Why Men Leave—A Hidden Epidemic

by John W. Travis, Metung, Victoria, Australia   

Assertion: Modern culture is in the midst of a hidden epidemic of fathers leaving their families—usually around the time when the first child is born. Men leave their families in a multitude of ways. Even if they remain in the home, many fathers are often emotionally absent—through depression, workaholism, violence/aggression, physical or emotional abuse, or a retreat into addiction to substances, media, consumer goods, sports, food or sex.

    Most men in the “developed” nations today never bonded (or very poorly bonded) with their mothers. Most people don’t even notice how disconnected modern people are from each other, compared to cultures where the bond is still intact. Yes, we talk of alienation and notice how much people in Mediterranean cultures touch each other, but we make no connection between these phenomena and how our bonds among people, with nature, and with the divine have been torn asunder. I propose that this unnoticed, silent epidemic of disconnection/alienation is the source of most societal ills. Fathers leaving their children and their families is only the tip of an iceberg.

    As infants, most men in our culture have been bottle fed and subjected to other culturally-endorsed patterns of normative abuse, such as sleeping alone or being left to cry when their needs weren’t met. Biologically, the male is the more fragile gender of our species and developmentally lags years behind females—well into adulthood. Instead of getting the extra nurturing needed to compensate for being the weaker sex, by age five, males in almost all cultures get far less nurturing than females. It’s no surprise, then, that most of the unbonded boys in our culture grow into men who spend a good deal of their time unconsciously seeking (and fueled by advertising that prominently features the breasts they were denied) a mommy-figure to provide them with the nurturing they were denied as infants/children. Part of their survival mechanism is to learn to deny their feelings and project their unmet needs for nurturing onto substitutes, such as women, and other externals, the most common of which are consumerism, workaholism, and other addictions.

    We unbonded men may manage pretty well in our marriages for a while, but when our “mommy” gives birth and suddenly turns her focus toward her newborn, we usually lose much of the nurturance we were getting from our partners. This is almost inevitable, given the state of disconnection predominant (but taken for granted) in our culture.

    The northern European cultures, in the name of civilization and progress, have been gradually destroying the tribe/village/extended family/community for hundreds of years—replacing it with what has become the nuclear family disaster (NFD).

    The NFD stems from a northern European aberration in how humans organize their living arrangement, beginning with the 16th century enclosure of the common lands. These lands were confiscated by the emerging upper class, who then spread their control rapidly to every continent but Antarctica, first via missionaries and territorial conquest, and now through the media and multinational corporations.

    The NFD has been gaining ground for hundreds of years, but rapidly accelerated because of the mass migration into cities early in the last century.
This experiment in isolation and alienation, promoted in the name of ‘progress’ has immense consequences, most obviously the overwhelming pressures on parents, particularly women, who usually end up bearing the total responsibility of their children. Mothers cannot begin to get their basic adult needs for nurturance and support met, unless they are one of the rare few living in a tribe, close-knit community, or extended family.

It may take a village
to raise a child,
but it takes a
community to keep
the parents sane.
   —Sobonfu Somé

    At the same time, a father’s sudden exposure to an infant who has not yet been fully ‘trained’ in the denial of her own needs, and is suckling at the breast, being lovingly held in arms, constantly in the presence of her caregiver, etc.,—and readily expresses her needs, can be devastating. It will often stir up his suppressed memories of his denied needs as an infant and plunge him into deep pain—conscious or subconscious.

    With the resulting increase in pain levels, new fathers often step up their adopted/chosen means of defending against their feelings—via medication, having affairs, rage, depression, addiction, or physical or emotional violence. This is the first level at which men leave. When or if the defense mechanism fails, because the real need is not addressed, many think the only thing they can do is to depart from the stimulus and leave their homes.

    Girls in our culture also get far less nurturing than is required to optimize their well being and fully meet their needs, and as a result often suffer a similar experience of failed bonding. They have the opportunity, however, of recreating the experience of a secure bond through their unique ability to bond biologically with the fetus in pregnancy. If they are able to preserve that bond by resisting the cultural norms and raising a securely attached child, they are often able to heal much of their own unbondedness, but the father’s witnessing this may simultaneously exacerbate the re-stimulation of his own primal wounds, trigger his defenses, and increase the likeliness of his leaving.

    Since depression was my defense mechanism of choice, I understand that coping mechanism better than the others, but I believe the process I’m describing explains equally well why the other defense mechanisms, such as addiction and violence/aggression, similarly perpetuate broken bonds and the passing on of our trauma to the next generation.

Sourcing the Pain

    I was born in the farmlands of western Ohio in 1943. Like most babies born in those days, I was drugged (via my mother’s general anesthetic, which took weeks to wear off), dragged out of the womb with cold, metal forceps, grasped by sticky rubber gloves, and plunged into bright lights—instead of being gently greeted with warm hands in subdued light. I was doubtless held upside down to drain my lungs (I’m not sure if I was slapped or not, but that was the norm of the day). Stinging silver nitrate was put in my eyes. I was wrapped in cold, scratchy fabrics instead of being allowed to mold my skin against the warm skin of the person with whom I’d been intimately connected for nine months. A little while later, I was taken to the nursery where I was placed in a plastic box beside Carol D., born earlier that day. I spent my next 10 days there (the norm for the early ‘40s). I was given a cold, rubber nipple with a bottle of a fatty, antigenic substance instead of the miracle food that three million years of evolution had prepared for me.

Then, a day or so later, I was immobilized on a board and the majority of the most sensitive nerve endings of my penis were amputated. Then followed the standard “normative abuse” parenting practices of the 1940s:

1)  artificial baby milk—probably Carnation or Pet Evaporated Milk,
2)  a four-hour bottle schedule (I got hungry every three hours and cried that last hour, until I learned it was no use and made a decision about the world that is so basic to my brain’s neural organization that it still impacts almost everything I do—Asking for what I want doesn’t work—my needs will never be met.),
3)  restraint in a crib or playpen,
4)  deprivation of the continual movement of being carried in-arms,
5)  sleeping alone in a separate room.

    Most of these ’improvements’ were devised by men propagating, in the name of ‘modern child rearing practices,’ untested ‘scientific’ ideas, all of which have since been proven to be destructive to human bonding. I don’t blame my or other parents of that age: they naturally followed the cultural winds, and the promise of science and technology to cure the world’s ills was, in 1943, still an untarnished vision.

    From the very beginning, I used depression as my primary defense against recognizing my inability to get my nurturing needs met. While my primary defense appears outwardly as depression—closing down my senses and feelings by withdrawing into my head—it’s just one of a standard set of defenses that unbonded children/adults cling to in their attempts to escape the pain of the early needs deprivation that still eats away at them. Other defenses include addiction, violence, chronic illness, and ecocide (destruction of the environment)—symptoms of what James Prescott named Somato-Sensory Affectional Deprivation Syndrome (SSADS) in his early bonding research.

    I created a “safe” world in my head that allowed me a sense of control (since I had no control over being fed, touched, or held). The fact that I was disconnected from the matrix of my life by being isolated from others, most especially my mother, limited my ability to express my needs and get them met—hence the periodic depressions. No one recognized my depressions, including me, until I was in college—people just thought I was “quiet.”

    My condition is not atypical of most men alive today who were raised by ‘modern’ cultural standards. One friend, though raised in California, was fortunate in that his mother was from South America. He was breastfed well past age two and has always seemed happier than any other person I know.

My Stroke Supply

    Having never experienced a nurturing mother, I’ve subsequently spent most of my life looking for a replacement.

I thought getting married and becoming a doctor would somehow fulfill me, so at age five I blindly set on a course of 22 years of schooling that would handle the latter, and assumed somehow the right “girl” would magically appear about the time I became a doctor. Although I had few social skills, I wasn’t deterred in my belief that she would appear.

    Much to my surprise, marriage midway through medical school didn’t suddenly make my life better, just more complicated. My feelings of emptiness got worse as my depressions deepened. After three years of marriage and several crises, my wife said we had to have a baby or split. I thought I had to comply, since divorce wasn’t an option in my family. Reluctantly, in 1972, I became a father.
It was great at first, the excitement of a new being, but then the reality hit—I was a lot lower on my wife’s attention list. I began to get more and more depressed, leading eventually to our getting into therapy. There I learned I actually had feelings, and could express them, though with great difficulty—even to this day. We began learning about the unconscious patterns we’d been playing out in our symbiotic marriage, but seemed relatively powerless to change them. However, my experience with this reparenting therapy group became the basis for my pioneering work in wellness and, later, my observation that failed bonding/attachment is the primary impediment to well being and fulfillment as an adult.

Despite learning a great deal about my inner workings, I still was depressed most of the time. When our daughter was two and a half, the pain became so great that I realized I had to leave in order to keep my own sanity. I was sometimes close to being suicidal. So I abandoned my first daughter, with whom I had never really bonded—clearly out of my own inexperience with this natural phenomenon.

The cycle began again with another intense, three-year relationship. I was still unconsciously seeking the mommy I never had, and while I reveled in the attention I received, it wasn’t enough, and my new partner felt drained by my neediness. It was around this time that I first heard of the book Magical Child and author Joseph Chilton Pearce’s efforts to reframe children’s needs for the breast, constant presence of the mother, etc., as legitimate nurturing needs rather than mere ‘indulgences’ apt to ‘spoil’ a child. But I didn’t think it had any applicability to me. Subconsciously I didn’t want to stir up my painful, well-repressed childhood recollections. I tried to learn to love myself and follow the tenets of self-responsibility I was helping to promote at the time, all the while struggling with my chronic depression. I was only marginally successful. Deep down, something always felt wrong.

    A year later I met and fell in love with an Australian, Meryn Callander. As our love blossomed, we were often challenged in our new-forming relationship, but we managed, and a year later, married. Meryn and I also began to work together professionally, first with authoring books, and then creating authentic community, especially for helping professionals who are often lonely and unable to connect with peers on an emotional level. It was through Meryn’s studies of feminist spirituality that I became aware of the estrangement rampant throughout western culture leading to the authoritarian institutions that surround us, like medicine, law and the educational system. I had been struggling with aspects of this phenomenon in my work with our Wellness Resource Center the previous seven years, but had no understanding of the bigger picture.

    I thought I was gradually overcoming my depressions through continued work on myself in growth-oriented seminars I both led and participated in. Friends who had known me a long time could see a difference—years of hard work on painful issues were paying off.

    One of the things that fed me the most was lying in bed at night in Meryn’s arms, usually watching TV, and having my head, chest or tummy stroked. We spent an hour several nights a week, doing that before going to sleep, and 15 minutes or so in the morning, alternating who would cradle whom. Unlike the common male stereotype of always thinking about sex and wanting more, what I wanted most was nurturing attention from a mother figure, though I was only dimly aware of this. I would sometimes think something must be wrong with me for not being more sexually interested. Being held and stroked was the lifeline that kept me going, though I didn’t fully understand how desperate this need was until I lost most of it.

Taking the Plunge Again

    Like most of our friends at the time, Meryn and I assumed we would not have children, but after 10 years, in her late 30s, Meryn’s biological alarm went off. I couldn’t imagine reopening the painful experience of being a father again. At the urging of a friend, I read Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept. I suddenly saw the estrangement that we’d been studying was not innate to “the human condition,” but a direct result of how we isolate babies and young children. Personally, I could also see how the old wounds I thought I had handled in therapy were still there. I also thought I might make up for my greatest failure in life (being a father) and get it “right” this time with a new approach.

Until then, I had lived a pressured life of deadlines (self-imposed) using adrenaline to make myself accomplish things, always feeling like some unknown but dreaded thing was gaining on me if I didn’t have something concrete to show myself at the end of each day. I gave lip service to focusing on love and relationships as my highest values, but I was driven by the need to do something to earn my keep. This is still far truer than I would like, but in my better moments I think I’ve made significant progress.

    For four years, early in our relationship, Meryn and I lived a life of “voluntary simplicity” in the mountains of Costa Rica. When we returned to the United States, we both longed for that simpler life. Along with our decision to have a child, we sold our big house, cut back on the seminars we’d been facilitating, and bought 40 acres in a remote part of Mendocino County, California, seven miles past the end of the power lines.

    We became homesteaders. I set about turning an unfinished cabin into a solar-powered home. We read and wrote intensely on attachment parenting. We prepared to give birth to our daughter at home with a midwife, complete with a warm water pool provided by a friend.

    The birth went well, and while I thought I was now better prepared for becoming a father, I had no idea of the depth of pain and envy that would be opened up from constantly being with someone who knew what her needs were, expressed these needs, and got the nurturing every infant needs and thrives on.

And, as I should have expected, Siena’s arrival supplanted much of my nurturance, but I kept busy, as I had not yet finished the construction of our cabin on 40 remote acres of rural northern California.

    Within a week of her birth, we realized the “in-arms” attachment parenting we were attempting was designed for an extended family, not for our NFD. Bringing Meryn’s mum over from Australia to live with us helped, but it often seemed we still had an arms shortage—given our commitment to Siena being “in arms” in those first months.

    While we provided her with a degree of physical nurturance unknown to most children in the West today, and she blossomed from it, our relationship got more and more strained. I went deeper into depressions, alternating with periods of hyperactivity to keep us afloat financially and make up for the downtime of my crashes. It was unsustainable.

    I tried to meet my own needs on a number of fronts: building, men’s groups, therapy, and spending time in nature—all to no avail.

    It was only after a year of soul-searching, moving across the country to Virginia in 1996, and finding an intentional community that appeared to fulfill many of the ideals for which we’d searched during the previous 20 years, that I found some peace with my process and began to write about it. Despite half a lifetime of therapy and personal growth work, I still struggle with my barely suppressed rage, which usually shows up as depression, a chronic clenching of my jaw, and a knot in my stomach.

    Even now, over eleven years since my second daughter’s arrival, I am struck by the contrast between witnessing her needs being expressed and fully met, and how most of us were treated. Siena was never left alone. For most of the first nine months, when she was not in Meryn’s or Meryn’s mother’s arms, she was in mine. And I spent over 1000 nights lying in the bed near her while she nursed.

All of this gave me a new awareness of my own subjugated oral needs around which I’ve spent my whole life and career trying to compensate.

    While being with my daughter still sometimes activates deep and painful places in me, I see her as a spiritual teacher, challenging me to continually deal with the years of walled-in pain that keep me disconnected from the family/tribe/planet that is my birthright.


    My personal journey reveals just one of the many ways that failed bonding can show up in a family dynamic. Fortunately, it’s within our wounds that our gifts may be revealed. Certainly my work in wellness has been strongly influenced by my pain, and without seeing this in the larger perspective of a personal journey, I think I’d have just gotten lost in the suffering. If you have not found the gift in your own wounding, please keep looking. I believe it is there.

    A word of caution: after observing myself and others who have worked with these issues for over half of our adult lives, I am no longer certain that the childhood wounds of not having a secure bond (or what Jean Liedloff describes as feeling worthy and welcome)—now popularized by euphemism: low self-esteem—can be healed beyond the fast temporary relief of the latest breakthrough therapy or confusing a newfound awareness of some aspect of the problem with a resolution of it. Regardless, I do know we can learn to better manage our pain and be less controlled by it. A more realistic goal of management can relieve a lot of the shame that often results from peoples’ feeling powerless to break free of these hardwired brain circuits of fear, anger, and depression.

    Depression is currently one of the largest public health problems in our culture. This, along with addiction, violence and chronic disease account for many of our culture’s problems—all symptoms of failed bonding. The reactivation of this pain in our attempts to create a family of our own is a serious condition to reflect on before the birth of a child. I had, and continue to have, a difficult time with it, so I don’t think it’s easy for young people who naively enter into parenthood unaware of their own wounding. Forewarned is forearmed.

    To prevent perpetuating this failed bonding among our young (that is further exacerbated by dysfunctional nuclear families—themselves an artifact of the authoritarian cultures) we need to recognize what a secure bond looks and feels like, and begin challenging the normative abuse of detachment parenting we see everywhere.

    We see and hear these myriad symptoms of alienation and failed bonding every day in the news, but we never hear about the real cause: how we treat our babies and children. If we look closely, we can see these symptoms in our own lives, understand the real cause, and begin to get our own needs met with the support of self-awareness books and classes, support groups, therapy, and open honest communication with our family and friends, rather than being blind to and driven by our unmet childhood needs. Applying the wisdom found in publications like Compleat Mother is a good start.

    As more men become aware of the dynamics between their own unmet needs and seeing their children’s attempts to get theirs met, the widespread denial of this problem will come out in the open. I believe men will then be better able to comprehend, appreciate, communicate, and cope with their issues instead of denying, hiding, inflicting them on others or medicating them—and hopefully, their female partners and friends of both genders will better understand them. So supported, men will then be able to help society understand and own the wounds of unbondedness that have not only reached epidemic proportions in recent generations, but are also perpetuated by cultural and economic agendas. By re-creating communities, extended families of choice, and other as-yet-undiscovered ways of supporting each other in providing the nurturing we never got, we can break the cycle of abandonment and separation inflicted on children in the form of medicalized births, bottle feeding, circumcision, early day care and the like.

When we men face and accept our own wounding and when we can open our hearts to tend to our own needs and support each other in this process, we will unleash the compassion that gives us the strength to remain with our families and create a world that nurtures everyone.

John W. Travis is a coauthor of the Wellness Workbook, co-directs the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children: http://www.aTLC.org , and is available to speak on this subject and many other areas of wellness for both adults and children. His Wellness Inventory Online is available at http://www.thewellspring.com . This article, with updates, comments, and personal stories from other readers can be found at www.thewellspring.com/whymen . John and his family live in Australia and spend part of each year in the United States. Jack can be reached at [email protected].

  Web www.compleatmother.com



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