November is now known as Movember. Men let their facial hair grow to raise awareness of men's health issues and raise money for charity, usually in moustache form. As we're past the half way point, it's worth checking in with the men in our lives, and work out ways to continue having open and honest conversations about health.
I am blessed to be married to a man who will talk to me about everything. When we were first dating, long distance was tough on both of us, and the tears weren't just on my side. However, I know a good number of men who keep their emotions more closely guarded. So, here's a few ways we can better talk with the men around us.
More than ever, we are aware of the gender stereotyping that we see around us. Boys are blue, girls are pink. Boys are action heroes, girls are princesses. Men are strong, stoic, bread winners and do not open up easily about mental health issues. Women are sociable, family focused, chatty and open up about their difficulties and challenges. Society is dealing with huge divides in terms of pay gaps, numbers of males vs females in various job sectors, power relationships and the #metoo campaign. It can be hard to feel comfortable showing parts of us that go against the norms in case people judge us or act differently around us. We can also get into the trap of comparing ourselves against those popular in the mainstream media, which can form unhelpful thinking patterns.
We need to remind our friends and family that it's OK to share about what they are going through and how they feel about it. Yet it's also about meeting people where they are at. Even as Christians, it can be hard to break the influence of society's messages about our identity. In our small groups is a great way to share and encourage open conversations. Smaller communities are a place where trust can be built, lives shared and issues understood and talked about. In the main church setting, it's important to keep things balanced in terms of events for men and women, such as: men and women's prayer, having men and women share their testimonies, utilising male and female leaders for pastoral support.
We normally open up more when we identify with the other person somehow, so we need to ensure that there are people men can identify with - other men.
Change the language
Words have a huge power over our lives. They can affect how we think, how we feel and even impact our future. We see this through advertising, how we label and define things, pass/fail, win/lose, get over it, man up.
Man Up. What does it even mean to man up?
In our society, I think it's a combination of things. Man Up = Take a moment, suppress all emotions, do 5 push ups quickly and smother yourself in old spice. Sometimes, we may talk to someone and say that we're struggling with stuff or feeling a bit low and their response is: 'Oh, just man up and get on with it. You'll be fine!' On one (small) hand, it might be the snap needed to shake off worries or make a change. On the other hand, it can be damaging. 'Man up', and related phrases, shut down the possibility of opening up emotionally. It says that men can't show weakness, that what they may be dealing with isn't important, that they can't fully express who they are and how they are feeling. It maintains the stereotypes explored above which force people into boxes that they may not fit into.
My first principle in having a conversation is to listen. If we can hear and understand what people are saying to us, then it gives us time to assess what they need to hear back. Do they need some encouragement, some prayer? Do they need signposting to other support or just recognition of what they are dealing with and how it is making them feeling? Listening stops us from trying to 'fix' what may not be broken.
Some of the stereotypes around gender share truths with how men and women think. We vary in how we take in and process information, and therefore make decisions. It is believed that men will go for the primary message and are more task orientated, whereas women will use more types of information to make a decision. This may help explain why women are more comfortable talking through different options and men want to get on with the final thing.
If this is the case, it is important that we create space for men to process how they are feeling, without overloading them with lots of information. It may be that conversations happen during an activity, such as going for a run or playing sport. Men in Sheds has increased in popularity over the last few years, with spaces being created for men to learn new skills, meet people and converse. Even if this cannot be offered as part of church events, it is important to know what is available in your area to provide as an alternate. In small groups, this may include taking a week each month to socialise together, or having some time for food together or playing games. Making time to deepen relationships so that people feel OK to share.
At home, I have found that we chat about the day more making dinner than we do just after he has come through the door. I am still learning, but getting better at waiting and not asking too much straight away.
With all these things, it's about not rushing in and seeing what works. We are all uniquely and wonderfully made, and so what works for my husband may not work for you. Find people you trust to help you be real and true to yourself.