Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC – Nature vs. Nurture

Prepare yourself, for I am about to talk about something heavy. If you’re in the market today for a light and funny post, this isn’t it.

Gender role reversal. Yep. That’s it. The big daddy. The big mommy.

This topic has been floating around in my head for a while now. And I’m putting it out there in part because I want to hear what you have to say about. You. Yes, you. The one reading this.

"Coming" by Liu Ye
“Coming” by Liu Ye

So here’s something I am seeing in my practice and my personal life. In a male/female relationship dynamic, men are seemingly becoming more nurturing. Not more nurturing then their male predecessors, that is a given, but more nurturing than their female partners. They are, in general, doing more caretaking, displaying more affection towards their children and their female partners than the female partners are to them and to a lesser extent but still notably, to the kids. The most startling thing for me as a mother myself to have seen quite a bit of, are the mothers who, like their male counterparts in the past, have simply picked up, left their family, and started over. Maintaining only minimal responsibilities with the kids. I’m seeing more men seeking relationships and fighting to maintain marriages, even unhappy ones. And it doesn’t seem to just be about pride, something that is lost in the wake of what could be perceived as the failure of divorce.

So what I am trying to figure out is not whether this is actually happening (because I can assure you, it is) but why.

Without a doubt the women’s movement as voiced through the proclamations of many of our mothers, told us that we could be whomever we wanted to be, do whatever we wanted to do. That marriage and children were only one of many choices available to us. That we were not dependent on men physically, financially, or emotionally. This prompted more women in the workforce and more women seeking higher education and yes, gaining greater financial independence. And this is when women started realizing that though they were capable of excelling in areas of life other than parenting, they were still expected to carry to lion’s share of the work in that department, too. So they started to get angry. Unhappy. Resentful. To feel unappreciated and undervalued. To see their male partners, even their children potentially, as something that were taking from rather than adding to.

Now I want to clarify here that this is something that men were historically feeling, too. And they were disconnecting from their home life emotionally and physically and they were having affairs because of it as well. So perhaps all that’s happening now is not so much reversal but that things are evening out. The genders are reaching a sort of unprecedented equality. There’s still rampant sexism, don’t get me wrong. And it’s more obvious in some parts of the country then others. But in the spectrum ranging from full time codependent caretaker to full time narcissist, most of us, men and women alike, are clumping closer together, and closer to the center. Those that were previously thought of as outliers, renegades, breaking their gender role expectations and staunchly planting themselves where tradition and socialization would prefer they not go, are now somewhat the norm. And the extremists, those resisting this change, are making a lot of noise about it.

"Going" by Liu Ye
“Going” by Liu Ye

My thought is that we are in a period of transition. And during times like this people individually and intergenerationally tend to flop from one extreme to another before floating into some sort of middle ground. Women, in general, have become more autonomous, sometimes selfish. Men, in general, have become more family oriented, sometimes dependent, either as a response to the shift in women or entirely apart from it. Because for them, that too was a healthy and explorative choice. They too were tired of the limits imposed on them, the standards of masculinity and strength that insisted that they compartmentalize or disown fundamental parts of themselves.

Give it a few decades and maybe most humans will find their way to the middle, the sweet spot, the promised land of self actualized community. This is where I think we will best be able to find and sustain strong relationships.  Ones that we can stay in. Ones that don’t make us feel like we need to act out in order to let our whole selves have room to grow.

Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy

First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on April 5, 2012.