I was in a pretty bad emotional box last week. For context, I'm a 49-year-old father, with a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old. I'm writing about this for the other fathers out there who might relate.
So, about my MAAN box.
I had a lot of "stress" or "pressure" last week, and for one reason or another, wasn't handling it functionally. Now I know dads who'd be drinking a lot at this point, glamorizing it, and totally in denial that they are really treating anxiety with alcohol. But fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I'm past the days of thinking that experiencing anxiety makes me less of a man.
So, I was stressed, and busy -- and anxious. I was a fully stocked steam engine, with no healthy release valve.
Most everything people said bothered me, such as, "You must feel disappointed you didn't go to Egypt on that sweet consulting contract."
Really? "Must I?" You fargin icehole. How dare you tell me how I feel? How about asking me how I feel? Ever think of that? You wingnut?
Or folks will say cheerly, "Hi Caleb."
And I would dearly want to give them a cold Clint Eastwood stare and lip snarl.
In this box, I loathe even more than usual, frequent and fake laughs, repetitive anything in speech such as, "like," "as I said," "sort of," "whatever," and "it's all good." Oh, and people who say the same thing twice, or three times, in slightly different ways, and people in general, and their friends, relatives and people they have met -- or seen online.
What lead up to this?
A LOT! Work ramped up suddenly, with a consulting contract and a conference, both intertwined. A trip was planned to Egypt with a week's notice, then canceled. But the contract got more intense in terms of work because it became virtual. This left me simultaneously holding down my job, a contract, and prepping a presentation.
I was way outside my flow zone for sure. What I was in really was more of a white knuckle ride. But I was tough, wasn't I? Bring it on baby! I can handle it.
Then I came back home. As I entered my house I felt a bit like a mix of two stereotypical men you might recognize from movies and books. The first stereotype is the 1950s father who comes home from work and retreats to an easy chair, a drink, and silence. The other is the stereotypical rebel biker who hits the road for freedom, leaving everyone with nothing more then a middle finger and loud noise.
Here's a confabulation of the the rants these two stereotypes might go on as they are blasted by the needs of a young family. "You infidels can't possibly understand the shitstorm I just came from at work, the pressure, diverse complexity, and outside my skillset things I'm trying to do at work... while also networking so I'm employable if I lose my job. They don't know how much I'm unsure it will all work! They worry about trivialities with no realization that their entire world is supported by my paycheck and I'm at a breaking point! Are they checking in with me? They are not. There's no time for that. And if they did, they wouldn't like Daddy Downer's answer now would they? And they couldn't possibly understand anyway, since they aren't working with me and don't, can't, understand my work, so, why even try to tell anyone how I feel?" Where's my drink? Or my Harley, or maybe both with a hotel room on the beach with... Oh, and I don't actually have TIME to get all touchy feely, since I have two hours of work to do after dinner and putting the kids to bed. And now it's my turn to hold the baby since my wife is on the frickin' edge after a day with two cranky kids. So we've both had a hard day, but I'm treated like I'm fresh for battle when I walk in the door, when actually, I'm just returning, and I'm wounded! I'm shell-shocked. But I'm a soldier. I bet if they felt like I did, they couldn't handle it? They'd crumble under the pressure. They would. But I'll be fine. I won't crumble, hell, I won't even say anything. You know why? Because if I did, I'd say it wrong and end up in a screaming fight with my wife, instead of getting the support and understanding I really need. Oh, but I'll make it. I'm strong and tough and I get the job done. I won't complain or explain. Rat bastards. Ectoplasms! "
This particular mental and emotional box has some flavors of the "Man Box" a term coined by Tony Porter in his TED talk "A Call To Men." But I am not experiencing the parts of Tony's Man Box that have to do with women, just my own emotions.
Being a man can be confusing. Sometimes the bad is bundled with the good. It's hard to know which is which sometimes. I like a lot of "man-ish" things, things by the way which I think are not limited to men at all. I think they can be helpful to the right family with good man things. I like being the one in my household who worries about the car engine, tire tread ware, and how thick our break pads are. I clean the really dirty drains and pipes, and keep them clean -- on the inside where the hair and gunk is. I think often about the condition of the inside of our furnace and I have a compulsion to grow lawn grass fast in an upward direction, that I then spend time cutting it back down, vs growing healthy vegetables we can eat, like my wife focuses on... silly wife! I often wonder if our computers need some optimizing and how much money we need to save for new windows in 2021. I'd rather make something with tools that is really hard and makes my body hurt and sweat then go to the gym and hurt and sweat. I am proud if get a little cut and work right through it with blood on my shovel, while I'm in the mud, in a ditch, in the freezing rain. I make sure my hands get really cold at the start of ever winter, so I don't need to wear gloves all the time. I'm pretty sure that if a big monster comes, I'm the one who will be killed slowing it down as my wife takes the kids out the back. I have hunting guns I wish I used more then once a decade. I've owned trucks. I have plans on how I'll kill small animals to eat during the zompoc.
But the bad parts of being a man I don't like. Macho bull. Stupidity camouflaged as daring. Control freaks dog beaters, those who mistreat women, and myself when I was young and feel pray to the band's Cake's warning, "Excess ain't rebellion, you're drinking what they're selling." Somewhere I got into self-identifying as someone who is tough and doesn't express that I'm hurt. And I didn't get into expressing how I feel in non-violent communication ways that people respond to positively. So, a box. Shouldn't express, and if I do, I provoke. Also, with little practice, it can literally take me hours or days to even know how I actually feel past simple bottled up anger.
A Man Box is a good way to talk about it in two words. The sides of this box I was in seemed made of marginalization, anger, anxiety, and neglect. Fear is on the top and bottom, held tightly down in my chest, over my heart. Fear of what? Not sure. Maybe not getting what I really need? Fear of expressing myself and having it work out well? Fear of letting go of the fear? I become quiet, focused on work, wanting to be alone, or with those who can understand what I'm experiencing because they are too. Dive bars become attractive ideas, so does escape, like eating lots of mac and cheese, with a bottle of wine, while watching two or three movies in a row. Or perhaps buying a sailboat.
I did get out of my box, through the top, through the fear.
How? I expressed my feelings to my wife, gently, briefly. She is amazing at receiving my baggage, if I hand it to her without an attack she handles it with grace and compassion. I also wrote this post over several days, and took a long walk, drank water, and watched a movie. Expressing is good. The fear went on its miserable way, hopefully not to another man. A kind strength came into the place of fear in my chest.
Ironically, I think it takes more strength for me open up then for me to be in my box. If I'm really toughened up, battle ready and with my sword sharpened, being the man I want to be, the good parts of being man, then I can express my feelings. The box becomes a thing used for shipping stuff, or making forts with the kids, not for being in.