I turned to my husband one evening recently in tears. It wasn’t about any one thing in particular. Rather, I was crying about ALL the things afflicting women over the last few years. To name a few:
- increased rates of domestic violence
- declining rates of women in the workplace following the pandemic combined with overall lower pay
- the formula shortage and lack of support for women to breastfeed at work
- the overturning of Roe v. Wade and all the ramifications that ruling has for women’s reproductive health at large, and more.
The overwhelm of it all combined with my postpartum fatigue to push me past my limit.
Tears began to flow as anxiety and fear for my infant daughter’s future reached a peak. I remember saying to my husband something along the lines of “It’s not right! None of this is okay! I’m SO sick of this – not just for me but for every woman out there, especially the ones who aren’t even aware that these issues WILL touch their lives at some point.”
After I spoke the words out loud it dawned on me that all of these issues are connected to unfair gender stereotypes, female oppression, and toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is defined as “cultural norms associated with men that are harmful to society and to men themselves.”
The traits of toxic masculinity include:
- mental and physical toughness
- stoicism, or not displaying emotion
- discrimination against people who aren’t heterosexual
- emotional insensitivity
Please allow me to share my experiences and explain why toxic masculinity affects each of the aforementioned issues that harm women’s wellness…
I first learned about domestic violence at the beginning of high school through a program that educated youth about which peer-to-peer actions fall under sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. The group performed a series of short skits to demonstrate real life scenarios and how to handle them from both a male and female perspective. The education was of the utmost importance and, unfortunately, it was already delivered too late.
Throughout middle school I can recall countless instances of being between 11-13 years old and verbally harassed or physically assaulted through unwelcome and inappropriate touches from ignorant boys my own age and grown men. Back in the 1990s when toxic masculinity was arguably at its peak (later leading to the #metoo movement), I was convinced that such actions were uncomfortable forms of flattery and used them to boost my body image confidence. This was an incredibly sad and unhealthy coping mechanism because I didn’t know what else to do.
Shortly after watching the program in high school I signed up to join the group of teens advocating for awareness and action to prevent sexual violence of all kinds. Alongside a few other teens who happened to share my comfort with public speaking, we petitioned the school board to have a modified version of education about sexual violence presented in middle schools. I’m pleased to say that the motion passed.
Unfortunately, programs like the one I was exposed to are few and far between. Leaders I’ve worked with in Washington, DC continue to be swamped with women coming to their non-profits looking for help to escape violent and dangerous situations. These unhealthy relationships create power dynamics and abuse that affect women’s individual and collective wellness, and the future mental and physical health of any children involved.
Trauma is generational and women who suffer abuse under toxic masculinity are more stressed during pregnancy when abuse typically heightens and are at increased risk for poor health outcomes for the fetus. These women are sometimes less able to offer healthy emotional attachment patterns for babies in the first 18 months of life to no fault of their own, leading to long-term mental health and self-image repercussions into adulthood for those children.
One of the keys to getting women out from under the control of abusive partners is to help promote their financial independence so that they can afford to step away from the situation. Despairingly, women’s workforce participation has taken a dramatic downturn due to the pandemic. Coupled with the abysmal gender wage gap, this is a health and wellness crisis that many women are suffering through as we speak.
Lower Workforce Participation and Wages
Women have been leaving the workplace in scores since the beginning of the pandemic due to increased workload on the job combined with family demands. The pressure on women to perform in both the work and home sectors but with minimal support, lower wages than men, and gender discrimination is abominable.
A lack of work-life balance has resulted in a depressing four in five women reporting that their employers don’t help them create clear boundaries between work and personal time, especially amid the unusual circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, less than half of women in the workforce are happy about their job situation.
What does toxic masculinity have to do with women in the work force? Just about everything…
Not only does gender discrimination result in lower wages but according to survey data from Deloitte, the majority of working women have experienced “non-inclusive behaviors in work situations over the past year—everything from unwanted physical contact and disparaging remarks about their gender to questions about their judgment.”
I can’t think of anything as toxic as a workplace that suffocates the positive attributes and unique needs that come with being a woman. Men who are domineering seem to forget where the debt of gratitude is owed and whose body shaped their own for nine months. Unfortunately, this lack of respect for all that women do results in poor workplace support for maternity leave, childcare needs, flexible scheduling, breastfeeding/pumping while being a working mother, and more.
The Formula Shortage and Breastfeeding Hurdles
It pained me to see the effects of toxic masculinity affecting women in the initial days and weeks following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. All the heated debates about women’s bodies and potential future children have been happening parallel to a formula shortage crisis. The women who can least afford to move forward with unplanned pregnancies are also in a position to struggle to pay for nutrition for their babies if they are unable to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding itself is a full-time job and many working mothers understandably struggle to manage its demands alongside their jobs. I understand this firsthand because I gave up some career pursuits years ago when I realized I couldn’t breastfeed and start a business I had planned. It was simply too much for me. I was in a place of privilege where I could afford to step away from the workplace to be with my baby. Many moms can’t afford to lose their income or wouldn’t wish to step away from their careers for a period of time. For these moms, supportive workplaces that allow flexibility and space for nursing/pumping are essential.
The injustice hit me when not only Roe v. Wade was overturned but also a law to protect the breastfeeding/pumping needs of 9 million working moms was shot down by Senate. Did they not get the memo that there is a formula shortage? Do they not know how biology works for nourishing offspring? Do they really think failing to pass a helpful law will enhance women’s workplace commitment and productivity?
I’m left shaking my head.
I’m a breastfeeding mom and woman who has experienced two pregnancy losses and five pregnancies. I can’t help but feel like women just like me are under direct attack by our leaders – and for what? For going through the trials of doing our best to bring healthy little people into this world. It’s absolutely dumbfounding.
The emotional insensitivity and use of power to harm women and children’s health outcomes without question falls under the umbrella of toxic masculinity. The reality of life is that women and children need social support in a myriad of ways that the toxic masculinity mindset of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency fails to meet.
Women’s Reproductive Health
I learned firsthand what happens when you think you know how your life will play out and usually, reality goes a different way. I was pregnant with my third son when I got a poor prenatal diagnosis at the inception of the pandemic. I openly confess that I was unsure whether I should continue or end my pregnancy.
At the time I had two beautiful sons and had experienced an early pregnancy loss too. I never imagined considering a pregnancy termination but it weighed heavily on me before I lost my child. I wanted to do anything possible to protect my child from pain and suffering. I loved (and still love) the son I lost with all my heart.
With Roe v. Wade overturned I’m horror stricken over the pregnancies that will be forced to term despite being incompatible with life or a myriad of other complications that will result in suffering for the baby and a heightened risk of medical complications for the mom.
As many news sources have cited, the overturning of Roe v. Wade will affect training for medical professionals for both abortions and routine pregnancy losses, enhancing the risk of poor outcomes for women to come. I also lament this reality because during my late pregnancy loss removal I unexpectedly hemorrhaged and was minutes away from my uterus being removed to save my life. If I had been anywhere but a hospital then I likely would have died but instead, I have a four-inch scar on my stomach and a beautiful baby girl.
My story is hard and complicated but it sheds light on the many ways that reproductive choices and care are delicate and nuanced. Most importantly, they are best left between a woman, her medical team, and her faith.
I can’t help but see the ways that Christian nationalism and the rise of toxic masculinity within it has shaped a movement that has its jaws deeply embedded in our messed up, increasingly polarized political and legal systems. Toxic masculinity is behind the cherry picking of biblical texts used out of context to force women into submission, sexual abuse, and inferior roles, and it’s behind the inflexible thinking about reproductive rights that opts for power, control and force instead of compassion, assistance, and mercy.
There are “Godly men” out there saying that women who end their pregnancies should be sentenced to death. I’ve watched the videos of these men defiantly and angrily saying such things. They don’t care that their words alone do great damage to women’s wellness.
These men haven’t sat with an open heart and listened to the complicated stories from women who have endured hardships during years of TTC, being pregnant, enduring loss, and more. These men haven’t seen my tears, heard my sobs, or understood my torment. And they don’t care.
Theirs is a world to be conquered and women to be tamed.
My Plan to Reduce Toxic Masculinity
My feelings of helplessness kept increasing this summer as one assault after the next against women’s health took its turn. I can’t personally reduce unwanted pregnancies through violent rapes or end domestic violence from behind closed doors. I can’t reach into millions of women’s homes and help them navigate the early days of breastfeeding that are so crucial. I can’t afford to buy formula to help each and every mom in need of her next can. There are so many things I want to do on a grand scale and yet only small steps that I can reasonably take like listening with compassion to women’s abortion stories or donating modest amounts of money to help feed children in need. These small things matter but still leave me yearning for something more that I can do.
Until recently, it didn’t occur to me that there is in fact one HUGE thing I can do…
I can raise my sons well.
I can focus my energy on raising sons who are allowed to be sensitive and who are in touch with their emotions. Sons that grow into men who demonstrate compassion and respect for women as equals. Men who know their own strength but never use it to harm or intimidate others. Men who treat their partners with care. Who approach society and bettering the world with a collective mindset. If these attributes are increasingly displayed through more and more men in the future then they have the power to dismantle oppressive hierarchies and give birth to redemptive healing.
The future of women’s wellness rests on the innocent shoulders of one small boy at a time. It relies on them having safe caregiver attachment relationships. It depends on how they are treated and nurtured through the choppy waters of their emotions and learning how to cope with them. It hinges on them having a healthy sense of worth without arrogance. It needs them to accept and embrace the diverse world we live in and to humbly pause when they feel offended that others don’t agree with their perspectives.
My two sweet sons rely on my patience, energy and effort as their mother. I’m far from perfect but I believe that if I stay mindful and raise them well then those two sets of dark brown eyes looking up at me for guidance will some day look out into a world that is better for their mother, sister, wives, daughters, and friends. That world will undoubtedly be better for men too.
If you believe in collective prayer then I ask you to pray for this future with me.
Yours in health and wellness,