Dudes to Dads Print E-mail

20240214(San Diego Reader February 14, 2024)

Many fathers, including myself, know the feeling: a strange and heady mix of joy, wonder, and fear, brought on by the first meeting with our progeny. We went into the hospital as supportive partners for our laboring women. We emerged as parents. We drove mother and baby home and helped get kiddo settled: cuddled, kissed, swaddled, and tucked into the crib. Then we surveyed the scene, marveled at our handiwork, took a deep breath, and said — possibly out loud, but to no one in particular — what the fuck do I do now?

Justin Lantzman is the 39-year-old president of a Sorrento Valley lending company. He knows the feeling; he can still recall the sudden joy and discomfort of the birth-day, six years ago. As we sit in his spacious, windowed office, he recounts that he and his wife — five years younger and an equestrian — were “resigned” never to have kids. (By design, all spouses and children will go unnamed here.) A semi-posh life, no money woes, but then, upon retiring from sport, she — they — suddenly wanted to get pregnant. There was fear involved with a later, riskier pregnancy, but that abated with a doctor’s OK. “We got into the pregnancy,” Lantzman says. “We had a good time.”

The pair did the ritual prep: outfit a room, gather the hand-me-downs, enlist the Mexican side of his family, abuelas and tias, to bake and babysit. And then, during a sonogram: surprise! Not one in the oven; but two: fraternal girls. (The odds for that? Three out of every 100 births.) As he journeyed home with the newborns, Lantzman felt his journey into fatherhood take on a menacing character. He describes the shock, the letdown, as “immediate.”

He continues, “The workload was insane. They wouldn’t sleep, one, not really well — for three-and-a-half years!” He and his exhausted wife had been schooled regarding the possibility of the mother’s postpartum depression. But what about dad’s? “I was struggling so badly. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this alone if she starts struggling.’” He says he had “feelings of resentment, like my past life was gone. This is going to suck forever.” They’d read the books, from Dr. Spock on down. But most offered minimal guidance for men and their emotional struggles.

Then, in a rare moment of masculine vulnerability, he admitted to his wife that he felt lost. It was difficult to recognize, but he was suffering from postpartum depression. “You don’t know that it exists for men,” he says. “You go looking, and you don’t find a lot of help.”

Google to the rescue: He found a male therapist close by: Dr. Dan Singley and his Center for Men’s Excellence. Singley, who Lantzman says “saved my life,” specializes in early fatherhood issues. During their bi-monthly sessions — which employed cognitive-based behavioral therapy — Singley reassured Lantzman he wasn’t crazy; he was just new to the job.

Six years later, Lantzman reflects on the “irrationality” that overtook him as a first-time father. He cites several factors, both personal and social, that contributed to his crisis. First, he says, for men, “The expectations aren’t set appropriately.” Among his delusions, he thought his girls were “never going to be able to walk.” He also notes that “I couldn’t imagine them being able to talk or feed themselves.” And he was so mired in the present problems that any new issue seemed like a catastrophe. Then there was the danger of being mired in social media, which stuck to the narrative of “how great it is to be a parent. People just lie about their experiences,” he says with not a little bitterness. “I shouldn’t say ‘lie.’ They sugarcoat it, because they don’t want to appear vulnerable.”

As he began to unpack his malaise with Dr. Singley, “I remembered male buddies who had the same issue I did. One guy was completely miserable; he hated [being a dad] and said, ‘Don’t ever do this.’” Later, when that friend learned Lantzman had twins, he apologized for his negativity. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I hope I didn’t bum you out. Like, it’s really not that bad.’” His friend was “backtracking. He felt bad, but . . ..” Lantzman pauses, then says, “Men don’t talk about these things.”

When they do talk, they complain that while women receive bouquets of encouragement, men hear only the doomsters. “You’re never going to surf again,” etc. “Men,” he observes, “like to say ‘You’re toast’ to other men, even though men end up having a better experience than they anticipated. Women come out saying, ‘What are you talking about? [Motherhood] sucks. I’m changing diapers all day, and I can’t even take a shower.’”

Men helping men: what a concept. Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Dan Singley started his Center for Men's Excellence with his wife 15 years ago, after their own kids had arrived. He did it because he felt personally compelled to do so. As he talks, he spools out a series of terms, each less highfalutin than its prior: “paternal perinatal mental health,” “early fatherhood,” and finally, “the dude-to-dad transition.” Singley backed off from his own “dudeness” slowly. He came to accept, while going to therapy himself, “the warm glow of daddy-nesting anxiety.” To accept that its ambiguity, even over the long haul, wasn’t ruining his life, because his girls were “an incredibly salient part of my identity.”

But he was a rare case. Fresh from UCSD, he discovered, like Lantzman, that the San Diego psychological community had little to offer men in this matter. In the early 2000s, father-focused men’s therapists “had no training; we had nothing, there was no group.” It’s still largely the case. When people think of new parents, they tend to focus on “maternal mental health.” And with reason: it’s always harder — physically, emotionally — on the birthing person. “But they forgot somebody. The dudes.”

In part, that’s because the dudes want it that way — “they really don’t want to seek mental health help.” To attract men, he chose that freighted word “excellence” — a concept that seemed likely to catch the attention of achievement-oriented males. The term might also appeal to that vocal subset of “bros” who believe in “male supremacy,” notably vis-à-vis women and moms. Guys who want to make man-and-wife great again: man, hunt, wife, raise baby. However, Singley says, “no research supports that” as an effective division of labor. Time and again, he must disabuse men of their penchant to define everyone’s roles. But he’s got to get them in the door first. So, “Excellence.”

Researching on his own and with a mentor, Singley has charted a spectrum of men either awakening from or going back to sleep in the patriarchy. He says the pendulum swings from “rabid men’s rights folks to intolerantly woke lords and lasses.” Once the internet took note of his center, he was trolled as either a “pale patriarchal penis person” or as a sellout to “fourth-wave feminist academics” — the so-called intersectional wing of the women’s movement, “who want to burn the patriarchy down.”

For his part, Singley remains resistant to pigeonholing, and holds that there is no one-size-fits-all for men in therapy, who today cluster around secular identities. Therapists note that those calling themselves “Dads” these days may be transgender, queer, or gender nonconforming, and that they are diverse not just in terms of ethnicity and race, but also inclination and distance. He also finds himself contending with surprising new research suggesting kids’ attachment needs require one “highly attuned, consistent parent,” not necessarily two.

Of late, the cultural pushback against the status of dads has grown, especially among men who are good at rationalizing male behavior. In 2022’s Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about Itauthor Richard Reeves interviews Tyrese, a young father who faces some heavy deterrents: his own father died when he was young, two of his brothers are in prison, and Tyrese himself, the father of a couple children, has been relegated to the dustbin. Reeves says four things explain the muddled state of today’s dads: 1) women know they have to provide for their family because, too often, the men won’t; 2) moms on their own prize education more, especially a degree, than dads do; 3) when things get hard, guys run away; and 4) “Women live in the future, men live in the present.” That list (much of it self-excusing) comes from the culture. It also comes from the mother of Tyrese’s kids.

And culture is an enormous force. Singley addresses men’s ideas about fatherhood whether or not they had a “dad present in the home.” But if dad is present, he’s de facto the first teacher about dads. As part of his work, Singley says he must recognize the stereotypes, but not to stereotype the men. Rather, “It’s that people take part of the story and make it the whole story.” A precis, then, of Singley’s observations: the Latino dad who’s a self-absorbed cock-of-the-walk to whom everyone kowtows; the Black father who is not around, lost, in jail, or who, if he is a part of his sons’ lives, must impart what not to do when interacting with authorities; the Asian-American dad who is stoic, unemotional, demanding, and who keeps raising the achievement bar; and the White father — who may show any gradation of these traits, who may be over-protective and over-forgiving as well as competitive and success-driven. (Such contradictions are hard to disentangle, but that doesn’t make them less real.)

Singley raises these “dad markers” with his patients to see how many boxes get checked. Men, he says, are often unaware of these ways of being, even as they imitate them. And of course, culture is bigger than just dad: more than a few of Singley’s patients have a “sense of belonging to a group that’s been marginalized, who’ve known genocide. Think about Native American dads, Jewish dads, Israeli dads, whose makeup is membership in an oppressed group.” Once they begin waking up to historical trauma, these dads can see how easy it would have been, had they not got into therapy, to aid in its perpetuation. All the while, he’s awed how few American dads can name the three cardinal tenets of fatherhood, the sort that transcend race or ethnicity: “protect, provide, sacrifice.”

Something is up, dramatic and contentious, with the “State of America’s Fathers.” That’s the tile of a recent study that lists social causes (and government solutions) for the poor standing of dads in our time. Among its findings: “deadbeat dads” are less common than believed. “Most nonresident fathers are consistently very active in the lives of their children.” Yet fathers face an unusual amount of social stigma, even blame, because fully a fifth of them “live outside traditional, two-parent, heterosexual households.” In addition, “Ninety-five percent of low-wage [male] workers” receive neither unpaid nor “paid parental leave” after a child is born. “Ninety percent of incarcerated parents are fathers.” And with two-thirds of divorces initiated by women, courts typically side with mothers for child custody.

A profit-oriented media covers the worst of male behaviors: so-called toxic masculinity. There’s no money in highlighting the four out of five fathers who do live with their kids, who do protect, provide, and sacrifice. There is money in placing blame, however: in his book Manhood, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley argues that the “end of men” is all the left’s fault. According to Carlos Lozada, writing in The New York Times, Hawley “turns Manhood into a familiar assault on a godless, judgmental, pleasure-seeking left, which, he contends, is attempting to subdue men and transform them into complacent, androgynous, dependent consumers.” Hawley tells “young men to stop blaming others for their troubles, urging them to take personal responsibility for their lives and failings … and then he proceeds to give those same young men someone to blame for their fate.” Troubled manhood can’t be blamed on any one ideology — though a culture of victimhood probably won’t help men rise up to the task at hand. Perhaps the best remedy is to understand masculinity as a process, ever-shifting in its needs and remade by the culture every generation.

Corey Bowers is another of Dan Singely’s patients. Like Lantzman, Bowers and his wife started a family six years ago — the first of two births. They met on eHarmony while he was in Puerto Rico windsurfing and she was in nurse-practitioner school in Simi Valley. When we meet in his Fallbrook home, he speaks with fiery animation, his dreadlocks, bundled under a headband, bouncing on his back. He rides the waves of one baby tale after another. First, the traumatic birth of Girl #1. Low amniotic fluid, a low heartbeat, and slow blood flow meant she was admitted to Rady’s Children Hospital, a trauma team standing by. Induced labor was soon over, but once out, the newborn was unresponsive and put on lung support in the Natal ICU. Her Apgar score, a measure of neonatal health, was very low. Their fear: her brain had been damaged by a lack of oxygen.

Days later, a CAT scan confirmed nothing bad had happened, and soon she was responsive, “looking normal,” Bowers says, tearing up at the retelling. He was relieved, but his wife was not. Exhausted, she rested for days, weeks. Meanwhile, during bottle feedings, #1’s tiny hand grasped Dad’s finger. This intimacy glued child to dad and vice versa, until his wife’s “milk flowed normally.” At last, #1 breastfed. Throughout, Mom struggled with postpartum blues, her blood pressure regularly elevated. Neither parent did well, Bowers says, during the slow recovery amid months of uncertainty.

A year and a half later, planned-for and pregnant again. This time, a no-worries birth of Girl #2. This time, the bonding went the other way: #2 “latched” to the breast the first minute, Bowers recalls, his eyes misting over once more. (He confesses that he has “high-functioning ADHD,” and cites it as the reason his tears run.) For mothers, he says, it’s axiomatic: “The minute you lay eyes on the baby, you have this instant connection — you love it.” For him, as a man, he didn’t have that link until six weeks later, when #2 finally smiled at him.

The two different attachments — the first with dad, the second with mom — have convinced Bowers that male and female parenting roles are hardwired, following biological blueprints. He cites a host of studies. Women, he says, “are much better at keeping children alive than men are. They’re better adjusted” from the get-go. “Men are generally more about discipline and playing around,” which begins at six months as the baby frees itself from its preferential dependence on mom. (I ask about sources. “I listen to podcasts all day,” he says, while working as a programmer online. His mentors are Jordan Petersen and Warren Farrell, who once taught in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State.)

Bowers says his own father helped him distinguish a baby’s “needs and wants.” Everything is on demand until someone (Dad) sets and enforces the limit: “You want this, I know, but you don’t need it” is the mantra. For example, Girl #1’s temper tantrums. When they began at seven months, Bowers and wife were spooked: “What do we do?” A reputable website said, “Walk away, wait in another room, and it’ll pass.” Sure enough, it did. Parenting by Google led them to rethink their penchant to catastrophize and intercede.

What Bowers deduced is that moms and dads manage “the fear idea” differently. Women intuit that “‘if I give the child this whatever, she’ll choke on it, cut herself, fall over, get hurt so bad an ambulance must be called.’” Men, Bowers notes, are the opposite: “I don’t care if they fall down and get scraped, bump their heads. I want my kids to have experiences,” from which they learn the degree of danger in an action by its consequences.

Four years ago, when Covid was snarling at everyone’s door, Bowers, a three-times-a-week CrossFit fanatic, couldn’t get to the gym. He fell out of shape. In addition, the lockdown and its attendant claustrophobia became a scourge on their marriage: “We were constantly fighting,” he says, his voice hot with regret. He saw “divorce rates were growing four times [faster than] normal. We were degenerating instead of getting stronger.” Online, his wife found Singley’s Center for Excellence. She agreed to couple therapy with a male-focused advocate, Bowers tells me, because she accepted that his issues were the source of their trouble.

Bowers was heartened that Dr. Dan “wasn’t a closet feminist.” While he realizes women need female therapists to address their issues, he opposes fourth-wave feminism and its attacks against men and dads, which, he says, damage parenthood. The newest wave, he says, tells “a woman nothing is her fault; it’s all the men’s doing.” Men, by contrast, are hostage to “the feminization of our institutions,” where the patriarchy is now blamed—and must face equity rehab—for everyone’s failures.

I quote for him the summations about mothers who, according to Tyrese, need neither fathers nor husbands. Bowers says those insights are true, but what “ought to be [true] is another question.” And even if the majority of society’s faults puddle on the male’s doorstep, that still means “as yet, there’s no positive replacement.” What are men supposed to do? Be women? He notes that women, even today, become nurses because they value the caretaking role; there’s no ulterior motive. When men seek the same profession, competing for higher positions of responsibility and pay, they’re labeled “toxic.” Bowers believes that in America, gender wars are, by design, always out of whack — one has to be up so the other one’s down. Once, it favored men. Now it favors women.

What exactly has feminized our culture? Bowers cites birth control, the loss of jobs central to a man’s “strength and stamina,” a new class of men who sit and compute all day (he agrees it’s hard for writers and programmers to complain), the growth of service and hospitality industries, “welfare” incentives for fatherless homes, men afraid of appearing patriarchal if they counsel other men — on and on and on. All this has moved women from lesser positions as caretakers and teachers to become professionals, paid quite well, earning prestige, wielding collective power, and displacing men at the top.

In an email, Bowers tells me he admires Dr. Cory Clark, a behavioral scientist who studies gender issues. She says that “men tend to value liberty over safety while females tend to value safety and comfort over liberty.” This affects how women vote and the “policies they institute within their organizations.” Bowers says that for men, this means “no more plowing the fields or being on the front line as a soldier,” not in a world run by tractors and drones and diversity quotas.

He favors “standards.” Women and men compete, he notes, so long as “we don’t have to lower our standards, lower the output, lower the merit, in any field, just so women can get in.” He pauses — “In that case, everybody loses at the end of the day.” With poor standards and nary an “atta boy,” men sink into “hopelessness.” Consequently, they’re angry; they disappear, physically and emotionally. “Fatherlessness,” he says, “is the largest factor” in our society’s failure to raise its boys, especially, those who grow up to be failed fathers themselves.

How has his self-education around men’s issues affected his own fathering? Bowers’s emphasis on hard work, individuality, property rights, ability, and color-blindness comprise what he calls the “traditional Western values.” These things are native to men—and fathers. They are a man’s biology. Men must realize this. Their responsibility is to fill a different role than wives fill, wives who find “dangerous” kid-play useless or harmful. To roughhouse, to tease, to distinguish the needs of children over their wants, to withhold fun as a corrective for bad behavior are, in sum, neither domineering nor mean, Bowers says. Who’s better equipped than Dad at navigating the shifty and shifting meritocracy, which is “much more friendly for females”? Who’s better suited to impart lessons to their children, having fought off the onslaught of feminized rejection?

I’m heartened by Singley’s project as manifested by these patients. But I’m puzzled about the alleged dearth in San Diego of male therapists who are ready to help men be men. I asked Dr. Singley who might corroborate his claim; he recommended his mentor, Dr. Jeff Jones, who counseled students at University of San Diego before going into private practice.

By phone, Jones tells me that when he started, the men he saw had been sent by wives or mothers. Men would classify their self-esteem as “performance-based,” a way to “value themselves on how much money we make and how many sexual conquests we’ve had. If we don’t measure up, we suffer.”

But things are changing, says Jones. Younger males — Millennials and Gen Z —“think it’s cool to be in therapy. There’s not the same stigma or shame there was.” He’s regularly asked to run men’s groups; he talks to men at private schools about becoming fathers,and runs boot camps for expectant dads, many of whom clamor for advice on diapers, feeding, and nonstop crying.

I ask him if it’s fair to say that while men are more interested these days in taking emotional responsibility for fatherhood, San Diego still lacks male-savvy therapists. One reason that’s true, he says, is that men constitute less than 40 percent of students in graduate psychology programs. As a result, the profession is becoming feminized, if it’s not there already. Seeing female therapists involves “less shame for men. To see a man is a greater barrier.”

Potential fathers need to find out why they’re “developmentally stuck,” why are they “holding anger.” What’s it about? Who’s the target? Covid’s in the rearview mirror, but too many men, he says, “are isolated,” afraid of what therapy will uncover. He cautions that whether it’s a man or woman counselor, men must focus on “relational skills,” the core fact, that they’re in a committed relationship.

That relationship starts with the mother, but it must extend to the kids. As Furious Styles puts it in Boyz in the Hood: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” Intention is key here, here and elsewhere. It takes intention to go to therapy to address anxieties about fatherhood. And while it doesn’t take any kind of fatherly intention to get a woman pregnant, it probably ought to. Men should decide whether they want to have children. They should consider their personal prospects when it comes to fathering. They should be willing to do the work. If they’re not... well, Voltaire’s Candide, despite all his hardships, said that the world we’re living in is always the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps they shouldn’t set about making it worse.