The male loneliness epidemic and how it can affect fathers

Man with his head in his hands looking sad on the couch
When it comes to male loneliness, social isolation hits dads particularly hard, author Shannon Carpenter writes. Photo credit: Getty Images

Analysis by Shannon Carpenter of CNN

Several years ago, another dad reached out to me after reading my work about being a stay-at-home dad. He was married, had two toddlers and was not coping well. He couldn't find another person to talk to outside his family.

He didn't say it, because most of us men won't, but fatherhood was taking a toll on his mental health and self-worth. He felt alone - but not because he didn't have a good relationship with his significant other. He told me it was because he didn't have friends.

We hear a lot these days about men not finding the kind of deep friendship that helps them through the ups and downs of life the way many women do. I've also experienced what has been called the male loneliness epidemic, and many dads tell me it has reached into fatherhood.

"There's no one to talk to. I walk into a place that is crowded, and it's like I don't even exist," the dad told me. His experience hit home with me.

When I was a new stay-at-home dad 15 years ago, I took my children to the mall playground one day. I sat on the floor with my newborn while my toddler played on the germ-infested equipment. I had my arm draped over the end of a bench while I read a book.

Soon, a mom's group came to the bench, put down their bags and parked their strollers. Then one mom sat on my arm and didn't notice. Eventually, I politely said "Excuse me" to her, and she looked at me shocked and didn't offer an apology. Apparently, I was invisible.

What exactly is going on?

The biggest question I get asked by fathers is how to find connection and friendship. No matter whether they are at-home dads or not, the lack of meaningful connections is a hole in our lives.

Richard Reeves, author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, calls it the "friendship deficiency."

In the United States, many men have become disconnected from the societal institutions that have anchored dads to each other and our community. Historically, men have made long-term bonds through religious institutions and friendships at work. Our sense of worth derived from what we could provide for our families.

What's more, men today may view deep relationships as not masculine, thus further isolating themselves. Only 48 percent of men reported feeling satisfied with friendships, according to a May 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life, as previously reported by CNN. And 1 in 5 men said they had gotten emotional support from a friend in the past week, compared with 4 in 10 women.

All the traditional male institutions have been eroded, and that's not to say that the disruption is a bad thing. Those power bases kept women subjected to the will of men. As parents and guardians, we shouldn't go backward, but we need to reimagine a new normal.

The problem for fathers is finding that new normal in a way that meets our needs as well as the needs of the women in our lives.

"There are very little support systems for fathers," said Reeves, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, DC. "I mean really institutional support on every level for fathers."

Loneliness within fatherhood goes way beyond having a spouse or not. We must go back to the most basic concept of community, and that's friendship. The ability to seek advice or be vulnerable without fear is priceless and as fathers, we don't have that in this current environment. Too many new dads lack the mentorship that comes from others involved in our lives.

As Reeves notes, women have made tremendous strides in equality over the past 50 years. And relatively speaking, progress has happened fast. This is a victory for both men and women as it truly gives everyone more choice and more freedom. Women are no longer beholden to husbands because of financial restraints. However, men have not kept up with the changing world and as a result, as our connections have deteriorated, we have become alone in a world of people.

This is why I often get the question from other fathers who come to me alone, sometimes lost, and more than anything, seeking someone who can understand what they are going through. Most of these men are married and yet are still lonely.

This type of isolation is a huge problem for men. A June study points out that people who are socially isolated have a 32 percent higher chance of dying early compared with those who don't experience social isolation. Reeves writes in his book that one of the most common words in men's suicide notes is the word "worthless."

Men need to find our worth again.

How we think about fathers and fatherhood

Too often, fathers are portrayed as unnecessary idiots that complicate parenting rather than adding to the family. In movies, TV shows and novels, the father must often be restrained by the mother. Instead of encouraging involved parenting by men, popular culture tends to ridicule it. That messaging has to affect how fathers and others feel about their parenting.

"We have to change the story of fatherhood," Reeves said. "The model of fatherhood needs to be more hands-on."

The US also needs policy changes that support and encourage fatherhood from the beginning. Currently, there is no national paternity leave policy. As fathers, our job is not done the minute the child is born. It's just the beginning. And if fathers do take parental leave when a child is born, we are often asked why. It is presumed that childcare is women's work and fathers have no role.

Next, we need to create communities that encourage fathers to be their best. Men need that emotional and physical support. For at-home dads, we can often find that from The National At Home Dad Network or City Dads Group.

Both national organizations go beyond at-home dads, though. We don't care whether you stay home with the kids or not, if you're a working dad, or a divorced dad. We recognize that you are a dad, and all dads deserve to have mentorship and a place where they can find friendship.

But it's going to take real societal change in the way we think and act about parenting and fatherhood.

Reeves advocates for what he calls HEAL: health, education, administration and literacy. To put it simply, he encourages men to take on caregiver roles such as teachers, nurses and paid childcare workers. I recognize that there is a lot to overcome to accomplish this. It means that society must see a father's worth beyond a paycheck and a stereotyped buffoon.

We need to recreate institutions that not only encourage fathers to take on the mental load of parenting but also support them to do so. The expectation of fatherhood should not be based on a paycheck and how many hours we work. Financial caregiving is certainly important, but so is the bond that we have with our children, our family and our community.

It can be hard to make friends as a man, but we need to step away from our isolated lives and step back into our community. We can do it through volunteering for a local organization, joining a hobby with regular meetups or simply joining a men's community online such as Fathering Together. We must put ourselves out there on a personal level and actively work to make friends.

Men's lives literally depend on making that connection. This is the truth of the male loneliness epidemic. Right now, it's the bonds with others that we need more than anything else.

Editor's note: Shannon Carpenter is a writer, author of the book The Ultimate Stay-at-Home Dad and married father of three.