I used to think a woman’s depression rate was two or three times that of a man’s simply because of the hormonal roller coaster she gets to ride from the time she first gets her period in junior high (or now in first grade — okay, maybe not that early) until she can stop buying sanitary items or, even better, stop making her husband buy them for her.
But now I’m not so sure.
Women are giving more weight these days to domestic tasks like raising kids and keeping the house in order than to their menstrual cycle and the biological trauma of childbirth. Because, in sync with Dr. Boadie Dunlap’s editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry, as we switched roles in our home, the adjustment has been much more difficult than the simple plan we forecast in Quicken: my income increases, his household responsibilities increase. Easy enough?
The recession, of course, has been dubbed the “mancession” by some because about 75 percent of the jobs lost have been in industries that belong to men: construction, manufacturing, and labor. The downsizing has been further compounded by innovations in technology (less manual labor) and outsourcing to foreign countries, where labor doesn’t cost so much.
Since men derive a substantial amount of their self-esteem from their jobs, and societal norms—although gradually shifting—still dictate the man as the breadwinner, men are at increased risk for depression until the economy turns around.
Now this could be a good thing, of course: a chance for everyone to readjust their expectations regarding gender roles. In a recent Time article, Alice Park writes:
On a more psychological level, societal norms about the male image are changing, shifting away from males as the stoic breadwinner to a more realistic model of a member of a family who is just as prone to emotional and psychological stress as any other member. This change is making it easier, albeit only slightly, for men to talk about conditions such as depression, and may lead to a bump in incidence as more men start to feel comfortable talking openly about the mental illness.
I’m not so sure about that. While I once thought we were making great progress there, my close-up view tells another story.
I empathize with men like my husband, Eric, who’ve had to take on much more of the parental and domestic role—picking the kids up from school, doing homework, driving them to sports practice, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and so forth—because, without fail, the first question he is always asked from friends and relatives is: “How many hours are you working these days?”
Now what I know, and what he knows, is that even if he did have more work at the office, something would have to change. I would have to decrease my hours to take on the responsibilities he relinquished to work more, or he would have to tell his boss that he can only work so many hours. Or we would both get really cranky, yell at the kids, and decide something was going to give.
But no one really gets that. Apart from us.
We look at a woman who is working 20 hours in addition to picking up from school, sports, cleaning, and dinner, and we say, “Superwoman! She can handle the world!” If we regard the same exact picture but replacing the woman with a man and we say, “What a bum! Can’t he pick up more hours at a Barnes and Noble or something?”
I really didn’t want to believe the backwardness with which so many of us regard gender roles until I caught myself saying the same things to Eric. It was so easy to pin the “try another option” tail on him, until I realized that if he does get that second job, I would be making dinner, doing laundry, or working a second job as well to pay for the babysitter. Me make dinner? Now that’s downright scary.
As Park explains, men face a very real cultural threat today:
As more men either share or relinquish their role as primary earner in households, they may feel the same threat to their sense of self as women historically have. In addition, as more men take on child-rearing responsibilities, they may feel inadequate and overwhelmed, fertile ground for depression.
That’s all the more reason we need to open our minds a tad on what it means to be a dude and hold their hands through this transition—one that very well may not have an end date. Yes, male depression is up. But much of that, I feel, is our fault and our own stupid stereotypes. Have some compassion for the boys. They need it.
Photo by Susan Trigg.