Irish Independent

Monday November 19th 2001

It's official: we don't need men

Now that scientists can 'make' human sperm, do we really need the real thing? Yes, says psychologist BETTY CODY.

By BETTY CODY
Irish Independent

OK, so now we know. A recent conference on fertility was rocked by the news that scientists can now 'make' human sperm. Men everywhere crossed their fingers and their legs and hoped that the last function for which they are essential, the fathering of children, would not now be taken away from them.

Men, as a hundred TV ads will tell you, are pretty useless at most things, but at least they have been needed for their genes. Now even that is in question. Is this the final nail in the coffin of men's traditional role in society during the 21st century?

Not so long ago in the first half of the 20th century is was a lot simpler. Men and women had a defined role. In general, men worked outside the home and women looked after the family.

When the first of the modern Irish feminists emerged, they spelled out the most important freedom for Irish women at that time. It was 'choice'. Adult children in Ireland find it hard to believe that many of their mothers had to leave their employment either in banks or within the civil service when they married. When this ban was removed, women were free not only to be nurturers but also to pursue careers outside the home.

Most western societies have changed their attitude to women working outside the home. In 1938 only one in five Americans approved of a married woman earning money in business if she had a husband capable of supporting her. By 1988, four out of five people approved of women working outside the home.

The down-side of this freedom led women to have higher expectations of what men had to contribute within the home. Men were encouraged to take on household chores.

While continuing to be breadwinners, a role in which they were comfortable, they were now expected to have the skills of cooking, cleaning, bringing children to school and helping with homework. Men are now being burdened with tasks at which they are not particularly competent.

In addition women crave a romantic and emotional partner while at the same time expecting their man to be strong and supportive in times of crisis.

Many of the tensions between the genders can be explained by differences in physiology, brain structure and society's expectations of how men and women should behave.

Some years ago the nature/nurture debate was researched by feminists who wanted their male and female children to enjoy playing with both cars and dolls. The experiment was a failure.

Girls who were presented with cars and lorries quickly reverted to playing with dolls while the boys insisted on running around with action toys.

A further complication is the fact that while men have excellent spatial skills and are extremely good at focusing on a single complex task, women have the capacity for multi-tasking.

What that means is, for example, in the home a women can prepare a meal, iron clothes and oversee homework all at the same time. Men are more focused and are likely to approach each task and complete it before moving on to the next one.

Even in social situations men have been found to have fewer skills when interacting with each other. Research found that men's conversations cover very few topics. Women, sport and work are top of the list.

Women, on the other hand, can discuss around 15 topics during a conversation, moving easily from one to the other. This causes particular problems for men when a woman wants to discuss a relationship difficulty. She is likely to bring up a range of issues whereas a man wants to stick to the main point of the problem.

One of the most difficult issues facing men at the present time is related to emotion. From a psychological point of view, women have far more areas of the brain related to the expression of emotion. Although men are less likely than females to dissolve into tears they too feel pain but grew up with a fear of expressing it.

Previous generations forget to teach most men how to express their feelings. In fact they moved in the opposite direction and taught boys to suppress emotion. Many men have acknowledged their difficulty with the experience. In this regard a growing number of men's groups have emerged in the recent past.

Yet society is still more comfortable with the stereotypical male. This makes it difficult for those who wish to explore their 'feminine' side.

One of the most disturbing modern-day difficulties encountered by men, whether they are strong and tough or sensitive and gentle, has been the denial of their rights to a proper relationship with their children if the relationship with the child's mother fails.

If a marriage breaks up, the father is likely to be asked to pay maintenance for his child. With this new burden of responsibility men are now seeking their rights as fathers to be dignified by their presence in raising their children.

Unfortunately for many such men, the family courts, where the words 'custody' and 'access' are commonplace, usually decide that fathers play a very minor role in the upbringing of their children, regardless of their competencies. Society and judges are still more comfortable in acknowledging that women are more likely to be better care-givers.

Some American states have had much greater experience than Ireland in this area and are now experimenting with 'joint parenting' decisions. Many women will not like this idea as they may have settled with another partner and are content with the level of access granted to the biological father. But for many fathers it isn't enough and they are suffering continuous pain through the loss of a child or children when a relationship breaks down.

From a psychological point of view all children need both male and female role models. Most research would confirm that children have much better chances of growing up with a positive outlook when two committed parents are involved in their growth.

Yet many children are living without a father figure. Although we know that many children of separated parents grow up with maturity and confidence, nonetheless every child will benefit if they have a special man in their lives. While women can nurture well, men are better placed to teach their children many other life skills.

If human life continues to be formed by a man and a woman in a loving union, and sperm is not replaced by a laboratory test tube, the role of males in nurturing children should never be underestimated.

No woman (or man) can be all things to all children. Men need more pressure groups to assert their rights. Whether it relates to rearing children, addressing the unacceptable level of male suicide or the fact that in general men are likely to die earlier than women, as a society we should begin to sit up and listen to the growing unrest and unhappiness of some men.

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