The Man Box in My Life – TEDWomen, it’s impact on me, and the necessity of men to get out of the box

Man Box Resources at the end of this blog!

In an email today, Tony Porter said:

“Thank you for all your kind words and your tremendous support in getting this message out to men.  Your blog is great.”

I’m back from TEDWomen after learning, one week before, that I had won the TEDWomen’s Contest sponsored by AOL and Blackberry for my work at MotherWoman.  I was asked what my TEDTalk would be, and in only 500 characters, I spoke about my experience with severe postpartum depression and the fact that PPD is the leading complication for new mothers. In fact 1 in 8 moms will have PPD (40-50% of moms in poverty), screening is not routinely done even though there are free and accurate screening tools, and there is very limited access to treatment for most moms even though with treatment women recover quickly.

I, with my colleagues at MotherWoman, am changing that.  We have created the MotherWoman Support Group Model and are bringing it national this year with our first ever National Institute that will be training facilitators nationwide making our support groups available to moms everywhere with the goal of 1 support group for every 2000 mothers nationally.  Well, I said all of that in 500 characters  and won the TEDWomen Contest! An incredible honor and an incredible challenge. That’s right. I had one week to organize my life for an experience that would change me so profoundly that I could actually feel the neurons in my brain creating new connections as I sat, listening to one brilliant, inspiring speaker after another, for two full days.

If I only had to worry about myself, it would have been alright.  My three year old and eight year old didn’t think it was such a great idea for mommy to leave for 4 days, but I knew it would be a defining moment in my life and thus a defining moment for them as well.  Well, that’s turned out to be more true than I originally thought.  My interior landscape has been recreated and I am clear that my capacity as an individual, and ours as a people, is far greater than I ever imagined.  What I didn’t realize is that my relationship to my children and my goals as a parent would also be profoundly impacted.

One of the first talks that TEDWomen has made available on the internet is one of the most significant to me personally and it struck a cord with the entire audience.

Tony Porter spoke about his experience as a man and his understanding of the Man Box; the rules of manhood that keep every man tightly locked into behaviors, attitudes and definitions.  It was clear as he spoke that he is one of the “good” men and it was also clear as he spoke, that he has made some horrible mistakes in supporting the abuse of women and limiting the humanity of his own son.  And so he created the bridge that every person at the conference needed – a way to include men in this essential conversation about girls and women.

Our men are good.  Our men are battered.  Our men want to stand up for what is truly right.  Our men need brave leaders who are willing to speak about the abuses that men have suffered and create the path to men’s embracing of their true humanity so that we can stand arm in arm to fight violence against women, violence against men, violence against our planet.

The theories that Tony shared about manhood and the idea of the Man Box are not new.  The Oakland Men’s Project, now defunct, has been talking about this issue in their work against the violence against women since the 1980’s. I, in fact, used the Man Box exercises and this framework with teenagers in the early 90’s.

What is true, and sad, is that these ideas have not adequately been propagated in the mainstream as they need to be.  Thank you to TEDWomen for bringing Tony to a larger audience!  I am hopeful that all of us together will get the word out in a much bigger way.

In the hopes of getting the word out about Tony’s theories on manhood and share some excellent resources that have been around for quite awhile, I have put together a list that will help each of us to continue this conversation and do the internal work that we each need to do to fully include men in our essential work of ending violence against women and creating the world we all want, together.

Please add more resources in the comments if you have any. Thanks!

Man Box Resources:

1.  Tony Porter’s TEDWomen Talk — If you haven’t had a chance to watch Tony’s TEDWomen Talk yet, do it!  If you’ve watched it, show it to a man you love.  Show it to the parent of a boy. Show it to your father.  Share it with your son.  It won’t shock your teenager.  He already knows about it.  He just doesn’t talk about it.  It will be a relief to say it outloud.

2.  Hand in Hand Parenting — If you have a young son, like Tony and I do, here is an excellent resource that will support you to examine your parenting and help your son stay out of the Man Box.  Patty Wipfler, of Hand in Hand Parenting, has been doing this work as long at the Oakland Men’s Project and her focus is on supporting parents to allow children to have their full feelings while supporting parents to create listening parent partnerships. Her list of articles is excellent and have been my guide through many moments of parenting my young children.  This woman is my mentor.

3.  Free to Be You and Me — Another speaker mentioned this resource for children from the stage at TEDWomen.  This is a children’s music and story album that Marlo Thomas made with Alan Alda, Diana Ross, Mel Brooks and many other artists back in the 70’s.  Those of us raised by feminist parents of that era could sing you every word and repeat every line of it to you.  (Watch out, if asked I will definitely do this!)  It is the quintessential anti-gender stereotype album full of incredible stories and songs that, sadly, are just as relevant now as they were when I was a girl.

The most relevant song on the album about the Man Box is the song “It’s alright to cry” performed by Rosey Grier about a boy who apologizes for crying and his school principal, a man, singing to him that “it’s alright to cry, little boy.  I know some big boys who cry too.”

When my son was 2 years old, we played this album all the time and this was his favorite song. Now as an 8 year old, he still sings it and he wants to play the album for his 3 year old sister.  Noah knows that I support him crying and showing me his full feelings.  He also knows that the rest of the world often doesn’t get it.  He brings his tears home and often has to hold it together at school.  I’m so glad I gave him the strong messages that I believe that real strength, for boys and girls,  comes from being able to cry.  From crying is born the ability to heal, to have new thoughts and to remain flexible.  This is how human beings have an open heart and foster compassion.

4.  A Call to Men is Tony’s organization doing incredible work to end violence against women. I just spoke with him via email and he specifically asked me to share “Breaking Out of the Man Box” to this list of resources, as well as “Dedicated to Daughters” a book that A Call to Men did with the NFL.  All three can be found on his website:

The Oakland Men’s Project, not in existence any more, is where much of this dialogue began or got written down.   This is where the original Man Box exercise was developed.  Go to Paul Kivel’s work and check out his book Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart.   Here is a step by step guide in how to lead the Man Box Exercise that Tony referenced. There are more materials you can find by searching Oakland Men’s Project, Paul Kivel and Tony Porter.

5.  Dar Wiliams — When I Was a Boy– And lastly, cause I just have to, there is one song that speaks to this issue so profoundly and makes me cry every time I hear it. Dar Williams, singer/songwriter, wrote a song about life as a young girl before her gender role was so tightly assigned. Listen all the way through to the final verse for her reflections on the Man Box.  The song reflects on the quest for freedom from the tight constraints of gender conditioning.

It’s time to take this 30 year old conversation about the condition of men and put it in the center of our pursuit to end violence again women, not just for women, but so that our dear sweet men and boys can have their own true humanity.

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