The myth of the silver fox
Do men secretly hate aging?
My husband just turned 40. We've been together for half the birthdays he's ever had, and for absolutely none of them has he enjoyed himself. This year, despite his long history of extreme loathing of his special day, I couldn't help myself. I planned a fancy dinner and booked childcare. It seemed straightforward enough — nothing too birthday-y. He likes nice food, I thought. He likes it when someone else takes care of our kids. What could possibly go wrong?
When he found out that I'd booked something extravagant, he asked why, confused and irritated. I should have just dropped it right then and there, but in the moment I felt the need to defend birthday lore, which states that once a decade, when your age flips to something that ends in a zero, you force yourself to get with whatever program your spouse has gone out of her way to devise.
It was a solid argument, backed by millennia of evidence, but it failed miserably. Twenty minutes later I'd canceled the nice dinner and warned the sitter I might have to stand her down.
When I asked him what he'd rather do instead, he expressed a preference for digging a hole in the woods and climbing into it. As we live in New York City where woods are relatively hard to come by, we compromised on too many fried carbs and mystery meat somewhere with plastic tablecloths.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.
"Why do you spin out about this every damn year?" I asked the next day. "It's JUST a birthday."
"Getting old makes me think about all the things I haven't done," he whined.
"You're always bleating on about this stuff. Why can't we at least drown our sorrows once a year with obnoxious cocktails?"
"But my 40-year-old body can't handle drinking anymore. I still have a hangover from a craft IPA I drank two Thursdays ago."
Then, finally, something clicked. It wasn't so much my unimaginative yet lavish celebrating he was objecting to, but what it represents: aging. Up until now, I'd thought all my husband's irksome birthday squalling was perhaps to do with him suppressing some wildly traumatic balloon or hired clown incident from his childhood.
When I shared my exasperation about all of this to some other women I know who are around my age and also have husbands, they revealed that theirs despise birthdays too. One husband went on a lone hike for his 40th while another had to be gently coaxed into a restaurant where he sat complaining about his failure to earn enough money and get a new job.
That settled it. From my sample group of three, I drew a radical and definitive conclusion: Men have a much harder time with getting old than they let on. We know most women hate aging, hence all the face creams, but aren't men supposed to delight in becoming silver foxes? In reality, though, birthdays signify not celebration but a self-flagellation opportunity — a time to take stock of their achievements, or lack of them.
Of course, women do this too, but we tend not to hate ourselves more on specific dates. Low-level self-loathing and disappointment are ever-present.
So why are men such babies when it comes to the creeping certainty of physical and mental dilapidation followed by death? There isn't a huge body of research into male attitudes toward aging, perhaps because all non-male scientists assume they're pretty cool with it, while men themselves don't like to admit their weaknesses. But one leading researcher on elderly men and masculinity, Edward Thompson, told the Wall Street Journal that aging inevitably leads to men needing to seek more help, which contradicts traditional ideas of maleness. Essentially, as men age, they face having to let go of parts of their masculinity. "Clear models of dignified masculinity are nonexistent for later life," he said. Vulnerability is a hard sell for human males.
Older men also tend to stick to "an idealized masculinity script" — projecting an air of confidence and toughness no matter what, and never surrendering to "feminine" emotions such as grief and fear — according to a 2016 study. But this template is incompatible with the realities of aging. "As men age, they're unable to be who they were, and that creates a dissonance that is hard to reconcile," said study co-author Kaitlyn Barnes Langendoerfer, a sociologist at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University. "We need to better understand how older men adapt to their stressors — high suicide rates, emotions they stifle, avoiding the doctor — to hopefully help them build better lives in older age."
In truth, I don't spend a huge amount of time worrying about the plight of affluent, aging men — even those I'm married to. But I do think we need to be aware that both for men and women, the struggles they encounter as the decades creep on are real. And if downplaying, or totally ignoring, birthdays is the coping strategy men choose, then I guess it’s no skin off my aging nose. So, I'll put a note in my calendar to avoid any kind of hoopla when my husband's 50th rocks around in 2029. I’d probably rather spend the money on face cream anyway.