11/07/2010 11:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Men In The Post-Women's-Lib World: Should We Give Them A How-To Guide?

Men are in the news lately -- have you noticed? I read with interest the Sep. 10 Newsweek piece "Men's Lib," about "reimagining masculinity" for our modern age, and I read with equal interest Lisa Belkin's piece in the Oct. 24 New York Times Magazine, "Calling Mr. Mom?" which explored the same topic and cited the same Swedish studies and enlightened public policy concerning paternity leave, among other things. Hooray for Sweden. Clearly, men are on our minds, for more reasons than you'd think. I've been meaning to speak up on the subject, so I'll take this opportunity.

For several years now, I've been inching toward compassion for the poor slobs, for men in general. Perhaps I should say American men, because that's the species with which I'm most familiar. I grew up in the time of women's liberation, just after the early feminists had cleared the way for me to assume I'd enjoy equal opportunities and respect, have a career and, if I felt like it, a marriage and children, too -- and financial independence. So I did all that, and somewhere along the way, I got to feeling exhausted, and chronically pissed off at my then-husband for not doing more, managing more, caring more, remembering more. ("Did you buy milk, honey?" I'd ask. "Oh, no, I forgot," he'd say. Grrr.) I know lots of couples who are stuck in this blame dynamic, and I have a feeling that plenty of others know what I'm talking about.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when I finally figured out it might be good to quit complaining and ponder instead what might have led our society, many of us, into this untenable situation in which wives are perpetually angry and no longer enjoying sex, at least not with their husbands, and husbands are (acting) mystified and maligned and sorry for themselves for being in the doghouse. ("I can't do anything right," my ex used to say to me.)

So how did so many couples get to this miserable place? (And I include same-sex couples if they're miserable, too.) Was it always this way? I realize there are happy couples in the U.S., but I'm not talking to you. You're probably not reading this anyway, because you're having a cozy family dinner or you're out on date-night, or you're building some piece of Ikea furniture together without arguing over those really stupid directions. I'm talking about the rest of us.

Women's Lib took off (as second-wave feminism) back in the '60s, but of course its roots reach back to the 1920s, or as far back as Anne Hutchinson or Mary Magdalene. Let's focus, though, on the recent past, so that we can consider men who are at least semi-alive today. If they were growing up in the '60s and '70s, imagine them witnessing all this: women started speaking up, acting out, burning bras, protesting, demanding, and saying, "No." Rules changed; behavior changed; policies changed. Women metamorphosed. There was a ripple-effect: family systems evolved. The workplace was transformed. Everything was different, in a way that was terrifically exciting for women and promising for our future.

But nobody rewrote the user's manual for men. And God knows, men rely on the manual. So how were men to know how to behave vis-à-vis women in the new order? They were working from a gender-based handicapped position to begin with, what with their being memory-challenged about things like anniversaries and the milk, and clueless about peripheral events because they are hunters (eyes fixed on distant prey), not multitaskers as women, with their pinball brains, are said to be. The world changed for all of us, not just for women. But I believe most women (certainly young women) don't spend time thinking about the fact that the world changed radically for men; they woke up one day in an unrecognizable landscape--and because men don't read self-help books, they haven't, all these years, known how to adapt, or even that they need to. So give a guy a break. Or give him a clue. (A disclaimer: there are plenty of exceptions within the species, including men who evolved along with the women's movement, as well as men who are, simply put, brutes, but this is about all the other guys, and the women who love them.) Oh, yes, I can get worked up about stuff men do and do not do, but I've come to believe that compassion leads me to a better place where anger isn't corroding my internal organs.

I'm not sure what the answer is for our out-of-joint work/family lives, but I believe it lies in the territory of forgiveness. Instead of criticizing men for behaving badly or not evolving in the "right" ways, I think now's the time to rewrite the manual. Let's hope they'll read that.