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Gender at Work > Reflections  > men, masculinity, violence and care in times of COVID-19

men, masculinity, violence and care in times of COVID-19

I have been 32 days at home, just like half of humanity, experiencing multiple degrees of mobility restrictions. Our lives have been entered a terrain filled with uncertainty, fear and anxieties.

I am one of those privileged people who has a job that can be done remotely. Who can take paid time off to care for myself and others. Who has enough food and enough cash flow to withstand these times. I don’t count my blessings; I count my privileges. The further the crisis sinks in, the further they crystallize.

I am one of those who left the places that we called home pursuing a better future, a brighter future. So, my body is here, in Boston, watching the flowers emerge from a sleepy winter but my head and my heart are back at home, in Colombia, in lockdown with my loved ones. It has taken a while for me to accept that I don’t know when I will see them again.

As part of this new reality, I take care of my toddler every other day. The notion of weekends and commute time have faded away. There have been days when I have asked my partner if I already showered. I am losing weight because I am no longer eating cookies and chocolate after lunch. The closest notion of me time has become dishes at night.

For the past 10 years, I have been in a journey to reshape who I am as a man. To look deep into the beauty and the ugliness of all the pieces that have created this quilt of masculinity that I carry around. It has been liberating, painful and at times, very scary. I have lost friends and lost love for things that were once almost sacred. At the same time, I found mindfulness, reflexivity and an abundance of courage, inspired by feminists in different shapes, gender identities and spaces. I thank them every day to help me be closer to who I want to be. Also, to remind me that I am a work in progress, sometimes flawed, sometimes still embodying patriarchy as a flag.

So now as a part-time caregiver and a full-time parent, I have been thinking about what it means for people and families to be confined in the same space. Day after day. The traditional notion of men as income earners and protectors as the economy goes downhill. This situation has finally place front and center the vital importance of care work. Care has been performed primarily by women at all ages and in all family roles. Work that does not stop, that is mostly unpaid and only becomes more relevant in times of crisis like this one.

Being at home means that men and boys are experiencing daily the intricacies and complexities of family life and power dynamics reveal themselves. This is something that in “normal times” can cause tremendous disruption. In times of high stress and uncertainty the result has been that the anger and frustration that many men carry with them is finding an outlet in using violence against the people they love the most.

Traditional masculinity tells us that one of the key traits to be a man is the ability to protect others: mothers, women and the nation to name a few. However, it does not question that for those same gropus men can be the highest threat. The result: a staggering  increase of domestic violence, in what UN Women calls “a shadow pandemic”. For many women and children and gender diverse folks, home can be worst that Covid-19.

The use of violence by men against others, especially women is a clear reflection of the inability many men have to connect with their emotions and articulate them in words. Tough is associative with stoicism and calmness. So, men need to be tough and show they are tough. In tough times -like this one- they expect to be tougher and this is a recipe for disaster.  bell hooks says that we all learn about patriarchy at home. Many folks around the world are unfortunately experiencing the whole weight of patriarchy under lockdown and stay-at-home measures as you read this.

At the same time, I have been reflecting about care and what this actually means. Research, such as the “Time to care” done by Oxfam, where I work, shows that women do way more care work in the world. Research from Promundo also shows that “in no country in the world do men’s contributions to unpaid care work equal women’s”

I feel proud of how much I think I do to provide care for my family and the people around me. However, this crisis has taught me that if I want to embrace care fully, I need to step up and do it quickly. No matter how many times I get the laundry done, call to check-in with my parents, clean bottles and pack snacks, make dinner and lunch, there are so many things I don’t think about or care that much about. And I am reminded that the mental load and the emotional labor my partner does might be invisible to me by choice or error, but it is very real and a heavy weight to carry.

Many men like me, might be finding in this weird time a chance to get a crash course on care. Some, voluntarily others reluctantly. Some are realizing that this is something they were craving for, needing in life and did not know what it was.  As we move from day tasks, to logistics and from meal planning to coloring, there is a sense of busyness and beauty that emerges. A new meaning of what providing and protecting for others and oneself means. Care work is the door that opens a unique chance for men to get rid of the toxic, harmful aspects that maintain power inequality and hurt women, gender diverse folks and profoundly hurt men. Care work offers a path to redemption against patriarchy and privilege. But it is work, so you must engage in it with love, imagination and rigor. You don’t have to be a parent for this, care work is the essential threat that makes us human. And that threat has been mostly interwoven by women.

As I put my child to sleep for a nap, as I hold them in my chest, I see how his universe resides in this room, in this house. I feel how they will learn from me what patriarchy means and entails and also, what care provision feels and looks like. Words are staring to emerge from him slowly at this age but the sense making of his world happens through actions and behaviors. He does what he sees.

For those men out there, who are genuinely working on changing their notions of masculinity by embracing care work, I want to offer a caution. The bar is low, absolutely low for men. You might be praised endlessly for taking responsibilities outside the traditional norms. Patriarchy works hard to keep you under control. You are not wonderful because you vacuum once a week or do the dishes or go grocery shopping. You are a functional person. This is called the pedestal effect, beware of it. Also, act, get on it, take leadership on assuming the mental workload and the emotional labor that caring takes. Care is not a switch that you can turn on and off, choosing to engage or not is a privilege you have to consciously renounce and reject.

For hard work there is reward. For each of us, it is different but very meaningful. For months, my child only called for mama at night or at ungodly hours. These days, he calls my name too and as much as I hate to wake up, there is a part of me that feels as I have earned it. I can assure you that there is a better, more satisfying and sustainable way of being a man that starts right where you are, at home.

The other end of domestic and gender-based violence is not only the absence of violence is the presence of care. Just like the other end of this crisis is not the absence of patriarchy, it is the presence of feminism. Not water down feminisms for branding or corporate sponsorship but an ideology, a way of living and an understanding of power that does not shy away from difficult, messy issues of race, religion, sexuality, ability, cast, class, peace, economy or government. A feminism that offers tools, concepts, frameworks and policies to clean the mess from this shattering system and to build collectively a new one.

At the other end of this, there is also a new way for those of us that identify as men to leave behind violence and sexism. There is an opportunity to show how being tough is about the willingness to explore the vulnerabilities that reside in each of us and resist the temptation to shut down and use anger and withdrawal or alcohol and isolation as a response. There is an opportunity to learn and become fluent in the language of care with humility and sense of urgency. And there is a real chance to show that the consistent presence of men as caregivers can create a new reality in which others including women are not afraid of men on the streets, at the workplace or at home. Living free from fear and violence should be the norm and it will take a large amount of caring, loving men ready to work to make it happen. For men to have, as bell hooks says, the will to change.

This article was originally published on 16 April 2020 on Defying Gender Roles.

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