My upcoming book MEN AGING WELL springs from two premises: first, that men and women experience aging differently, and second, that to understand men’s aging we need to ask the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” Men aging today—those fifty and over—were raised at a time when boys were socialized according to traditional gender roles. There were certain catch phrases—taunts even—that boys heard constantly. I certainly did.
“Boys don’t cry.”
“Don’t be a sissy.”
One of the salient dramas in today’s society is a questioning and re-envisioning of gender roles, at the same time that in some segments of our culture the traditional roles are being vehemently—sometimes violently—upheld.
In my book I want to be conscious both of current thinking about gender fluidity, as well as the traditional gender definitions that today’s aging men grew up in. I am beginning the process of one-on-one interviews as part of my book research, and one of the questions I am asking is “What does it mean to you to be a man?”
I need to ask this because one of the reasons that women and men experience aging differently is that aging is marked by change and loss, and change and loss have a different meaning for a man than a woman. If, instead of “change and loss” we were to say “unpredictability and weakness” then that different is even clearer. Women, from puberty onward, experience change in their bodies on a regular basis, have no choice but to surrender to major shifts in the experience of their bodies—whether it be menstruation, childbirth, or menopause. Men, by contrast, have the luxury of imagining that their bodies are more or less the same, year after year, decade after decade. Unless they are struck with a sudden major illness, when it comes to aging, on the surface men don’t seem to need to surrender to anything. In fact, in the traditional understanding a maleness, surrender is synonymous with weakness.
If you are a man reading this blog post, you could take a moment now to think of three or four phrases from your youth that epitomized the messages your received about being male or being a man. If you are a gay man, some of these phrases might be ones that you found bullying or offensive. If you are a woman, you might want to think about the men your have known, or the man who is your current partner, and reflect on what you know of their attitudes about unpredictability and weakness.
“That’s right,” Edward said to me when I asked him what he felt was essential to being a man. “Being a man means having power.”
“What kind of power?” I said.
“All kinds,” Edward replied. “Money, status, authority, respect, sex—you name it.” He paused. “Look, I turned sixty last year. I’m overweight, I’m losing my hair. But I have money and I’m a successful lawyer. After my divorce I thought, how’s it going to be with women? But I shouldn’t have worried. They’re beating down my door, women twenty or thirty years younger. Why? Because I’ve got the power.”
“And you can keep up with these younger women?” I ventured.
Edward nodded. “Sure. Time of my life.”
You can see how dependent Edward was on all his signifiers of power, and how distressed he would be if any of them were to falter. His unrepentant definition of himself as a “man” was still keeping him afloat, but as each passing year of aging took its toll, his definition would be harder and harder to sustain. His self-image was a speeding car headed for a brick wall.
I am writing my book MEN AGING WELL to slow that car down, and ideally change the nature of the car entirely into something more realistic, more balanced, and more compassionate.