Too Tough to Cry

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Cooper, Bogart, Wayne—the strong, silent type used to be the American ideal. A man knew what a man had to do—and it wasn't what his wife had to do: namely, take care of the kids. But America isn't what it once was, and with the proliferation of new kinds of families—stepfamilies, two-career families, single-parent families—the old archetypes are taking a beating, and men have to be more than they were. "We are living in an era in which we feel strongly that men can be involved, nurturing parents," says Ronald Levant, 48, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and nearby Cambridge (Mass.) Hospital.

Levant's professional interest in parenting grew out of his frustrations as a noncustodial parent. While studying for his doctorate at Harvard in the early '70s, he struggled to maintain a long-distance relationship with his daughter, Karen, now 27, who lived with his ex-wife in New York. Conversations with other fathers—and even Dustin Hoffman's antic relationship with his son in 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer—persuaded Levant he wasn't alone. In 1983 he started a workshop at Boston University, called the Fatherhood Project, exclusively for men. His book Between Father and Child, coauthored by John Kelly and recently published by Penguin, is drawn from his five years as director of the workshop. In his Brookline, Mass., office, he discussed the difficulties of modern malehood with correspondent Gayle Verner.

You say that men and women have traditionally taken different approaches to parenting because they handle emotions differently. How?

In general women have a much easier time verbalizing their feelings than men. When men are disappointed, hurt or afraid, they may be unable to put the feeling in words. Instead they are likely to experience a tightness in the throat, a pain in the stomach, an elevated heart rate or even just a sense of antsiness.

What causes this difference?

In early childhood, girls are encouraged to become aware of their feelings. Most boys are not. Instead they learn a lot about problem-solving, risk-taking, teamwork, staying calm in the face of fire. With regard to their own feelings, they are told "big boys don't cry," or in sports that they should learn to "play with pain." They are trained to shut off awareness of their own emotions.

Why do parents—or society—do this to boys?

Boys are expected to detach from their mothers at an early age in order to develop their masculine identities. All too often, however, fathers are psychologically, if not physically, absent from relationships with their sons. Without being conscious of what is going on, these boys are left with a sense that autonomy is safer than intimacy. And when they grow up to become fathers and husbands, admitting feelings of attachment can be very threatening to them. So the cycle perpetuates itself.

But now men and women often have to swap parental roles.

Right, but many men don't have a clue as to how to do it. They are inept at dealing with upsetting paternal or spousal emotions because they don't feel anything except a physical sensation. I call it the buzz.

How do men react to this buzz?

There are several different responses. One personality type—the Distracted Dad—simply lets his mind wander off. I know one father who was uncomfortable with the fact that his daughter had begun to have romantic feelings toward boys and fell into a daydream about baseball during a conversation with her one day, only to be shaken from his reverie when she slammed the door and left the room in tears. A second type disregards the buzz until his tolerance has been stretched to the limit and he suddenly snaps. I call him the Rubber Band Man.

What other personality types have you encountered?

The Mixed Messenger operates on two tracks: verbal and nonverbal. Without his awareness, the buzz oozes out in his body language. For example, if he's not happy about his child going to some event he might cop out and say, "If your mom says it's okay, then it's okay." At the same time, he may send a completely different message by clearing his throat harshly or sitting in a rigid way with an angry look on his face. Children are adept at reading body language and can become very alienated when they discover Dad doesn't say what he means. Finally, the Tin Man, as I call him, copes by locking up feelings so tightly that he rarely feels anything. He's like one of those wind-up dolls, rigid and mechanical.

Sounds grim.

And unhealthy. The difficulties men have expressing emotions in a direct way have a lot to do with their having higher rates of stress disorders than women. In order to cope with stress, you need to be able to talk about your emotions.

How do men like these ever fall in love and get married?

Frequently they fall in need, or in lust, or in dependence, or in convenience. Women often end up taking care of men's emotions in marriage.

So how does a man learn to start feeling for himself?

First, men need to develop a vocabulary for emotions—particularly words that connote vulnerability, such as "hurt," "sadness," "disappointment," "rejection," "abandonment," "fear." Also such tender words as "warmth," "affection," "closeness." Take these words and try to use them to identify the feelings of others. Then examine how they might apply to you. It's like learning to ride a bike. At first it's awkward. Then you get used to it.

What do you advise for men who remain emotionally closed?

One thing that can be quite helpful is to do some emotional record-keeping. Use a notebook to keep track of the feelings and buzzes that occur during interactions and the words or events that seem to produce them. Through keeping such a written record, a father might discover, for example, that his reaction proceeds through distinct stages, each with its own markers. The first may be an inability to focus, signalling a growing annoyance. If he takes action at this stage, he could prevent the buzz from progressing to antsiness, teeth-grinding and, finally, eruption.

Is it inherently masculine to he emotionally blunted?

No. Look at Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. He was not afraid to express tears and feelings of concern and care for individual members of his army. There's nothing unmanly about being sad or hurt or tender or warm. These are the feelings that give life depth and richness.

From Our Partners