"Masculinity in crisis" cannot justify killing your family

Maybe it will be clearer in hindsight, but this murderous defence of privilege is shocking.

“Masculinity in crisis” is one of those rag-bag phrases that’s ended up meaning everything and nothing: GCSE results, Fight Club, rape culture, Homer Simpson, UniLAD, househusbands, Page Three, adverts for washing powder, female primary teachers, testicular cancer, single mothers, Rod Liddle, Fathers4Justice, depression, suicide, Diane Abbott, Family Guy… need I go on? It’s a phrase few people like. Men are patronised by it, laden as it is with double-edged pity. Women feel insulted by it, and pressured to apologise for advantages they do not have. And yet it’s a phrase that won’t go away. Masculinity is perpetually “in crisis”. Meanwhile, although we never get there, women are always assumed to be on the up. 

A study into “family annihilation” conducted by Birmingham City University criminologists has gone so far as to link our current “crisis in masculinity” to fathers murdering their own children. Quoted in the Guardian, project leader Professor David Wilson describes a pattern whereby “some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past”. I don’t suspect Wilson of ulterior motives in saying this, nor do I feel he is making excuses for the 59 men studied by his team. All the same, I find the reporting of his conclusions shocking, particularly in the direct use of the “masculinity in crisis” phrase. 

If family annihilation is truly a reflection of such a crisis what should be our response? Is it meaningful to cling even more desperately to the tragic tale of manhood in decline, tossing glimmers of false hope in amongst all the resentment we thereby create, or should we be questioning the crisis itself? In granting validity to the story, regardless of whether we’re discussing Malteser adverts, family courts or slit throats, aren’t we making it a foregone conclusion that however privileged you are, you will notice only the things that aren’t yours any more?

I think if we were discussing something that happened a century ago we’d feel a greater sense of horror. Had middle-class men of the early twentieth century been murdering their children in order to punish disloyal wives, or due to feeling undermined by women getting the vote, we’d find the phrase “masculinity in crisis” somewhat weak as a description. We’d recognise that this is not simply a situation in which something has been done to privileged men, leaving them unable to cope in a brave new world. We’d see, writ large, the hatefulness of the power relationships such men were seeking to preserve. We’d find it monstrous. And yet the modern-day “masculinity in crisis” narrative has eased itself in so slowly, and so subtly, that it feels self-evident for a certain type of man to mourn the loss of a golden age that never was. It feels wrong to intrude on their grief, even when we’re feeding a myth that, in its worst manifestations, risks validating a murderous sense of ownership. 

Privilege takes many forms. White, cis, heterosexual, middle-class women such as myself have advantages that millions of men haven’t. Yet sexism and misogyny are real, and it strikes me that women sometimes have most to fear from men who will feel any loss of power, real or perceived, most keenly. The Birmingham City University team found that most family annihilators “were employed, including policemen or soldiers, and were not previously known to the criminal justice system”. The “masculinity in crisis” thesis so often leads back to those men who have been able to benefit from being born male, and hence have more to lose. The male columnists who claim to speak on behalf of “the little man”, so harshly put-upon in our post-feminist age, are rarely little men themselves. 

If it is true that the journey is often better than the destination, then perhaps the slow, incremental gains that women make mark them out as privileged in a different way. We are the winners because we’re seen to be in the process of winning. Being an actual winner is, of course, profoundly dissatisfying. It doesn’t feel like victory. It just feels the way things should be, and the “masculinity in crisis” story pretends that it is. The “masculinity in crisis” story positions men as losers. It short-circuits attempts to understand gender relationships in ways that are not based on possession and loss. Women and men, and their children, deserve better than this.

A police line. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.