A sad thing has happened: my friend Dan has become a homeowner, a husband and a dad. It’s sad because he’s finding it all really hard. “I love them,” he tells me. “But I’m not loving it.” He means life. He’s not loving life. More specifically, the responsibility and the sacrifice of freedom. In fact he’s trying to escape the more difficult elements, like millions of men who have gone before him. I visited one weekend to help him build a wall in his garden. There was tension in the house between Dan and his wife, who is never happy with his performance and is always questioning how he does things. They were bickering and it was verging on nasty.
One morning we were having breakfast and Dan’s wife was quietly attacking him for not yet having bought all the materials for the wall. “I’ll just have to go to Homebase again later for the extra bricks,” he said. “You should have had it all ready so you could just build it all today,” she said, pushing food into the baby’s mouth. Dan scooped up the last of his eggs and stood up, mumbling something under his breath as he ditched his plate in the sink. “Don’t call me an idiot,” she said. The toddler ran around bashing a plastic spoon against the cupboards. Dan pulled on his shoes and walked out to face the job. I followed awkwardly to help.
What I’m about to say doesn’t mean for a moment that Dan would want to not have kids any more, or his house, or that he doesn’t love his wife. He really does want all those things. And if he wants them, then I want them for him. I’m really happy for him. But he’s not loving it. So I’m really sad for him too. How can this be? What has he sacrificed? How many of his choices are real choices?
The funny thing is that Dan was always much more radical than me. He was raised by a couple who became politically charged at university in the 70s. My parents didn’t go to university. But I did, so when I first met Dan at university 10 years ago I was enticed by his instinctive sense of politics. He would hear a news story and instantly strike a leftist pose, often Marxist or feminist, in response. This did not come as easy to me. I’ve had to learn that stuff. I’ve had to read it, listen to talks, argue about it, and feel it through my own experiences. Dan’s politics were an instinct because of his upbringing; my politics are the product of a method. He taught me how to react to Tony Blair and the Iraq war. The way he could instantly pull apart New Labour made him a hero to me. And the way he knew so much about obscure music—often politically queer—frankly put him out of my league. But we were friends anyway. (I guess he’d say that what I brought to the friendship was a kind of solidity: he can be bad at planning but it is my forte.)
So Dan and I grew up together as young men, helping each other with creative projects, going to gigs, analysing politics and history, sharing our worries, and walking in the Peak District. We often mocked the boy racers with their belching exhaust pipes and their gym muscles. We’re both small and weedy and sometimes camp; conventional masculinity was always something we were ready to tear down.
Fast forward to now: Dan has a house, a wife and two young children. All of these are demanding his time, love and attention. They are demanding strength (physical and emotional), competence, and planning. These are not traits only of masculinity but in a household where the wife does the bulk of the child rearing and the man takes on the never-ending task of making a house a home, all the driving and the DIY, the demands on Dan cannot help but have a masculine flavour. He has taken on the role of the conventional modern man, and he’s struggling with it—as anyone would be.
That morning when Dan quarrelled with his wife and then headed out to the silence of the unbuilt wall while I followed, I realised something. We stepped out to look at a day of hard physical labour lugging bags of sand and bashing bricks together . And as the door clicked closed behind me, I realised why men don’t stay.
I realised that men retreat into the garden shed or to the lakeside with a fishing rod or even to gruelling physical labour often as a way of escaping household tensions. It’s a cliché, but it is what Dan has become. I am not attacking Dan. I love him. What I am saying is that we can make choices for a conventional life, but with those conventions come the clichés.
Stepping out into the garden and the hard graft ahead of us felt like a liberation from the emotional demands inside the house. It is sad how much liberty is relative, how much we can trim back the liberty we once idealistically sought.