Raising Boys in the Era of #MeToo

 By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

I recently contributed to an article on Fatherly.com entitled “7 Toxic Phrases Parents Need to Stop Saying to Their Sons.” As is typical in articles like this, only a few of my thoughts made it into the final draft. This, along with my initial appearance on the Married AF podcast where we discussed the concept of toxic masculinity and the challenges of raising boys during the #metoo era, left me wanting to expand on the mixed and problematic messages boys receive throughout their lives about what it means to be a man.

Here are some of the common phrases today’s men grew up hearing. While many parents have softened, or removed, many of these from their lexicon they are alive and well in media and deeply imbedded into the narrative of our society.

1.     “Only girls wear pink/nail polish/dresses” or “Long hair/dolls/dress up is for girls”

As women began to fight for their rights, it became more socially acceptable for women to dress like men, wear short hair, forgo makeup, etc. If we are truly working towards equality, or better yet, equity, then this needs to be a two-way street. It can’t only be okay for girls to adopt things society has deemed masculine, it also must be acceptable for boys to embrace things society claims are feminine. If girls can be fully expressive, boys must be allowed to do the same. Adopting a less binary and restrictive view of gender norms is helpful for everyone.

2.     “Boys don’t cry”

This phrase teaches boys that “softer” emotions belong to girls, preventing boys from being fully human and having the full human experience. It teaches them that only certain emotions are acceptable, and others must be quashed. Part of why many men struggle with relationships and regulating emotions is because we, as parents and a society, have told them that expressing emotions other than anger shows weakness and being weak is not acceptable. Anger is easier to grab than pain, sadness, or fear. And when all you are given is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

3.     “Toughen up/Man up/Don’t be a sissy”

Life is full of loss, challenges, hurts, and disappointments. When we tell boys they must be stoic in the face of life’s ups and downs, we make it impossible for them process their complete range of emotions. When emotions are not felt and processed they come out or are coped with in unhealthy ways. The results of unhelpful or unhealthy coping can be violence, alcohol or drug use, physical ailments, and mental health issues.

4.     “You throw/hit/run/play like a girl”

When we say this to boys we are teaching them that girls are less than. We are giving permission for them to view women and girls as not enough, less than, unworthy. We are telling them that men are better than women and girls.  Mind you boys have many important and influential women in their lives. They have moms, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, female cousins, teachers, and coaches whom they love. Yet we tell boys that doing anything like them is shameful? How does that make sense? Constantly being told that women are less than or not people to be admired or emulated can lead to entitlement and a belief that even the most reprehensible of men is somehow innately better than the most intelligent, creative, compassionate, talented, and powerful woman. See the problem?

5.     “Boys will be boys”

This excuse does a serious disservice to boys and society at large. It teaches boys that they are not responsible for their own actions and are not going to be held accountable for their behaviors. In addition, it steals their self-efficacy. It says men and boys can’t help themselves. Why this is one is particularly problematic is that it feeds into societal myths around domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault and contributes to the continual victim blaming we see happening all around us.

 

Doing it differently

More and more parents are expressing concerns about raising boys in the aftermath of #metoo. Here are a few of the questions I have been asked in recent months:

·      How do I help my sons understand consent and sexual harassment?

·      How do I help my teenager understand the inappropriateness and severe ramification of asking for, sending, or receiving naked SnapChats/texts/Facebook messages, etc.?

·      What can I do to counteract the messages my son is getting from friends, media, and society?

·      How do I help my son grow up to have close, meaningful relationships?

·      What steps should I take to ensure my son can fully express and manage his emotions in a healthy way?

There are not simple, straightforward answers to these questions, but feminist thought can provide parents a foundation for how to develop a more equitable household, and society, for the benefit of all genders. Removing a few phrases from our vocabulary, like those discussed above, and knowing some things not to do, while a step in the right direction, is only the beginning. Embracing feminism yourself and raising boys to be feminists will help them develop a healthy understanding of equality, equity, power, oppression, and empathy. The readings suggested below can spark discussion and provide opportunities to question how we’ve historically raised boys into men, and how we might do things differently moving forward

Articles

·      In the #MeToo Era, Raising Boys to be Good Guys by David McGlynn

·      Six Ways Dads Can Raise Feminist Sons by Kristy Ramirez

·      How to Raise a Feminist Son by Claire Cain Miller

Books

·      Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

·      The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

Transition to Parenthood Series

 By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

Part IV: Sex after baby.

Most of us have heard the age-old narrative that your sex life disappears after you have children. You are exhausted and sleep feels substantially more important than sex; perhaps your focus and intimacy is on the baby – not on each other; or, perhaps your body no longer feels desire or arousal the way it once did. No matter the reasons (and there are countless more), for some, it is a terrifying prospect that your once beloved sex life may be one of the casualties in the transition to parenthood.

There is good news: Your sex life does not have to disappear when you become a parent. It does, however, have to change and evolve for your new life and the new (very significant) constraints of having a baby. The key is to approach this change with care, curiosity and flexibility for yourself and your partner.

Let’s visit some of the significant constraints that new parents face in rebuilding their sexual relationship and therapeutic strategies you can use to address them:

1. Sleep Deprivation; This is perhaps the biggest reason that parents name when they discuss the difficulty in reigniting their sexual relationship, post baby. Especially if your child hasn’t begun to sleep in longer stretches, the idea of trading in precious sleep for sex is hard to imagine.

It’s also important to note that sleep deprivation and exhaustion can impact your hormone levels, increase anxiety and irritability, and has been associated with greater conflict between partners. It’s hard to imagine wanting to have sex or any type of physical intimacy when your sole focus is trying to maintain enough energy for a baby whose needs are continuous.

Strategy: Take turns with the night time feedings and early wake ups (if you can) so each of you can get some longer stretches. Offer support if you know your partner is especially tired. If you are breastfeeding, your partner can sit with you during a middle of the night feeding - even if he can’t “do” anything, his presence is important and signifies that you are a team. You may be sleep deprived, but you are exhausted together, and can see the experience as a bonding one. Sex might not be on the table at this point (it is likely you will want to wait until you have more energy) but building the foundation of your new co-parenting role can be incredibly intimate, and knowing you are a united front will ultimately translate into an easier transition towards physical intimacy when the time is right. (There is nothing that will put you in the mood less than fighting with your partner about who is more tired. So, try to stay on the same team and avoid the rabbit hole of sleep resentment.)

2. Hormonal impact; the hormonal impact on your postpartum body can be very significant. Many women report feeling like they’re on an emotional roller coaster in the first few weeks and months after giving birth. (Read more about the signs and impact of postpartum depression and anxiety here.)

Breastfeeding mothers are producing a hormone called prolactin, while necessary for lactation, it is also responsible for lowering libido. Breastfeeding mothers bodies often suppress ovulation and their lower estrogen levels impact cervical mucus. Vaginal dryness may be an issue – causing sexual intercourse to be less enjoyable and even painful. If that wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also lowers female testosterone, which contributes to overall decreased libido. Source

Strategy: Talk to your doctor or therapist about concerns if you notice signs of postpartum depression or anxiety in yourself or your partner. If you are ready to have sex but it feels unpleasant, you can use a water-based lubricant to help with vaginal dryness and consult with your doctor for other alternatives. Most of all, remember what your body went through; give it time, and communicate if you are in pain. Share with your partner what you know about the shift in your hormones and the potential impact that may have on your libido. This will help create an environment of openness and help him or her understand that your lack of arousal may not be about them at all (they will likely have their own beliefs and reasons for why this is happening.)

3. Mismatched needs & expectations; This bullet point could be the topic of an entire book. Childbirth in couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) is entirely one-sided for a period of time. The parent who gives birth will inherently bear the burden in a different way, and if she breastfeeds, that one sidedness can continue for months (or years) postpartum. All this to say, that especially in heterosexual couples, fathers may have a difficult time understanding the multitude of changes happening in his partner’s mind and body. These factors impact desire and arousal, and it may cause frustration and confusion between partners that there has been a significant change in the couples’ sex life and perceived desire for one another.

Strategy:  Talk about expectations with one another; so much of this chapter requires an open, honest dialogue about what is happening for each of you. Many partners may make assumptions about the reason for the changes in their sex lives; without asking your partner what they are feeling, both emotionally and physically, you may be completely missing the mark (and missing an opportunity to help.)

If this topic feels particularly fraught or scary, I’ve listed a number of resources at the bottom of the post that you and your partner can look to and, you can always schedule an appointment with a couples therapist or sex therapist to better understand and process the new sexual dynamics in your relationship.

4. Body insecurity, low self-esteem and not feeling sexy; Women – you just did something miraculous: you grew a human life inside of you for the better part of a year, and then went through a significant medical event in order to deliver the child. Your body went through a trauma and you may not be feeling your best, or look the way you did prior to your pregnancy.

In our current medical model, women have a 6 week postpartum check up (after a vaginal birth) in which, if everything is ok, they can be “cleared” to have sex with their partner. OBGYNs often hear their patients begging for more time, asking for a medical excuse to postpone this event, while many fathers are waiting anxiously for the green light.

Strategy: There is absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling ready at that point to jump back in the saddle; be gentle with your body and yourself. You may need more time to heal than a 6-week window. Take it slow and do what you need to do in order to feel your best. That can be anything from making sure you take a shower each morning, to putting on some makeup, to making sure you go for a walk outside and feel the fresh air, and drinking enough water each day. Self care looks different for each of us.

5. Overwhelmed by the new workload & lack of time; There are only so many hours in a day. Those hours are significantly decreased when you take on a newborn feeding schedule, or are chasing a baby around. Your free time feels virtually non-existent, and it can feel like there is a never-ending mountain of work (both domestic and professional) that builds. These stressors can act as a “brake” to halt sexual arousal and desire (Nagowski). If our minds are always thinking about what needs to get done or how stressed we are, we will likely have a much more difficult time transitioning to a sexy mindset.

Strategy:  If we know our sexual drive and desire is negatively correlated with stress levels, this can be an opportunity to our partners not to complain about the lack of sex, but to ask – “what do you need help with?”

Parents need to practice self-care in order to be able to think about accessing desire for their partner. Often, this means lightening the load for your partner so they can have time to get back to themselves, and momentarily step out of mommy or daddy mode. Give them some time to see their friends (and get out of the house), to exercise (increased blood flow increases libido), and make sure you both are hydrated and fed (you need energy to have sex.)

Another helpful strategy for some is to schedule sex. For the partners who would like to increase the frequency in their sex lives but struggle to find the time in their schedules, try planning ahead. Either create a sexy calendar invite for your partner to let them know you are thinking about them, or have a standing date/time that you can connect physically. This requires a regular check in to make sure expectations are clear and flexibility with changing schedules. (For example, sending a text mid-day for your weekday “sexy time” to ask if your partner is still interested and committed to the plan for the evening. This not only helps avoid disappointment if things change, but can also help to build anticipation as the day goes on.)

6. Relying on baby for intimacy; This is a common trap for many new parents, especially new moms. As mentioned above, there is an evolutionary “one sidedness” to childbirth that is much more pronounced in the first months and year of a child’s life. Mothers often find themselves with longer parental leave to bond with the baby, and may choose to breastfeed, which requires nearly constant touch and necessary attunement with a baby’s feeding schedule.

This bonding is incredibly special, and it can be all consuming. This connection can feel so intense and magical that it begins to replace your partner’s intimacy. This quote from Esther Perel, in her book, Mating in Captivity, describes this phenomenon beautifully:

“Children are indeed a source of nurturance for adults. Their unconditional love infuses our lives with a heightened sense of meaning. The problem arises when we turn to them for what we no longer get from each other: a sense that we’re special, that we matter, that we’re not alone. When we transfer these adult emotional needs onto our children, we are placing too big a burden on them” (Perel; Kerner & Raykeil, p. 50)

Strategy: Make time for your connection outside of baby. As a couple, you need to build your reservoirs of connection physically, but also emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes date night can be just for that – for connecting, talking, laughing, eating. You can even try a “no baby” rule on date night - talk about anything but the baby. Remember how and why you connected before you became parents. Another favorite tip about date night from Esther Perel!

(Side note about date night: It can be hard to feel sexy and in the mood after a full meal, late at night. Be clear about how you’re feeling and help to differentiate between date nights and sex. If you wait for sex only on date night, it may be a while, and it can heighten the pressure around the evening.)

This list of constraints and strategies is obviously not exhaustive, and quite honestly just scratches the surface of this topic. I focused mostly on parents who are transitioning to parenthood for the first time, with one child and many of the strategies are “mother-centric”. Below are additional resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful and normalizing for couples in this stage of their transition to parenthood.

Additional Resources:

  •      Love in the Time of Colic, Ian Kerner & Heidi Raykeil
  •      How not to Hate your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
  •      And Baby Makes Three, John & Julie Gottman
  •      Becoming Us, Elly Taylor
  •      Come As You Are, Emily Nagowski

Talking with Your Teen: 5 Things to Remember

 By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

If social media postings, the array of parenting books, and the countless blogs and newspaper articles available are any indication, little is more mystifying, frustrating, or sanity threatening to parents than raising teenagers. Only the terrible twos and dreaded threenagers can rival teens in attitude, unprovoked outbursts, and confounding behaviors. And while at times talking to your teen may feel like you have reverted to speaking with a toddler, as a parent of teens myself, I can relate, there are a few key things that can aid you in having productive, meaningful, and relationship enhancing conversations with your teen.

1)    Leave your ego at the door.

Dr. Fred Hanna, a wise professor and therapist I know, specializes in working with some of the most challenging teenagers around. He and I share this belief that unless you can set your ego aside, there is almost no room for empathy which is key to being in any relationship, but particularly with teenagers (Hanna, 2016). While his work talks about the therapeutic relationship, I believe it is applicable to the parent/child one as well. When ego is involved a power struggle likely follows, and they rarely end positively for anyone involved. In the book, The Awakened Family, Shefali Tsabary, PhD, talks about how parenting challenges tend to stem from our ego, the blindly reactive piece of us that comes from a place of fear and a need to protect ourselves, our identity, and our desires and expectations for our children. When parents can learn to recognize when their ego is involved, the skills needed to be able to set it aside can be learned as well. Setting aside our ego allows us to take things less personally, and step into a place of empathy for the experiences of the teenagers in our lives. Teenagers often just need to be heard, and have their thoughts, experiences and feelings validated so they can reduce their own defensiveness and have space to hear you. I encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s video on empathy for a clearer understanding of the importance of empathy and consider how you might apply it in future conversations with your teen.

2)    Live your values; practice what you preach

It may seem that your teenager never listens to a word you say, but I promise they are watching everything you do. They can smell hypocrisy a mile away, and almost nothing turns them off faster. When teens in my office are the angriest at the adults in their lives, it tends to be around things they see as unjust or hypocritical. Are you setting rules and consequences based on the values you hold, and you are trying to instill in your child, or are they based the rules you grew up with, or what you have seen other set? Are they set up in a family meeting or given from the top down without any explanation other than “because I said so?”

People rarely like to be told what to do; teenagers are no different. But, when rules, or restrictions, or chores are given in context, with an explanation and discussion where there is potential for input, even teenagers can be convinced to go along. Where I have seen teenagers rebel the most is when they believe that certain rules only apply to them, or that their parents do not live by the standards and values they try to place on their children. One of the ways I have found to assist around this is to do a values exercise with parents and their teens. This can open discussions around the differing values of each member of the family, as well as opportunities to talk about how the family rules line up with its values. When you are clear about your own values, it is easier to remain consistent around the rules that you do set, providing the structure that teenagers need to thrive. As a bonus these exercises can enlighten you about both yourself and your teen. If you would give this a try here are a couple links:

https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/ValuesActivities.pdf

https://www.taproot.com/archives/37771

3)    You were a teenager once too.

Do you remember yourself as a teenager? If not, I am sure your own parents would love to enlighten you about your attitude, rule breaking, talking back, and every other thing you did that made them nuts. This goes back to the empathy piece. You have an opportunity here to empathize with both your teen and your parents. Now might be a great time for that apology. You know they’re relishing that you have a teenager just like you. Take a moment to try and remember how you felt as a teenager. Put yourself back in that place where you felt unheard, unimportant, maybe even unloved. Can you remember how it felt to have your body seemingly go haywire on you? Do you recall how it felt to be left out, or have your first heartbreak, and to believe that nobody could really understand?

If you’re struggling with this, or maybe have some grandiose memories about your teenage years, or a belief that today’s teenagers are so much worse than the teens of our generation, you might want to be suspicious of your memories, as Ken Hardy discusses in Teens who Hurt. Memory becomes softer and more generous with the passage of time. In addition to its selective nature, memory also has a tendency to embellish. Few of us were as good, or respectful, or obedient, as we might like to recall. Find an old yearbook or a journal to see if you can refresh your memory a bit. Try if you can to put yourself back in that place, in those feelings. Consider what you would have liked from the adults in your life back then. See what pieces of that you can provide for you own child. Talk to your teenager, and ask overtly what they need from you, what you can do that would be helpful, and then listen to hear them, rather than listen to respond.

4)    Behaviors usually serve a purpose.

Too often it is teenage attitude and negative behaviors that get a parent’s attention. Too seldom is the question “What is the purpose of this?” asked. One of the quickest ways to determine what the potential purpose of any particular behavior might be it to check in with your own reaction to it. For example, if your child’s behavior leaves you with feelings of being provoked, challenged, or defeated, Jane Nelson, Ed.D. author of the book Positive Discipline, would suggest that the underlying goal of the behavior is around power, and a belief that one belongs only when they are in charge or at least not being bossed around. This scenario seems to resonate with many of my teens and parents. While this book is geared more towards those parenting younger children, I think it still has value for parents of teenagers. It has the potential to offer insight into what is going on for you as well as them, aiding in setting aside ego and increasing curiosity and empathy about what your teenager’s behaviors are trying to tell you. There is a quick reference chart from the book available here to get you started.

5)    Maintaining the relationship matters most.

If you want to continue having a positive influence over your teen and have them turn to you for counsel and support, maintaining your relationship will need to take priority over being right, having control, pride, ego, or your own emotions. This one can be tough. You will often find yourself walking the fence between maintaining structure and consistency, with maintaining the relationship. Flexibility and adaptability will be key to stage in parenting. The plus side is that even when you screw up, teenagers can be some of the most forgiving people I have ever met. When you as a parent can own your mistakes, apologize, and change your behaviors accordingly, teenagers can and do forgive even some of the worst transgressions. They want to be connected to you as much as you want to be connected to them, it just looks different now.  

Raising teenagers is not always easy, but it can be the most rewarding time you ever have as a parent. There is incredible growth potential for you and for them despite its many ups and down. Remember too, you don’t have to do this alone. Family therapy can help with the challenges of transitioning into this new stage of life and parenting. A therapist can assist with a strained relationship, or support for those difficult conversations so many parents dread. We are here to help you navigate this sometimes daunting journey called parenthood.

References

Hanna, F. J., (2016). Ten powerful techniques for helping difficult adolescents to change.