From the outset we need to set the appropriate tone for these sort of discussions can become heated. Men are neither better than women nor are they worse. The world is simply comprised of good and bad people and the sun shines equally above them all as God decreed. This is no battle between the sexes. It is a dialogue under the stars at the baobab lyceum. Secondly, the failings, inadequacies, cruelty and excesses of men have been well documented and there is much literature on this which we will not add to at this point. We have heard much of the rapists, the absent fathers, the wife beaters and the misogynists...the number of women across all rungs of society, low to high, who have at some point in their lives suffered physical abuse and have spent years simmering in that painful silence is alarmingly high. But women have not been passive. They have set up their own stalwart defense against these injustices. They call it Feminism. But once again we are not talking about that. What we are discussing however is a major and pertinent cultural shift that is currently defining all relationships.
They say that a man looks for his mother in the women he meets. If this is the case then we are in a bit of trouble. You see, the thing is, our mothers no longer exist.
The family is the nucleus of society, more so in many African societies. We could even say that society is the commonwealth of families pacing around in the arena of life. Most people who come from a two parent home had their father as a primary breadwinner. If this was you, this was entrenched in your psyche as you grew up. “My father pays bills.” You understood this. “My father is head of this household.” This was straightforward. Also this realization then passed automatically into your subconscious. Your father’s role was understood to you. So was your mother’s. Your mother picked you up from school (my father probably picked me up from school less than 10 times in the 13 years of primary and secondary education). My mother cooked and cleaned. She did the shopping (my father till this day does not know the price of a bag of rice and frankly, lo and behold, neither do I). Gender roles were defined. These gender roles were not only clear, but they also created expectations. And it is these expectations that were implanted in you earlier in life that define all your future relationships as an adult. It is these misunderstood expectations that are leaving us slightly confused, because the social landscape has changed.
Very few people had a mother who went to college. Or earned much money. The success of every family was a direct function of the caliber of men in that family with the women making massive uncelebrated contributions in the background. Economic resources were trapped in the world of men. In the name of progress (which is a good thing) doors opened for women and they now had more opportunities to make different choices. Women changed their outlook and the shape that their lives would take. Credit must be given to women. They have had to look deep within themselves and break past barrier after barrier, sidestep the trappings of complacency, and overlook the temptation to succumb to fear rather than self actualize themselves. I have had the opportunity to have discussions with some of these women. I have watched them and have learned from them. In fact I actually think women have an inner strength that when unleashed is greater than a man’s . Women can and often go through calamities and emerge with a silent fortitude that would leave men broken and bitter. Women might cry and mourn for days, even weeks on end. But at some point they steady themselves and emerge from this abyss and lift one foot ahead of the other and keep walking. How they do it I don’t know. Men commit suicide at a rate that is 4 times higher than women. This tells us something. So women in general have made many strides. But the process is incomplete and there are new problems for whenever you solve one problem or a set of problems, new ones inevitably result. Working in the professional world with these emancipated women, speaking the same language and competing for the same jobs, I always vaguely sensed that there was something amiss. Something I could not grasp. Something I pondered long and hard for to define. Things just didn’t feel right with the puzzle I was trying to complete. And then one day it became clear because of a single incident. I was at a funeral. As custom has it, the men huddled around each other and contributions had to be taken to organize transportation and other expenses. I watched curiously as a bill was handed over to a man younger than I and it was said to him by one of the senior members in the group “You are working now. You will settle this.” I watched him nod nervously in acknowledgement but I knew him personally and knew he could not afford what was handed to him. No one inquired as to whether he was in a position to meet the obligation. That obligation was automatic and independent of his resources. This same young man had an older sister with a much better job than he, but the thought that she needed to contribute hadn’t even entered anyone’s mind. Then it became clear. In our social evolution, women have been granted the right to earn as well as men but the obligation to provide has not necessarily passed. This holds huge ramifications.
I have always felt uneasy with the rhetoric of some women that describe men as free to do whatever they wished. Unbound by any chains, with only the sky above them soaking the golden sunlight. True, men traditionally did not have the restrictions placed on women. During my mother’s younger years, her professional options were to be either a secretary or a nurse or something on that level. My father had no such barrier. But he did have tremendous responsibility. The higher he went the more dependents he had. That was all. A man earning one Kwacha did not possess that one Kwacha. Part of it went to other people. Some deserving, others not so much. That was the reality. That is the underbelly of being a breadwinner. Other people chew your bread while you are baking. Many women I have met see their income almost as pocket money though they are earning as much or maybe even more than their male counterparts. “Even in the Bible it’s a man’s duty to provide.” One lady confidently said just the other day. Most unmarried women I have met and have had discussions with cannot really conceive of going into a marriage as the financial head of that marriage. If they did so, it would be done reluctantly and a fair measure of bitterness would be shown to the husband. So this is where the expectations of men and women are at loggerheads and our generation is in the thick of things. A man is expecting his wife to be there for him the way his mother was there for his father. But that age is ended. Listening to men there is one sentiment that I persistently hear. Men feel that women are unsupportive. They feel that they have to become eagles, soaring the skies alone, for their partners will not help them. The era where a man will begin with a single mattress to carve his life with his fiance (as many of our parents began together) has set its sun. "If you wish to be married make sure you are rich first," I heard someone say. Men thus become two different people. The person they are when they are with their partner, and the person they are when with other people. It’s really a form of theatre. But men have recoiled and think it necessary if they hope for any sort of peace. “The demands of women are endless. She doesn’t know me.” a married man of a few years on the brink of divorce recently said with his head in hand. Women are also in their own haze. Having grown up seeing their fathers head households they also expect men to be “men” even though many women now out earn most of the men they meet. So the world of women changed when they began to define themselves. And somewhere along the line women adopted an “I can have it all” attitude. Career (even though the work place is unfair and people with connections and incontestable skill get further). Family (even though the risks of childbirth rise with age so you can’t have a child “whenever you want”). Health (even though we are mortal and can die anytime). Interestingly I have not met a man who thinks this. Men are almost gambling with what they have hoping they made the right bets. In life you win here and lose there. That’s how men think. The plight of men has fundamentally remained the same. Brick by brick, build your life from the ground up till you stand on your own two feet. Provide. This is your measure. Boys in all countries struggle to become men as they nervously try to find where they fit in the world. A woman can say to a man “Be a man about things!” A man cannot in the same vein say to a woman “Be a woman!” it would just sound strange. This reflects the invisible expectations still resting on men’s shoulders. So women are communicating with men through a microphone of contradiction. One moment you are a strong, independent superwoman. Next thing you say something like “I can hold my own but I just want a man who I know that if I couldn’t, he could hold things up for both of us.” That’s exactly the same as saying “Hold things down for both of us.” And this coupled with the ubiquitous illusion of Mr Perfect, women have burdened men with a long list of expectations that are many times contradictory. "I want a man who is strong but also vulnerable". What? Either you are strong or you are vulnerable. One or the other. And not only that, these expectations on men have no reciprocal standard for women. All focus is on us. I have read inflated sentiments directed towards men with phrases like “be an epic lover”. “Remember she chose you.” “A man ought to…a man should aspire…a man has to….etc” But ladies what demands have you placed on yourselves? This is selfish and unfair. Men are not scared of independent or successful women in the traditional understanding of fear. Men (experienced ones) just know that today’s woman is increasingly hard to coordinate a life with. A woman with ambition will follow that ambition without blinking (that is the nature of ambition) and a man will just not know his role. Some men are just avoiding headaches by steering clear because they feel they cannot reconcile ambitious women with a happy home. There is a trend with American men ordering brides from Eastern Europe, for they feel, apparently, American women have become insatiable. But that’s America. But the sentiment is the same. Men feel they cannot make women happy regardless of what they do while women discover what they truly want. And if you cannot make someone happy regardless of what you do? Might as well do less. If you are 35% of the Perfect Man your partner wishes you to be, she will clobber you with the 65% that you fall short. If you are 95% of the Perfect Man, you are no better, you will be smothered unconscious with the missing 5%. All are injured. Might as well do less. So women complain of the end of men, an era of boys they call it. Men complain of the disillusionment of women.