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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 JackT@atlc.org.