down by regrets, resentments, and guilt.

Which is why it matters that we fathers, if we have a chance, offer this last gift to our children - the gift of closure, completion, forgiveness, good-bye.

Indeed, if we are able to be affectionate with our young sons in whatever way is most comfortable to us; if we can bless our children as they grow into adulthood; and if we can say good-bye when the time comes, we will, in my mind, have been the best fathers we can possibly be.

Siblings and Rivalry: Do You Like Your Brother?


Ever since Sigmund Freud had his say, the words "sibling" and "rivalry" have been as inseparable as the Smothers Brothers. Freud believed that siblings – and brothers, Especially – had an almost irresistible urge to compete with each other, defeat each other, and strut around like bantam roosters while they were at it.

Freud was not wrong. But his emphasis on rivalry became a doctrine. And it left overshadowed and understudied the less dramatic, but equally significant, peacemaking that occurs between many brothers as they mature out of their childhood needs.

In her personal and perceptive book, Original Kin, Philadelphia journalist Marian Sandmaier takes us on a journey into the adult sibling bond, uncovering the roots of its discontents and its potential for change. In the end, she shows us that adults who create close relationships with their siblings tend to feel more secure, supported and fulfilled.

"There's an old cliche: 'You had to be there.' Well, no one will ever be there in the same way as a sibling," Sandmaier says. "The adult sibling relationship is unique because it offers a rare depth of mutual sympathy."

This has certainly been true between me and my brother Leigh. Three years younger than me, Leigh was my competitor from the start. We fought over toys and friends and the lines that divided the space in our common bedroom. We competed in sports, chess and academics.

This rivalry, with its emotional and physical tormenting, continued into our late adolescence. Then, a family crisis struck. Our older brother became ill.

Almost immediately, my relationship with Leigh began to change. Animosity gave way to an uneasy alliance, then to a growing appreciation and, finally, to a genuine friendship. We discovered that once we put our enmity aside, we could talk about family concerns, and our own lives, with an understanding we could find nowhere else.

Now in our 40s, Leigh and I still have moments of competition. But it no longer dominates the relationship. Trust and affection have emerged as equal partners. My wife and I named our first child after Leigh; I was the best man at his wedding.

Sandmaier, who interviewed 80 siblings for her book, says a family crisis -- the death of a parent, for example -- often triggers this transition from fighting to friendship. But some brothers, she adds, end their rivalry naturally in their 30s or 40s, as they discover that perpetual competition (in business as well as relationships) can be wearing and unrewarding.

Sometimes, Sandmaier says, one brother will refuse to make peace. The past may be too painful for him, or the present too hectic. Often, however, a simple phone conversation or dinner together can help brothers begin to shed the armor that once seemed necessary for survival, but now keeps them apart.

Sandmaier offers no further prescription for breaking the sibling barrier; each relationship has a different set of dynamics. But she says that in her interviews with adult brothers, she witnessed a joy and ease in those who had put their differences aside.

"There was a great deal of hilarity and joking around," she recalls. "There seemed to be a lot of pleasure in their being together, and a deep sense of satisfaction. Each seemed to be saying to the other: 'I know who you are, and I like you that way.'"

What is/was your relationship with your siblings? Write to me at E-Mail.

Dumping the Soul Mate


Valentine’s Day is here and with it, the annual fluttering about the importance of finding your soul mate. A recent university-sponsored survey of 20-somethings discovered that 90 percent believe that when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.

I used to agree with this statement. Now I think it’s dangerous.

It’s not that I discount those first-blush, super-energized shivers of heat and hope. And it’s great when a new love seems to understand everything we say, and even some of what we don’t.

But neither chemical attraction nor spiritual connection constitutes a soul mate.

I learned this recently while interviewing face-to-face – for a book on married men – 60 American husbands about their relationships. A dozen of these men had been married for 50 years or longer; one had been with his wife for an unfathomable 72 years.

And what did these experienced husbands have to say about younger men and women who are searching for a soul mate? Two words: Stop it.

Indeed, the collective wisdom of the men I surveyed could be put quite simply: You don’t find a soul mate. You create one.

Chemical attraction is one ingredient in this creation, no doubt. And yes, you’ve got to be able to talk to, dream with, and share values with the other person. But the most important ingredient in developing a soul mate, husbands told me, is time.

It may take 30 or 40 years, or more. Soul-mate status comes not just from sharing euphoric moments, but from enduring tragedy and disillusionment as well. Together, soul-mates suffer money problems, and illnesses, and seasons without sex. Sometimes they even fall out of love for a time.

One of the wisest men I interviewed for my book was a man named David Popenoe of New Jersey. When we spoke, he was 71 years old, and had been married for 44 years. In his day job, he was co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

In my conversation with Popenoe, when I first brought up the concept of soul mates, he harrumphed. He said people seeking soul-mates usually are setting themselves up for a fall. That’s because few partners can live up to the expectations that the term implies.

And then Popenoe offered what may be the best advice I heard for those who are determined to have a soul-mate relationship: Spend less time trying to find the right mate, and more time trying to be the right mate.

The Centerfold Syndrome


At some point in the childhood of almost every American male, a boy encounters the centerfold. My introduction occurred sometime in junior high, when a savvy older friend handed me a wad of well-worn papers and told me to "take these and have some fun."

I frankly didn't know what they were until hours later, walking home, when I pulled them from my pocket, stopped on the sidewalk, and gaped. It was a confusing moment. I was captivated, but also perplexed. I couldn't stop wondering why in the world this young, pleasant-looking woman was putting her body on display.

Eventually, I stopped caring about that woman, and began to relate primarily to her parts. In so doing, says Texas psychologist Gary R. Brooks, I joined the legions of American males afflicted with "the centerfold syndrome."

Brooks coined that phrase -- and has written a new book by that name -- to describe how heterosexual males become obsessed with women's body parts. He says that while men's interest in sexuality is inborn, the manner in which we act out our sexuality is learned behavior.

"In our society, men generally learn to pair orgasm with visions of naked, air-brushed women," Brooks says. "And we can learn to unpair the two."

Why would a man want to?

Brooks says that men under the influence of the centerfold syndrome become virtual lapdogs in the company of an attractive woman. They're willing to compromise their ntegrity, and their safety, by having sex with women they don't know or like. And they often feel depressed or guilty after these encounters.

Married men with the syndrome, meanwhile, tend to be jealous of men with centerfold-like wives, Brooks says. And they sometimes feel cheated when their own wives gain weight, develop stretch marks, or in some other way diverge from the cultural symbols of beauty.

This was the case about 20 years ago with Brooks himself.

After 15 years of marriage, Brooks, then in his late-30s, began to notice signs of aging in his wife. He found himself obsessing on those signs, becoming angry with his wife, and even pressuring her to change.

Eventually, he realized that this was not his wife's problem, but his own. Like many males growing up in post- war America, Brooks had learned about women's bodies primarily from pornography, James Bond movies and older male acquaintances. His earliest relationships with women, he recalls, often ended when he no longer could accept their physical "flaws".

Now nearing midlife, however, Brooks saw that if he wanted his marriage to last, he'd have to let go of perfection. He stopped masturbating with images of naked strangers, and started fantasizing about sex with someone he cared about. He retrained his mind, and his body, to de-emphasize a woman's individual parts.

Today, his early conditioning still emerges at times.

But he says his definition of beauty has broadened to include "the woman as a whole" -- her tenderness, openness and strength, as well as her body. Meanwhile, he says, sex has never been better.

"When I was worried about perfection, there was a let- down after sex," Brooks says. "There's always a physiological let-down, but this was emotional. I'd feel depressed and alienated. Now, sex is more communicative. There's less haste, less pretending. Afterward, I have a feeling of comfort and connection."

To some men, comfort and connection in sex are not high priorities. To them, "The Centerfold Syndrome" (Jossey-Bass) may read like the rationalizations of a middle- aged man who still, deep-down, wants to sleep with Misses January through December.

In fact, though, by revealing his own sexual insecurities, Brooks gives depth to his intellectually insightful book. And he gives hope to those men who seek genuine sexual fulfillment in a culture that distorts, perverts and attempts to profit from our most intense and sacred desires.

The Value of Dad


If you want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at his relationship with his mother. This apparent nugget of wisdom has been around long enough to gain almost unquestioned acceptance. Yet, despite two years of investigation, I have discovered no evidence to back it up.

On the other hand, in a study I recently completed for VoiceMale (Simon & Schuster), a book on men and marriage, I found striking confirmation for an alternative hypothesis: If you really want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at his relationship with his father.

“My dad had a high kindness quotient,” a 43-year-old public relations manager told me, reflecting the perspective of many other men. When it comes to his marriage, this man said, “I try to be every inch my father’s son.”

It’s understandable that we would link a man’s relationship with his wife to his bond with his mother. After all, mothers and wives are women; thus, a man’s attitudes toward one might seem likely to mirror his attitudes toward the other.

I began my research expecting to confirm this conventional wisdom. Working with the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, I conducted a national survey of 288 American husbands of all ages and backgrounds, as well as face-to-face interviews with 70 additional married men.

I was startled by the findings. The quality of a man’s relationship with his mother, it turned out, did not predict the quality of his marriage. Sons who had good relationships with their mothers were just as likely as those who had poor relationships to argue with their wives, to separate from their wives, and to get divorced.

Then came the second survey surprise: The quality of a man’s marriage, my survey showed, was strongly correlated with the quality of his relationship with his dad. Men who had good bonds with their fathers tended to be the most happily married. They also, not incidentally, tended to divide the housework more fairly, argue more fairly, require less marital counseling, and divorce less often.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Men learn how to be men – and how to relate to women – by watching their fathers. As a 30-year-old schoolteacher told me: “I think about how my dad handled various situations all the time. I think about how he reacted to things, how he spoke, how he managed when he was angry. He is a constant gauge…, something I can measure myself against.”

This is not to say that men who have experienced poor fathering are condemned to be poor husbands. Indeed, some of the most heroic stories I heard while researching my book were about men who overcame the abuse of a violent father – or the emptiness left behind by an absent one – to become loving husbands.

But the research reminds those of us who are fathers, especially fathers of sons: How we treat our wives and children today may echo for generations to come.

©2008, Neil Chethik

*    *    *



Contact Us | Disclaimer | Privacy Statement
Menstuff® Directory
Menstuff® is a registered trademark of Gordon Clay
©1996-2017, Gordon Clay