Last week, Tom Ashbrook, host of On Point on NPR, featured Billy Baker on his show to talk about middle-aged men and their friendships. Billy Baker wrote an article in the Boston Globe that touched a nerve: he lost touch with his male friends as his life fell into the same exhausting routine of family-work-family-work cycle. This this lack of friendship in middle age actually leads to poor health in the form of depression and loneliness. In essence, men need their male friendships to live a longer, healthier life.
I listened to this podcast and noticed myself nodding throughout—connecting to the various callers who, time and again, seemed to speak the story of my middle-age life. One caller, a father, talked about the exhaustion that comes from a morning of caring for children, a day of work, and an evening of nighttime responsibilities. When “free” time does come, an empty Lay-Z-Boy, remote, and a bag of Doritos substitute for friendship. Another caller bemoaned the jealously he felt for his wife who, along with her female friends, were better able to stay in touch, make plans, and keep them over time. We men are not good at keeping the social calendar.
I spent the better part of my 30s losing touch with friendships. An avid, active tennis player, I always played on men’s tennis teams. We practiced on Tuesday nights, played other clubs on Saturday mornings, and drank beer after each. It was as much a social endeavor as it was a physical one, and it between the playing we talked politics and our lives. But when my children arrived, I felt guilty leaving them on Saturdays and felt my wife, already exhausted with the twins, needed the break. So, I stopped playing tennis.
During this time, I also lost touch with many of my college friends—a band of fraternity brothers—who are spread out throughout the country. Many of them continued to find ways to gather together throughout the year, but I always felt strapped for money as I completed a PhD. So, I lost touch with them as well.
When I turned 40 in 2015, I decided to change all this. I was determined to regain the friendships that I let slip over time and recommit to fostering the necessary male friendships that I’ve realized I missed. I play racquetball regularly with a friend at least a couple times a week and in between sets we talk about our kids, wives, and work. I joined, with my daughter, a dad/daughter Y-guides tribe through the YMCA. This tribe is supposed to focus mostly on developing a strong bond between dads and daughters, but I’ve realized a wonderful side benefit—new male friendships. We meet 1-2 times a month, sometimes just dads, and I’ve developed friendships with guys across the different socio-economic-political landscapes that have diversified my friends. I travel with male friends from work to conferences around the world—realizing you learn so much about a person when you are with them, in a foreign country, and no one else speaks your language. And, I’ve reconnected with high school friends and visit them when I’m out of town at conferences in cities where they live.
But, the best part of this past year has been my reconnection with old college friends. Unfortunately, it took a difficult situation for me to find my way back to them. My friend’s wife died, all-too-young, from breast cancer leaving behind my friend and his two young children. He felt distraught and lonely. And we knew he needed the bond of brotherhood to surround him with hope. Twelve of us flew to his hometown, gathered around him, and consoled. Then we went out to bars, watched a baseball game, shared stories of our college days, drank heavily, and laughed until our stomach’s hurt. For one weekend we were in our early 20s again and it felt perfect. It reminded us of the importance of this time together and our shared history. We already have a date in July planned for our next gathering.
Indeed, I nodded when Tom Ashbrook and Billy Baker engaged in their conversation last week on the radio. But, I nodded with appreciation that I’m now spending my 40s reconnecting and recommitting to my male friendships. Hopefully, this will lead to a longer life—and a happier one.
On Point with Tom Ashbrook Podcast: http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2017/03/23/men-middle-age-friendship
Billy Baker in the Boston Globe: Two Weeks as American’s Middle-Aged Loser: https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/23/two-weeks-america-middle-aged-loser/sKBU5qarIzLVRubXLgYDsL/story.html.
New York Times: The Challenge of Male Friendships: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/the-challenges-of-male-friendships/?_r=0.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.