Dear Millennial men,
A few nights ago I heard frantic, terrified screams coming from my daughter’s bedroom upstairs. She was crying and yelling “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Kids have different cries depending on the severity of the situation, and this was the kind of cry that set off the panic button in my head.
It took me about 4.5 seconds to run from the living room to her room, but that was plenty of time to conjure up some enormously paranoid ideas about why she was in distress. I imagined there was a fire in her room somehow, and then I thought, no, that’s ridiculous, I bet a kidnapper broke in through the window. By the time I got to her door I was ready to kill this imaginary intruder with my bare hands.
Of course there was no intruder, or even a fire, it turns out Julia just had a bad dream.
So I picked her up, calmed her down, and asked her what her nightmare was about. She said “snowman,” I think, or maybe it was “Sudan.” Or it could it have been “shaman,” actually. I wasn’t sure. Anyway, whether she was dreaming of a mutated snow creature or a gun-toting Sudanese militant or a creepy tribal witch doctor, I assured her she was safe and everything was OK and Daddy was right there. Then I gave her a kiss, put her back to bed and told her I loved her. She smiled and whispered, “Daddy loves Julia,” and I told her “yes, Daddy does, very much.” I left the room and she fell right back asleep. Crisis managed.
I feel comfortable regaling you with this sappy story because a man is always allowed to be sappy when talking about his daughter (or the final scene in “Rudy”), but also because it leads me to an important point. This was one of those moments that made me pause and think, “Wow. I’m a Dad. I’m a husband. I’m a protector, provider, and imaginary snow monster slayer. I’m a man.” I still stop and marvel over that from time to time, even if every Dad moment isn’t necessarily so precious and sentimental, like the next day when she pooped on the floor and her brother stepped in it (potty training is a rough business).
But whatever the job calls for, I know I always have a purpose and a calling that transcends my own self-interest. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect in heeding that call and putting my self-interest to the side, but still I live with a certain meaning and clarity that I did not have before.
I can look at my life up until this point and separate it into two distinct halves: childhood and manhood. Childhood ended and manhood began precisely when I became a husband and then a father. That is my experience, and maybe it’s just a sad statement about the sort of person I was before, but I suspect there’s something more universal to it. I walk through life as a man, feeling like a man, because I have a wife to love, children to raise, snow monsters to fight, and a family to provide for and protect.
That’s why it pains me to see what’s happening in my generation — how so many of us men are so deathly afraid of marriage and fatherhood. Young men these days desperately hang onto their adolescence, unwilling to grow up and graduate to the next stage of their lives. Record numbers are living at home. Millions supposedly can’t find jobs and can’t support themselves.
On average we’re waiting almost until our 30s to get married, and a large number will never get married or have kids at all. Of course, we’ll still move in with women, and maybe procreate with them, but we’re often satisfied just to have a glorified roommate, not a wife. We substitute marriage with “living together” because cohabitation gives us all the selfish perks (less loneliness, more sex) but none of the petrifying commitment, responsibility and sacrifice that comes with forming a family fortified by the covenant of marriage.
But love that avoids commitment and sacrifice is no love at all. Couples shack up together under the pretense that they can somehow simulate marriage — try it on for size, in effect — but it doesn’t work because you can’t simulate devotion and fidelity. As men, we either give ourselves entirely to the women we love, or not at all. Increasingly, we seem to be choosing the latter. We turn away from marriage but grasp for some pale reflection of its joys. We don’t want to be family men, but neither do we want to be celibate and single. We don’t want to give, in other words, but we won’t hesitate to take.
In our fear we’ve become stagnate, and in our stagnation we’ve lost focus and ambition. That, I believe, is the disease that plagues our generation more than anything. A staggering number of us have literal diseases, like chlamydia and syphilis, but beyond our inflamed genitals we suffer even more deeply from a sort of nihilistic malaise. I notice this not just in my reading of statistics and surveys, but in my interactions with my peers.
Often it seems they have no direction; no sense of who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. Depression rates are soaring in our ranks, not just because of the diseasification of every difficult human emotion, but because we have no ambition, no overarching goal or motivation. We’re running in place, terrified of what we’ll encounter if we progress down the road a bit.
That’s why I didn’t go to my 10-year high school reunion a year ago. There’s no point in it. Ten-year reunions are the new one-year reunion. Most of us are in about the same place we were a year after graduating. There’s nothing to report, really. No profound life changes. No significant growth or maturity. We’re still kids. There’s not much reason to check in at the tail end of our 20s because we haven’t done anything with our 20s. We took a 10-year hiatus from adulthood right when it was beginning, and now we feel trapped and paralyzed.
In the past, a decade after high school most people would be married, they’d have kids, they’d have their careers and vocations figured out. Up until very recently, a 28- or 29-year-old man was a man. He walked in the door after a hard day’s work and kissed his wife and hugged his children. And he didn’t retreat to his room or the basement to play with his toys all evening. He ate dinner at the head of the table, helped his kids with their homework and led his family in prayer. He lived with meaning and a sense of service and leadership, and he knew there was a marked difference between himself at this point in his life and himself as a high school student. He was a boy, and then he became man. And I imagine he could locate the exact dividing line between those two phases of life.
These kinds of men and women exist in our generation, obviously, but they appear to be in the minority. That presents a great challenge for those of us who are trying to grow, change, mature and live as real adults. Sometimes we feel deeply alone and alienated, unable to relate to our peers because every time we’re around them we feel like we’ve stepped through a time warp back into our 11th grade homeroom. We can’t understand these people anymore.
It all comes back to the fear, I think. We’re afraid to embrace manhood because we’re afraid of what comes with it: work, duty, sacrifice. And I believe this fear and doubt is both a result and a cause of our decision to delay, or swear off, marriage and fatherhood.
We’re afraid to embrace manhood because we’re afraid of what comes with it: work, duty, sacrifice.
Look, I realize there are other elements to this. Yes, of course I know some men are truly not called to this vocation. But the men who are meant to be single or childless for a while, or permanently, are still meant to sacrifice themselves and live devoted to another. To be fathers, essentially, in another sense.
All men must live for the Other — in most cases, that Other will be our wives and our children, but some men will find the Other in religious life, or military service, or something else. These are noble, fatherly callings. The young men pouring themselves into these causes are certainly very mature, masculine, and selfless. I admire those men. But I’m sure you’d agree they are the exception, not the rule.
Let’s be real: most of the guys our age aren’t shirking marriage because they’ve dedicated themselves to celibate lives of benevolent and humble service to God or country.
I also know that men aren’t the only ones hiding from adulthood and eschewing marriage and parenthood. This is a serious problem among the women in our generation as well. Our women, poisoned by feminism and materialism, often choose to be frivolous, self-centered, and self-seeking in the extreme.
Our society celebrates whorish, vulgar, cowardly, violent qualities in women, and many have taken that to heart. Some women today have no problem expressing hatred towards men and children, even killing their babies and bragging about it publicly.
Meanwhile, as men take heat (rightly so, in my mind) for being fixated on toys and comic book characters invented to appeal to 12 year olds, women generally get off the hook for their own juvenile, ridiculous affection for adolescent pop music and trashy romance novels. Indeed, there are plenty of immature, resentful, selfish, immodest, anti-maternal women out there, and I know that makes it harder for the men who do wish to become husbands and fathers.
Still, I’m not going to pawn all the blame off on women. Let the feminists engage in that kind of cowardly, cross-gender finger pointing. We’re men; we’re supposed to be the leaders. We’re supposed to take the reins, not just in our families, but in society as a whole. Sure, feminism has made many in our culture hostile to masculine, assertive men, but that doesn’t mean we should just surrender and take a back seat.
In truth, even most of these deluded feminists still fiercely and quietly yearn for a man who will come into their lives and be that protector and leader. These roles are natural and ingrained, fundamentally desirable to almost everyone, and it’s up to us to reassert them. Nobody will do it for us.
Men are right to hate modern feminism with a raw and fiery passion, but they aren’t right to slink away to their basements and throw up the white flag. They aren’t right to devolve back into adolescence and blame that decision on environmental factors. Regardless of feminism or “the system” or whatever, we have to go on being men.
So I’m here to tell you don’t be afraid of marriage and fatherhood. Only 50 years ago, men were getting married and starting families at the age of 22. Today we’re waiting until we’re practically middle aged. And what greater cause are we pursuing during that time? Usually, the answer is nothing. We’re watching a lot of Netflix and playing a lot of video games, but that’s not enough.
A man needs a cause. An ideal. A mission that goes beyond himself. A reason to sacrifice himself. I think it is very hard to grow as a man, to even become a man, without that.
Granted, this isn’t foolproof. Plenty of immature men and women remain immature, or even regress, when they enter marriage and parenthood. But the hallmark of immaturity is selfishness, and the more we get used to living selfishly — that is, living only to entertain and satiate ourselves — the more selfish we become. Marriage and family should be the bedrock, the birth, the foundation of adulthood, because it rips you out of that cycle of self-involvement.
This is what I try to explain to my single friends who are single mostly because marriage makes them nervous. Sure, it can be a challenging vocation — life is challenge. But we find truth and joy in overcoming it, not avoiding it. And yes, parenthood can drain and exhaust you, but it also infuses you with a strength and energy you didn’t know you had.
Most of all, in family there is love. For me, the love found in family has been all encompassing, fulfilling, affirming, and transformative. It is what turned me from a boy into a man. I believe all men search for this kind of love.
But if we’re too afraid to give ourselves and our love to something greater, like family, then we start reaching for replacements. We invest ourselves in television, or games, or pornography, or anything else. We look for a companion that can be put back on the shelf at the end of the day. All the while we remain wrapped up in ourselves, focused almost entirely inward.
Of course the paradox is that we lose ourselves when we focus on ourselves too much. On the other hand, we grow and flourish when we love outwardly, actively, and fully; when we satisfy our heart’s longing to live for another, to be someone’s comfort, shelter, strength and protection.
Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular among our generation. We find an outlet for that desire in silly characters who wear spandex and shoot lasers from their eyes. In the old days, a boy would turn into a father and a husband and have no need to continue fantasizing about being Superman. To his family, he became that source of safety and calm. He was Superman, at least in his children’s eyes, and he even got called in to kill snow monsters on occasion.
I think we should get back to that.
I think you shouldn’t be so afraid.
We’re men. This is what we’re called to do. Now let’s get on with doing it.
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