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Interview: Widowhood: Doing It His Way

 

Deborah van den Hoonaard from St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick

Dr. Deborah K. van den Hoonaard

In this first Canadian study of male widowhood, sociologist Deborah van den Hoonaard from St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) offers an intriguing look at how older men experience and talk about being widowers. The research is based on interviews with 26 widowers – 19 living in urban and rural Atlantic Canada and seven in Florida retirement communities. All the men were over 60 years old.

In By Himself: The Older Man’s Experience of Widowhood (University of Toronto Press), van den Hoonaard examines the many dimensions of widowhood. The men talk about their wives’ illnesses and deaths, loneliness, their changed relationships with children and friends and the struggle to navigate life in new terrain.

AHB caught up with Dr. van den Hoonaard at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

Ruth Dempsey: It seems widowhood caught many of these men by surprise.

Deborah van den Hoonaard: Yes, that’s true. The vast majority of men never become widowed. In fact, in the over-65 age group, there are six times more widows than widowers. Many of the men were shocked that their wives would die first. Some men were not even sure of the term widower – they called themselves male widows or even, in a few cases, bachelors.

RD: You talked to the men about their wives’ funerals. What did you learn?

DvdH: I found that, similar to women, men are very gratified when large numbers of people attend their wives’ funerals. The surprise for me was that some men planned funerals even if their wives had explicitly said they did not want a service. These men felt that funerals were really for the living and that is was just right to have a funeral. Other men were quite proud of doing exactly what their wives wanted.

RD: Did belonging to a faith community make a difference?

DvdH: For some men it did, others not. Those who were Christians and involved in their churches found that the congregation and ministers were very supportive and helpful. A few men organized the rhythm of their lives around their church activities. I should mention that in Atlantic Canada, the population is quite homogeneous, mostly English, Scottish, and Irish, the context is rural, and many activities are church-centred. Other men were much more casual about their churches. I did interview seven men in Florida, all Jewish; they were not particularly involved in faith communities.

RD: Many men expressed profound loneliness. How did they cope?

DvdH: Loneliness is an intrinsic part of widowhood. The men dealt with their loneliness by keeping busy. Their houses lost their home-like quality, and the men quite consciously made the decision to be out of their houses most of the day. "Getting out" and keeping busy was their most important strategy for dealing with loneliness. They described staying at home as "sitting and dwelling." Most of the men were drawn to activities that required little commitment. A few volunteered or joined organized activities such as a dance club.

RD: Planning meals and housekeeping hit some men hard . . .

DvdH: Yes, in fact, that’s the most pervasive stereotype we have about widowers – that they do not know how to cook or clean. Most of the men were able to cook at least a little. They did minimize their abilities to cook and emphasized that they had a lower standard of cleanliness around the house than their wives. They did not get a sense of satisfaction from mastering these feminine tasks. These were the only areas of life where the men minimized their abilities.

A few men were amazed at how much work the cooking and cleaning entailed. One man, in particular, regretted that he had not helped his wife more. He had not realized how much work it was to plan the meals every day and to keep the house clean. Even the lint from the towels came as a surprise. I was on a radio phone-in show after the book came out, and one widower called in and said that his wife had even laid out his clothes for him every day. He was completely at sea.

This is one area where younger men may fare better because of changes in gender relations over the last 40 years. It’s clear, though, that women still do most of the cleaning and that both young men and women are not learning how to cook.

RD: Relationships sometimes change after the death of a spouse. What about children?

DvdH: There was quite a bit of diversity in men’s relationships with their children. Some men said that they became closer to their children. One man, from southern Europe, said that he had moved away from being a patriarchal father to having a closer, more egalitarian relationship with his children.

Daughters have a special place for widowers. They sometimes help with the cooking and helped with handling their mothers’ belongings. I was surprised that some men had a very difficult relationship with daughters, who were critical of the way they were living their lives – especially in terms of some kind of repartnering.

The men who lived in Florida had a more distant but sometimes easier relationship with their children. They did express disappointment that the children were very busy when the fathers went to visit them.

RD: Some men talked about losing friends and feeling uncomfortable with couples. Others appeared quite self-sufficient.

DvdH: Yes, many of the men seemed to think that it was just natural that their friendships would fade away. They talked about feeling like a fifth wheel when with couples.

Many of the men were happy with low-commitment, activity-based relationships. They had figured out how to run into their friends at Tim Hortons or the snowmobile trail. One man attended church suppers because he knew he would always run into friends there.

There were a few men who were disappointed that their friends did not include them in social events. The exception was one of the Florida widowers whose friends always included him. His situation was unusual, and he knew it.

RD: Developing a relationship with a new woman was a concern for many widowers, yet their dealings with women seemed fraught with uncertainty.
bookcover - by himself
DvdH: The idea of repartnering was a top-of-mind issue for the widowers, and they often brought it up early in the interview before I asked them about it. Several of the men were quite ambivalent about remarriage, although they considered repartnering a natural part of being widowed. One man referred to the "old saying" that if you’ve had one good marriage you’ll want another one. Quite a few of the men in the study were remarried or had a steady, romantic relationship. One man was living with a woman common law.

Quick remarriage is the other pervasive stereotype about widowers, and, indeed, three of the widowers remarried within six months of their wives’ deaths and all had soon divorced.

The men in Atlantic Canada were quite nervous of any women who were at all forward in developing a relationship. They also worried about women’s misunderstanding their intentions. One man said he got caller ID to protect himself. Although the men expressed a desire to be in control of any new relationship, those who had gotten together with a woman expressed a lack of agency. They met a new woman (or, in a few cases reconnected with someone they already knew) and then "one thing led to another."

It’s likely that the men misunderstood women’s intentions at least some of the time. Most widows do not actually want to remarry. Still, if only one-third of widows want to remarry, it’s still 2:1. When I interviewed women for my first book, The Widowed Self: The Older Woman’s Journey Through Widowhood (Wilfrid Laurier University Press), they said that some men were very skittish and fled any overture of friendship because they thought the women wanted a romantic relationship.

The men in Florida were much more comfortable with assertiveness among women. For the most part, they were happy with a committed, couple relationship that did not entail living together or marriage. The joke in Florida is that if you bring a casserole during Shiva (the period of mourning), it’s too early, but that if you wait until after Shiva, you will be too late… another woman will have gotten there first.

RD: The men showed little interest in older women. As Charles put it, "A 70-year-old woman is an old lady. And I don’t feel like going out with an old lady."

DvdH: Yes. We already knew that widowers usually marry women who are younger than their first wives. I was surprised that some of the men were so forthright in their dislike of older women. Even men in their 80s suggested they would only be interested in women in their 50s.

I should not have been that surprised. It is well known that, in general, our society is much harsher on women in terms of their appearance as they age than it is on men. The way the men talked about this issue emphasized their sense of themselves as youthful, virile men.

RD: Of all the things you learned from your research, what stands out?

DvdH: Perhaps the most important thing I learned was the threat to masculinity that widowhood poses for men. They find themselves at pains to demonstrate that they are still real men through their activities, their approach to women or their reluctance to master feminine tasks.

Finally, there is a mystique of the free, young bachelor that still appeals to these older widowers. They wanted to call the shots regarding what they did and with whom they did it.