Where Have All the Cowboys Gone: Reflections on the Paula Cole Song, My Father, and Simultaneously Mourning the Past While Embracing the Future

Some of you know that my father is struggling with stage IV lung cancer, and is currently receiving hospice at home. I've recently visited him back in my homestate of Michigan, and will return again in a few weeks. For some reason, the late 90s song by Paula Cole, "Where Have all the Cowboys Gone" (linked here Paula Cole: Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? 1997 ) has been running through my head, making me cry every time I think about it. Its a wonderful song, she won a grammy for it, and it speaks to the romanticized vision of  the tightly defined gender roles and expectations of a specific era, as well as the disillusionment that inevitably comes from this. The lyrics and structure of the song communicate this brilliantly. Click on the link and give it a listen. 

Cole sings about a rose-colored past, with lyrics about how he picks her up in his 56 chevy, they eventually get married, she cares for the children, he pays all the bills, things are happy. But then things change, he spends more time with his friends drinking at the bar, she is left alone to take care of the home and children, with him spending less and less time as a member of the family they created together. Disillusionment sets in. She is pining for the promise of safety and care that she was led to believe would happen, due to societal expectations...."where is my Marlboro Man, where is my Prairie Song, where is my Happy Ending, where have all the cowboys gone?" 

My parents were squarely positioned in this 1950s era vision. My father absolutely was the "marlboro man" in so many ways. He quietly provided for his family, took care of things, made sure everyone was safe and secure. He took care of my mother, but she also took care of his emotional needs. They were both raised in the 1950s belief system that assumed men don't show their emotions or get involved in the caregiving roles necessary in the family. Their marriage was what was presented to me as the way it has to be. I, on the other hand, was an independent child and teenager (you could never tell me what to do, I always had to figure it out on my own, lol) who came of age in the 1980s, a gen-exer. Not a baby boomer. The messages were very different.

I always worked and made decisions for myself. My husband and I would make all our decisions together, including those related to child rearing. However, when this song came out in the late 90s I had just left my husband, my children's father, because things were getting increasingly dangerous for me, due to his alcoholism. Cole's song resonated with me back then, in terms of the disillusionment I felt. I had expectations of sharing the household load, although the reality was that I did all of the caregiving. I birthed the children, nursed the children, cooked the meals, and also worked part-time. I didn't mind doing the caretaking, I enjoyed having my children with me as much as possible. But, although the times they were a changing, with magazines like "Working Woman", the third wave feminist movement in full swing, and 80s/90s you can do it all messages for women commonplace, the reality of how this played out in poor and working class households across the country was quite different. It felt like an impossible task had been set before us, without the time and policy changes necessary to support its successful implementation.

The old messages of men don't cry and women aren't supposed to be independent, never worked in reality, and the new messages weren't fully supported with the social infrastructure to make them a true reality. 

So, the disillusionment that Cole's song portrays felt very real to me in the late 90s. Meanwhile, my father was no longer trapped in the stoic expectations of my childhood era. I'll never forget the first time I saw him cry. I was 17 years old, and leaving home, moving across 4 states with my new husband. He thought he'd never see me again. We went for a walk out by the barn, just the two of us, and he hugged me and asked me to reconsider moving away. There were tears in his eyes. I was shocked. I honestly never imagined that my leaving would hurt him. That moment still haunts me. I have often wondered how things would have unfolded if he was able to show these emotions earlier in my childhood. But, as we both aged, there were lots of moments where my father showed his emotions. Cards and letters written to me with such heartfelt messages, quiet talks we both had over morning coffee when I visited, hugs and tears when we had to say goodbye. So many moments in my adult life and in his advancing age where we shared personal stories of both pain and joy. I am thankful that he no longer had to live up to a mythical version of a cowboy. Because that is indeed what Cole's song refers to, that mythical image of a strong, caretaking man who doesn't have feelings. 

True cowboys have feelings. True cowboys are both independent and reliant on those they love. Cowboys have nothing to do with gender, we all have a little cowboy within our soul. We can take the image and flip it, we can take the script and flip it. Loving your independence, self-sufficiency, and the drive to be outside watching the sunset, can absolutely be combined with knowing when you need to ask for help, a boost to get up in the saddle, and also sharing the burden of others, and feeling your emotions fully. 

Its okay to cry, and its okay to simultaneously mourn old ways, while being grateful for new ways of being in the world.

We will all need help as we age, and as we wind down our journey here on this earth. All of us. Whether we're a cowboy or not. I only hope that  I can learn to accept this more each day, letting go of the need to do it all myself, all alone, and let someone else take the reins when the time comes. 

Where have all the cowboys gone? I think they're still here, just in a different way.