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Fathers, don't tell your sons to 'toughen up'


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We need to be reminded of the responsibility we hold in redefining masculinity for our kids, writes Aaron Hendry.

I remember the first time I admitted to someone I was battling depression. I felt sick, exhausted, terrified, all at the same time.

I was sitting with my girlfriend – now wife – and for the longest time I just couldn’t say anything. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, the words turned to ash, disintegrating and crumbling to pieces. Eventually, the word depression sprung into the air. And as soon as it did, I wished I could grab hold of it and wrestle it back under the cover of secrecy.

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This was going to change the way she looked at me. She was going to see me as weak, pitiful, stupid. She was going to be disgusted by me. She was going to leave me. I knew she was going to leave me. But, she didn’t. All I remember is love. Acceptance. Understanding. She saw me and got it. She understood.

That moment was the beginning of my journey towards recovery.

Her care and compassion gave me the strength to tell others. To get help. I wasn’t weak, I was strong. Or so she told me. Strength was found in the ability to be vulnerable. It was witnessed when an individual had the courage to be open, honest, real.

I had always thought that strength meant fighting this thing on my own. That if I admitted I had depression, it would make me less of a man. That it would make me weak.

These ideas are a hangover from a patriarchal society which has told us that to be a man you have to be tough, stoic, gumboot wearing, rugby playing, pig hunters. It has led us to believe that true men suffer in silence. That true men just “toughen up”.

These ideas hang like a noose around the minds of men in this nation. They are proof that the harm the patriarchy has caused extends beyond the dehumanisation of women, returning to wreak havoc on us as well. That the toxic nature of masculinity in this country is killing us.

I have never been so aware of this than I am today.

This year I became a father. It’s amazing what having a child will do to crystalise your thinking.

For a long time, I have been an advocate for open and honest dialogue about depression and mental illness. In my mahi as a Youth Worker I am constantly telling young people that it is not weak for them to be open, to be real about what they are going through, to get help. And though I might preach openness and vulnerability, I struggle to do it myself.

I still struggle with depression, and when I have ‘one of those days/months’ I allow the stigma to drive me to silence. I try to hide it, to “toughen up” or to “get over it”.

But, being a father has made me realise that my little son will pay very little attention to what I say, and will learn volumes from what I actually do.

I don’t want this for my son. I don’t want him to suffer in silence, or believe that if – God forbid – he ever experienced mental illness, that it was his fault, or that he was just weak and needed to “toughen up”.

I want him to be strong enough to get help. To be courageous enough to admit when he is struggling. To be man enough to say he is hurting.

I want to change things for him. I need to do better as a father, as a man. I need to learn what it means to demonstrate the strength of vulnerability. We all do.

Men, if we are serious about ending the stigma around depression and mental illness, we need to be courageous enough to start talking about it.

If not for ourselves, for our kids.

For those who are watching us.

For the little ones who are looking to us to figure out how to live in this world we created for them.

Let Father's Day be an opportunity for us to be reminded of the responsibility we hold in redefining masculinity for our kids. Let’s teach our little boys that “real men” are strong enough to be vulnerable. That being honest about our struggles is not weak, but courageous.

This culture of toxic masculinity is not going to change unless we do.

It’s time we did something about it.


Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A theology graduate of Laidlaw College, he writes about the intersection of theology and social justice at whenlambsaresilent.wordpress.com / facebook.com/whenlambsaresilent