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On Maturity and Masculinity.

1 May 2012

I was talking with a friend last night about masculinity and – without saying the word – maturity, and how they relate to sobriety. For the duration of this post, I’m going to be writing about my experience, and the experience as I understand it relating to men. I can’t speak for all men, of course, but I can most assuredly not speak for women. So, to my female readers, please don’t construe anything here to suggest that I’m describing how women can/do/should experience anything. I can’t speak to that.  I’m doing the best I can to describe what I see as a common phenomenon among men in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, but primarily only my own experience.

 In some respects, because I didn’t begin daily drinking until I was about 21, perhaps a little older, I was very fortunate. In the program, we tend to say that we stop maturing, emotionally, when we “take our first drink”, meaning, when we begin alcoholic consumption. I’ve seen this over and over and over. Grown men, physically, who are children emotionally. They throw tantrums, and have little or no control over their actions and reactions when it comes to dealing with issues that all adults have to face. So many men, when they come in to the program, have to be taught how to do things like pay bills, show up to work on time, and treat other people with basic respect. And they have to be taught to accept that when they don’t do these things, the consequences are their own faults.

Now, everyone has a different experience, but one of the things that I have seen is very, very common among men in the program, and indeed present in my own psyche, is a condition I have come to call “father hunger”. It is a basic fact of American demography that a huge number of children grew up without fathers. Wikipedia says that only 16% of single-parent households are headed by a father. Now, I’m not denigrating the efforts of single mothers. My own mother raised me and my siblings as a single mother for much of my childhood, and she did a frankly astonishing job of it considering all of the challenges in front of her. And she had absolutely no tangible support in that from my father.

And I missed having a father. Don’t get me wrong, I saw my father reasonably often. He was kind and caring. Emotionally supportive. But he was not a role model. He never held a job long. He didn’t show up for things very much. When I was sixteen and broke my arm, and needed surgery on the fourth of July, my father told me, while I was in the hospital bed, that he was glad to be there, because he really felt like a father that day. It didn’t sit well then, and it doesn’t sit well now. I shouldn’t have had to fracture a limb to help him feel paternal. It shouldn’t have been my job at all. But I don’t blame my father for these things. Not anymore. He walked his own path, beset by his own devils. I can’t grudge him his journey.

My story is not atypical. Nearly every man in the program I know has, or had, a broken relationship with his father. Some missing, some dead, some abusive, so many alcoholic. Some of these relationships, like mine, have been repaired and reconciled. So many have not. There is an unfathomably deep hunger for good fathers in this program. We seek, blindly and often enraged, someone, anyone, to teach us how to be men.

And if we do the work, if we have the willingness, we will find that. My Wednesday night men’s meeting is full of men, many of them in their mid-sixties with a few decades of sobriety behind them, who have much to offer about masculinity. Men who can teach me how to interact with the world. Men who can, as fathers should, lead by example. The process of finding myself a physical  adult – an autonomous unit out in the world – and realizing that emotionally I was still a boy, was excoriating. I was deeply ashamed to not know the things that I thought I should know. The things that seemed natural to other men. Men with fathers.

Now, a lot of the work I did to understand what masculinity is I actually did while still an active drunk. I had a wonderful therapist, a woman, who helped me experience the pain of the things I missed, and taught me how to conduct introspection. But even that professional assistance couldn’t replace what was truly missing. And maybe nothing can. Obviously, I will never know who I might have been had I had a stable home, two united parents, and an effective and robust father in my life.

But I have learned many things in sobriety, from the men who preceded me into this program. I have learned so much about being male, and what’s acceptable and not acceptable. What aspects of masculinity are challenges to control, and which are intrinsic characteristics that I don’t need to apologize for. I have learned how to stand my ground without feeling the need to stake and defend a claim. I have learned how to accept an apology, and forgive, without diminishing or negating any wrong that was done. I have learned how to make amends, how to apologize gracefully and sincerely when it’s called for. I have learned how to be grateful. I have learned how to grieve and to mourn.

I hope it’s obvious that I know and agree that women do all of these things too. I can only speak to my experience. And I experience something which I can only describe as ‘male’ about the way I have learned to do these things. By being taught by other men in the program. By being among men who have figured out how to be men in the world. I still have an enormous deficit within me. A missing piece where an effective father would go. But I have the chance, through my participation in a program of honesty, self-inspection and action, to be the man I wish my father had been.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. furtheron permalink
    1 May 2012 10:17

    Interesting… not sure my experience tallies with “Nearly every man in the program I know has, or had, a broken relationship with his father” – however my Dad did die when I was 22, reasonably youngish, but looking back I was well on the way to an active alcoholic by then, and plenty of people have parents die unexpectedly and they don’t go on to be alcoholics. But I do see a lot of broken relationships around AA true enough. In my case I will admit my Dad was a large part of my original Step 4/5 – why? I resented that he had died when he had, never saw me get married, my first house, my career progress, my children born etc. In short I was always looking for praise from a person who was sadly no longer around to give it – also I needed his forgiveness. We were working class, Dad worked as a Shipwright in the Dockyard, I moved into a modern profession surrounded by middle class people etc. My son insists we are middle class, I refuse to be called that, I’m working class no matter what I do or earn etc. Maybe if Dad had said “It is ok son, you have done well move on” I’d be more accepting of that tension in my psyche. Maybe I’ve just talked myself into agreeing with you due to him being missing from a large chunk of my life

    Also for me I was able to balance cheque books and turn up for work on time etc. but emotionally I was a child – I had no idea about the nuance of emotions. My wife said something one day in early sobriety to me, it made me happy, proud and sad all at once… I had to phone my sponsor to ask if that was normal – honestly I had no idea about that stuff at all.

    • 1 May 2012 18:52

      Right, that’s what I mean. So many of us don’t know how to be men around our emotions. Thanks, Furtheron.

  2. Kathy permalink
    1 May 2012 17:05

    You are a class act dr24!! I have been following your blog for a while…. you are an inspiration to me. I am female educator working with young children. That whole “little boy and his father” thing is evident to me every day. Thanks for helping me understand it from the male perspective.

  3. 1 May 2012 21:45

    I grew up with a loving mother and a father who couldn’t express his emotions to me. But I knew that I was loved. And I was taught about responsibility to the extreme–I felt responsible for everything. That is what alcoholism did to me. I was already grown up when I was a kid. And it is only in the last few years that I have truly learned how to be a kid again. Another side to the story of the effects of alcoholism.

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