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'Real men don’t cry' and other myths about masculinity, male caregivers

An increasing number of men, especially in this COVID-19 world, are taking up the role that is historically populated by women: family caregivers.  Sadly, male caregivers often need to wrestle with stereotypes and myths about masculinity while dealing with the all-consuming work of caregiving.  Here are some myths about masculinity and how male caregivers can overcome them.  

Courtesy of Peter Rosenberger
Courtesy of Peter Rosenberger

“Real men don’t cry.” This myth continues to create great confusion for many men. Serving as a family caregiver for any length of time will result in weeping — sometimes uncontrollably. Watching someone suffering brings agony and heartbreak.  Sobbing remains one of the healthiest things a man can do when processing grief. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength that validates the sorrow, loss, and anguish.

Since the “real men don’t cry” myth remains so extensive, men feel conflicted on where to safely express emotion. Any soldier will affirm that the battlefield is not the place for grief. When risk remains great, sobbing is best delayed until danger has passed. Therefore, men must remain vigilant caregivers while cultivating relationships with other men who can affirm their grief and allow them to process it — while protecting them and “watching their 6.” Those relationships must never lose sight of the maleness, as well as the need to return to the fight with strength and focus. Releasing anguish results in clarity of thought and purpose — and equips one to better resume the work without the burden of unshed tears.

“Real Men Conquer.”  No, they don’t — they lead. This myth takes men down a destructive path of abuse. Rather than brute force, confidence wrapped in love and compassion serves as a hallmark of leadership. “This way to safety” remains the rallying cry of leaders. In the army, the leader can be the lowly private who remembers where the jeep is parked. When the soldier sees the plight of his unit, leadership takes over and can even supersede rank.

When serving as a caregiver, confidence steps in and points to safety. While second-guessing remains part of the human condition, confidence overrides timidity and instills focus. Real leadership by confident men inspires confidence in others. That type of leadership is always combined with humility and a sense of duty. Abusive shouting, demanding outbursts, and other offensive actions reflect weakness. Improperly applying physical, verbal, and even fiscal strength pale next to wielding strength of character rooted in conviction and love. Living in resentment and rage is unhealthy and destructive. A confident leader points to the shelter of acceptance and adapting — and infuses the confidence in others to follow.

Caregivers cannot conquer Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, a loved one’s addiction, or any other malady affecting the human condition. Accepting that some things remain “unfixable” serves as the first step towards stewardship. While “stewardship” seems an archaic word in a culture valuing possession and conquering, Scripture affirms the masculine “stewardship DNA” in Genesis 2:15. Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. (NASB)

“Real Men Aren’t Afraid” In a world filled with frightening things, this myth cripples men. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of devotion. When caregiving, fear constantly lurks at the corners of our minds. We face things that are fear worthy. Yet, Scripture states, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear…” 1 John 4:18 KJV

While incapable of perfect love on our own, steering masculinity towards love and devotion serves as the antidote to fear. Winning appeals with insurance companies and medical providers is best rooted in devotion rather than heavy-handedness. Devotion fights relentlessly in the presence of fear. Devotion even allows one to face the fear of death.

The role of caregiver is too difficult and critical to assume with poor belief systems, and masculinity myths hamstringing men in this role must be addressed and erased. Besides, who knows? These same principles might also help us select better men to care for our country.

Peter Rosenberger is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, Hope for the Caregiver. In his 35th year of caring for his wife, Gracie, through a medical nightmare, Peter speaks to the challenges faced by family caregivers.

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