I am sometimes asked how I got involved in the new psychology of men. The answer is instructive on several levels. In the mid 1970s I was a young assistant professor in counseling psychology at Boston University who was considered an expert on the family. During this time I also struggled on a personal level with the role of the divorced father. I visited my daughter on the weekends, and she lived with me during several summers. It was hard to imagine being an involved father, as I did not have much to draw on in my memories of my own father. His idea of spending time with his sons always involved work, like having my brother and me mow the lawn while he supervised.
The extended visits with my daughter did not go smoothly. I lived with a sense of fraudulence, thinking: "How can you pretend to be an expert on parenting when you are so inept in your own life as father?" The discomfort I felt was intensified as a result of my unresolved feelings about my own father. Not yet having had the experience of exonerating him for the ways that I felt he failed me, I was unremittingly hard on myself for the ways that I felt that I was failing my daughter. And like most men, I kept my sense of inadequacy to myself for fear of violating the male code of self-reliance and invulnerability.
In the late 1970s, the film "Kramer vs. Kramer" resulted in a major epiphany in my life. I saw myself in the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and realized for the first time that I was not alone. My focus started to shift from a sense of personal inadequacy to a realization that my struggles might be inherent in the larger-scale change going on in the lives of men. Fathers were starting to take on roles vastly different from that of their own fathers, and for which they had received little, if any, preparation. I researched the question of what resources existed for fathers who wanted to be fully involved, effective parents of their children. The answer was: Nothing. Echoing Michael Lamb, I concluded that the father was the forgotten parent and that parent education was synonymous with mother education.
This was the proverbial "fork in the road" in my life. I found myself losing my academic interest in parenting and becoming invested in fathering. This led to the founding of the Boston University Fatherhood Project in 1983--a research, service and training program aimed at enhancing fathers' involvement in family life. With the help of bright young doctoral students, I turned to the task of designing psycho-educational parenting programs for men. That, of course, opened up my subsequent career involvement in fathering and, ultimately, in the new psychology of men.
During the 1980s, my clinical work with men and my own personal development as a man became increasingly intertwined. While working on overcoming my own sense of shame for perceived personal failings in a four-year course of psychoanalysis, I became increasingly aware of the role that shame plays in many men's lives, locked into their hearts by the harsh injunctions of the male code. In groups that I led, the men's hidden shame emerged with great force when they did Irvin D. Yalom's "Top Secret" task. They wrote down on cards their top secret, the one thing they have never told anyone and never would tell anyone, and the cards were collected, shuffled and read. Men who for years felt that they were the only ones to have shown a lack of courage, strength or other manly quality found that, in fact, they are not the only ones ever to have done that when they hear that some men have very similar--sometimes identical--secrets. Although many sources of shame are contemporary (such as failing in a job or marriage, or succumbing to substance abuse), it is surprising how many of these shameful secrets go back decades in the man's life: "Chickening out" of a fight in high school, lusting after another male, feeling weaker than one dared show, being afraid, being sad, being needy--in short having human emotions.
Thus for me, as I think is true for many of us, there are deep personal reasons for professional choices. Understanding the personal substrate for our professional work is an essential element of our competence as psychologists, whether we are clinicians or researchers. And if you are a man who was reared in a traditional home, achieving this might be just a bit harder than it is for others.
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter