May 2017 - Midlife and Thriving
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May 2017

How Wounds From a Fatherless Childhood Became My Gifts of Manhood

By | Masculinity | No Comments

fatherless boy midlifeAs a man there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed to share my story because of the lifetime of shame behind it. But we can only heal our wounds when we stop being defined by them.

It’s ultimately a story of defining masculinity on my own terms, based on my own unique experiences, rather than conforming to our culture’s rigid definition of what it means to be a man. And if sharing my experience allows other men to come out from their childhood shadows and stand confidently in their place within the broad spectrum of what’s truly masculine, what is there to lose?

So here goes … growing up, I was the quintessential momma’s boy.

I was a quite and gentle kid, friendly and warm with adults but painfully shy and withdrawn from my peers. I was taunted by other boys as being a girl (I had long hair like my father who was a Vietnam vet), ridiculed as being a sissy (I preferred to hang out with girls because the topics of conversation went deeper than sports and cars), and my masculinity was sometimes questioned because I would refuse to fight (the stories of a long-haired pacifist from Israel taught me to turn the other cheek).

While my tender heart was originally the product of nature, being nurtured for most of my childhood without a father around clearly accentuated my gentle temperament. At the age of four I was abruptly immersed in the realm of the feminine as the result of my parent’s divorce. I became the center of my mother’s orbit, receiving essentially unlimited attention, adoration, and priority … and I ate it up. My experience of the feminine universe was that it was loving, filled with affirmative messages, and a strong sense of safety.

I was raised by my mother to be aware of and accepting of my emotions. I was told emotions were natural and okay, within reason. I was given access to the emotional language of women but no tools to navigate with them in the world as a man. My fluency with the feminine intelligence didn’t prepare me for the journey of masculinity within the rigid confines of our culture. It was like learning to speak Spanish in preparation for a trip to China. I couldn’t speak the native language of men, I couldn’t read the signs, and I often felt like a tourist traveling through unknown and potentially hostile lands.

This was tested a couple of years later with the arrival of a stepfather. While he cared for me in his own way, his love was not always gentle. He attempted to make a man out of me and did his best by passing on what he had learned about being a man. He meted out tough love because the world was harsh and real men had to be hard and intolerant of wusses or pussies in order to survive. Rather than growing tough from his love, I grew distant and retreated further from a connection to our culture’s definition of masculinity.

My experiences in early childhood taught me to be emotionally withdrawn from men. From my perspective they were either emotionally absent like my father or were aggressive and domineering, like my stepfather. They were generally not to be trusted. As a result I grew up avoiding male relationships and saw my fellow men through my childhood’s lense as either self-serving egoists focused on sports or cars or other shallow pursuits and pastimes. Or they were bullies only out to put their interests ahead of others by vying for alpha dominance within careers, athletics, or sexual pursuits.

As a boy I sought the refuge of my mother’s love, then in my teen’s and 20s I became a serial monogamist always seeking the sanctuary of a woman’s affection. What I succeeded to do as a man was trade up my status as momma’s boy to that of a pussy-whipped male (to use the shaming vernacular). The pleaser force was strong in me. I continued to sell out my masculine nature, whether to have a triste of the heart or access to a regular source of carnal connection, for fear of losing a reliable bond to Eros.

The reality was that fulfilling my needs for feminine attention and unconditional love came at a steep price, with many conditions and expectations. These were sometimes as emotionally harmful as the abandonment or harshness of the masculine from which I spent much of my life running. I didn’t come to understand the paradox I was in until the crucible of my own marriage forced me to find my voice and create healthy boundaries.

In my late 30’s I had finally begun the process of differentiation. Until then I had been afraid to release the wild man and connect with the masculine out of fear that I’d become one of “those” men from my childhood. Not having gone through any ritual to extract me from the women’s hut, I was bound to the life of being only half a man, never fully stepping into the power of a mature masculine. And I didn’t really see the need to find the balance until the birth of my first son awoke some latent masculine responsibilities. It was then I saw clearly the legacy I was potentially passing on to him if I did not do the work of becoming a whole man, on my terms.

Now in my 40s I claim my masculinity holding both the fierceness of the wild man and the gentleness of the lover’s heart. I’m finding balance in my natural masculinity that allows me to understand how the men I was shunning were themselves wounded and stuck in the “act like a man box,” something that is part of our cultural fabric and which is unwittingly maintained by its men as well as its women.

And now we’ve arrived at the gifts of the fatherless boy:

Gift #1. Creating my own version of masculinity that is grounded in emotional intelligence, the fierceness of the heart-based warrior, and an outsider’s perspective that can call bullsh*t on both the masculine and feminine stereotypes that keep both men and women small and unable to live up to their full potential.

Gift #2: Being the father that I never had, on my own terms. Sometimes it’s a major struggle mapping the wilderness that is fatherhood in the 21st century. What are masculinity, sexuality, and relationship and how do we give our kids the tools (rather than rules that will quickly become outdated) by which to navigate the dynamics of our times? (Hint: stay curious and compassionate.)

Gift #3: I’m more at peace with the internal conflict of trusting men in order to be in brotherhood with them, without having to subvert my own sense of integrity or values. I can hold to my own vision and definition of masculinity and create meaningful relationships with women and with men, along with the healthy boundaries necessary to maintain them.

Gift #4: A deep appreciation for the male mentors in my life who successfully escaped and lived outside of the man box and reflected the innumerable possibilities for other men. Because of them I am now a resource for men who want to connect with their own sense of the power and freedom of a mature masculine outside the confines of our culture’s narrow definition of what it means to be a man.

There’s work to be done here, and it’s not about being more feminine or masculine. Rather, we need only awaken to, accept, and cultivate the unique masculine-feminine balance that already exists within us. Not necessarily easy work, but the results will enrich a lifetime and make a priceless gift for generations to come.

Men: Want More of a Life? You Can Put Years on the Clock by Following These Heart-healthy Tips

By | Mortality | No Comments

Midlife heart

 

In this second installment on midlife health, I explore recent research findings on cardiovascular disease and the long-term benefits of keeping that ticker strong in midlife. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer of men (and women) in America, accounting for over 600,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. But we’ve known for a long time that we can significantly reduce the likelihood of heart disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Folks in midlife can offer up plenty of reasons to avoid keeping fit and eating healthy: career pressures, family demands, or those oh-so-delicious caloric temptations (yes please, I’ll have bacon on that). But a new study by researchers at Northwestern University and Yale finds that you’re likely to be around significantly longer and suffer from fewer chronic ailments if you practice some simple heart-healthy habits early in midlife.

The report, published in the journal Circulation, was based on participants of the Chicago Heart Association Detection Project in Industry. The long-term study (aside from being a mouthful of a name) consists of over 25,000 employed men and women who have been tracked for nearly 40 years. The study considered multiple factors for heart disease including blood pressure and cholesterol levels, diabetes mellitus, body mass index, and smoking. Participants were placed into one of four groups: those with favorable cardio health, those with potential for elevated risk factors, those with one high-risk factor, and those with two or more high-risk factors.

The current study’s findings should come as no real surprise. Researchers found that folks who had favorable heart health in midlife lived an average of four years longer than their fellows with at least two high-risk factors. Another startling finding is that participants with favorable cardiovascular factors lived nearly five years longer without other major diseases such as chronic lung disease, kidney disease, dementia, or cancer. Moreover, if folks in the heart-healthy group suffered from a stroke or coronary disease it was on average seven years later than those in the higher risk groups.

One of the study’s authors, Norrina Allen, PhD, said in a press release, “We need to think about cardiovascular health at all stages of life. The small proportion of participants with favorable levels in their 40s is a call for all of us to maintain or adopt healthy lifestyles earlier in life. But risk factors and their effects accumulate over time, so even if you have risks it’s never too late to reduce their impact on your later health by exercising, eating right, and treating your high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.”

Sounds like a good investment to me!

And in fact, the study also found that the heart-healthy group’s Medicare costs were approximately $18,000 less. So not only were they able to benefit from greater health during later years, but they were able to reduce medical costs at a time in life when many people are on fixed incomes and trying to stretch their budgets to enjoy life.

What exactly can we do to increase our chances of being in the healthy-heart group in midlife? Research out of the Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins has shown that we can protect against chronic heart disease by adopting four lifestyle behaviors: avoid tobacco, get consistent physical activity, maintain a healthy diet, and keep our weight in check.

Benefits of participating in these activities were cumulative. Participating in a single behavior reduced risk of cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, participation in two by 39 percent, in three by over 50 percent, and all four by a whopping 81 percent. Engaging in these four behaviors also reduced by over 80 percent the likelihood of mortality from other diseases over an eight-year period.

But wait, if that wasn’t enough, there’s more! Other researchers have found that when getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours a night) was added to the magic of the four activities, even greater benefits were reaped. Findings from another study published by Hoevenaar-Blom et al. in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggest that adding the sleep component reduced the likelihood of a fatal cardiovascular disease event by 12 percent.

 So getting a good night’s sleep is like the deliciousness of adding bacon to your burger, except by reducing the likelihood of dying earlier. Ok, maybe that metaphor doesn’t work.

So what can you do to increase the likelihood of having a healthy heart? Research is pretty clear that the following three things set you on the right path.

Quit smoking: Seems like a no-brainer, but just had to say it. I know it’s not easy; I smoked for 10 years and finally quit, cold turkey when I turned 30. Quitting the siggy butts was the best gift I have ever given myself. Research suggests that of the four lifestyle behaviors, not smoking is the biggest way to reduce risks of heart disease and mortality.

Moving your body: Getting about two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week is recommended by the Heart Association. It also does great things for your brain, such as reducing the likelihood of a stroke and increasing your brain size (I discussed this in an earlier post). Break a sweat, increase heart rate, and have fun.

Heart-healthy diet: Indulge in a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry and fish (sorry bacon), and non-tropical vegetable oils. Definitely watch intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you still do reach for the red meat, go lean.

So keep your ticker in good shape! Research has proven that it’s one gift that keeps on giving. And like the tin woodsman in the Wizard of Oz opined, “I shall take the heart, for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”

Here’s to your long and happy life!