White House Evaluates Strategies to Address Loneliness 0:49
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(CNN) -- Several years ago, another parent contacted me after reading my paper on being a stay-at-home parent. He was married, had two young children and didn't get along well. He couldn't find anyone to talk to outside of his family.
He didn't say it, because most men don't say it, but fatherhood was affecting his mental health and self-esteem. He felt lonely, but not because he didn't have a good relationship with his partner. He told me it was because he had no friends.
Today we hear a lot about men who don't find the kind of deep friendship that helps them get through life's ups and downs like many women do. I have also experienced what is known as the epidemic of male loneliness, and many fathers tell me that it has become a component that impacts their fatherhood.
"There's no one to talk to. I walk into a crowded place and it's like I don't exist," one parent told me. His experience touched a sensitive nerve in me.
15 years ago, when I became a stay-at-home parent for the first time, I took my kids to the mall playground. I sat on the floor with my newborn while my young son played in the germ-infested games. His arm was propped up on the end of a bench while reading a book.
Soon, a group of mothers approached the bank, put down their bags, and parked their strollers. Then a mom sat on my arm without realizing it. In the end, I politely said "Excuse me," and she looked at me in surprise and offered no apology. Apparently, I was invisible.
What exactly happens?
The biggest question parents ask me is how to find connection and friendship. Regardless of whether they are stay-at-home parents or not, the lack of meaningful connections is a hole in our lives.
Richard Reeves, author of "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It," calls it the "friendship deficiency."
In America, many men have disconnected from the social institutions that have anchored fathers to each other and to our community. Historically, men have established lasting bonds through religious institutions, friendships at work, and our sense of value derived through family for what we could contribute.
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Moreover, men in today's society may consider that deep relationships are not masculine, which further isolates them. Only 48% of men reported feeling satisfied with their friendships, according to a May 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life, as previously reported by CNN. And 1 in 5 said they had received emotional support from a friend in the past week, compared with 4 in 10 women.
All traditional male institutions have been eroded, and that's not to say that alteration is a bad thing. These power bases kept women subject to the will of men. As parents and guardians, we must not go backwards, but reimagine a new normal.
The problem for parents is finding that new normal in a way that meets both our needs and those of the women in our lives.
"Parent support systems are very scarce," says Reeves, who is also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank. "I mean really institutional support at all levels for parents."
Loneliness in parenthood goes far beyond whether or not you have a spouse. We have to go back to the most basic concept of community, which is friendship. The ability to ask for advice or be vulnerable without fear is priceless and, as parents, we don't have it in this current environment. Too many new parents lack mentorship from others involved in their lives.
As Reeves points out, women have come a long way in equality over the past 50 years. And relatively speaking, progress has been rapid. This is a victory for both men and women, as it truly gives everyone more choice and more freedom. Women are no longer beholden to their husbands due to financial constraints. However, men have not kept pace with the changing world and, as a result, as our connections deteriorate, we have been left alone in a world of people.
That's why I often get the question from other parents who come to me alone, sometimes lost and, more than anything, looking for someone who can understand what they are going through. Most of these men are married and still feel lonely.
This type of isolation is a big problem for men. A June study notes that socially isolated people are 32% more likely to die prematurely compared to those who do not experience social isolation. Reeves writes in his book that one of the most common words in men's suicide notes is the word "useless."
Men need to find our worth again.
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How we think about fathers and fatherhood
Too often, parents are portrayed as unnecessary idiots who complicate parenting instead of contributing anything to the family. In movies, TV shows, and novels, the father must often be controlled by the mother. Instead of encouraging parental involvement, popular culture tends to ridicule it. Those messages certainly have an influence on how parents and others feel about their parenthood.
"We have to change the history of parenthood," Reeves says. "The parenting model has to be more practical."
America also needs policy changes that support and encourage fatherhood from the start. At present, there is no national paternity leave policy. As parents, our work does not end the moment the child is born. It's just getting started. And if fathers take paternity leave when a child is born, we are often asked why. Childcare is supposed to be a woman's business and parents are supposed to have nothing to do.
Next, we need to create communities that encourage parents to do their best. Men need that emotional and physical support. Working parents can find it on the National At Home Dad Network or the City Dads Group.
But both national organizations go beyond stay-at-home parents. We don't care if you stay home with the kids or not, if you work or are divorced. We recognize that you are a parent, and that all parents deserve to have a mentor and a place to find friendship.
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But it's going to take real societal change in the way we think and act about parenting and parenthood."
Reeves advocates for what he calls HEAL: health, education, administration and literacy. Simply put, it encourages men to take on caring roles, such as paid teachers, nurses and childminders.
I recognize that there is much to overcome to achieve this. It means that society must see the value of a father beyond a salary and a stereotype of a buffoon.
We need to recreate institutions that not only encourage fathers to shoulder the mental burden of parenthood, but also support them to do so. Expectations of parenthood should not be based on a salary and how many hours we work. Economic care is certainly important, but so is the bond we have with our children, our family, and our community.
It can be hard to make friends as a man, but we need to get out of our isolated lives and back into our community. We can do this by volunteering with a local organization, joining a hobby with regular meetings, or simply joining an online men's community like Fathering Together. We have to make ourselves known on a personal level and actively work to make friends.
Men's lives literally depend on establishing that connection. This is the truth of the epidemic of male loneliness. Right now, what we need most are bonds with others.
-- Shannon Carpenter is a writer, author of "The Ultimate Stay-at-Home Dad" and married father of three