Discover more from The Better Man
Revisiting Notions Of Masculinity
A Father's Day Reflection.
My Number One job in the whole wide world — I often explain to our pre-tween son — is to prepare him to be a fully functional adult. To me, this means that he will become a great many things, but also that he will not, in some ways, become me.
I usually find myself making this mini-speech after the son has done something he should not have done, such as the time he made grooves on my desk because he wanted to test out a knife. Or when he has not done something he should have done, such as his chores or brush his teeth.
As any parent will attest, telling our children what to do (or what not to do) isn’t a particularly challenging task. Many-a-time it even gives us pleasure. After all, who doesn’t want a captive audience member who hasn’t yet learned to talk back?
But there are times when we’re all confronted with stuff that we’re not equipped to handle. In my case, this is especially true of notions of masculinity.
Two stories come to mind.
When the boy was about two or three, his aunt gave him a beautiful picture book titled, And Tango Makes Three.
The book tells the true story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York. They fall in love with each other, and with the help of the zookeeper, are able to sit on an abandoned egg and hatch it, thus becoming parents in the process. Their chick is named Tango.
Reading it aloud to my son the first time, I was seized by anxiety.
It is one thing for a cisgendered, heteronormative person like me to be at ease in a world of fluid gender identities and a spectrum of sexualities. It is quite another thing when you have to explain this to your child while simultaneously confronting your own fears and biases. To put it bluntly: I found that I was afraid that my son would grow up to be gay, and afraid that reading a book featuring two male protagonists who fall in love with each other would ‘influence’ him. I wasn’t homophobic, but the book made me confront my deepest anxieties about male sexuality in a very direct way.
I was able to overcome these fears fairly easily, in no small part because his mother talked me through them. Also, And Tango Makes Three is very carefully written. The authors of the book, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, don’t bother to sort the world into ‘straight’ and ‘gay’. They tell the story in a simple, matter-of-fact style.
Our son loved it and just took it for granted that families and relationships come in different shapes and sizes.
My second story is to do with emotions, and how to deal with them.
If my son was on the verge of tears, I’d often feel the urge to say “don’t cry, be a man”. If he was angry, I’d feel the need for him to “rein it in”.
The thing is, the particular blend of masculinity I’d internalised was the stuff of romance: men are alone, strong and silent. They depend on no one, and when they make jokes, it is with a grim sense of humour.
I gravitated to this type of hero in all the books I read and the movies I watched. For example, the typical protagonist in a Dick Francis thriller endures a lot of suffering, but deadpans it all. When asked if he is hurt after a dreadful fall from a speeding horse, one character jokes that he is feeling, “with every nerve ending.”
What was not to like about this version of masculinity? It was beautiful and intoxicating.
It was also disastrous for me.
At least partly because I romanticised this type of being male, I developed a very effective system of denying my emotions; of “stuffing it in”. A few years of this effectively made me a robot. I discovered later on that I could not even identify my emotions. Was I happy? Was I angry? Was I sad? I found — to my incredible astonishment — that I simply could not tell.
By this time, I was already a father.
A couple of years ago, I came across these words by the activist and writer bell hooks, and instantly recognised myself in them:
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.
Had I hacked off the emotional parts of myself in order to fit into this image of ‘strong, silent and stoic’?
It turned out, I had. (Without sounding too dramatic, I should say this had led me down a self-destructive path, which is a story for another day.)
As I read hook’s words, I was astonished that this ‘psychic self-mutilation’ was even a recognised thing. It had been described, named, and admitted.
Why wasn’t it more widely talked about?!
The point of all this is that I know better today. Even my son knows that his father has trouble identifying his feelings. Still, my age-old conditioning won't go away.
Just a few weeks ago, our son didn’t want enter into a cold water shower (it was an unexpectedly cool day for summer). In my rush to get him ready for bed, I told him not to be a ‘sissy’. When he insisted he wanted hot water, I said he was a ‘spoiled brat’. I was only able to recognise the import of these words and apologise to him after a conversation with his mother.
As I helped him to sleep, we had a long and honest conversation about where the urge to say these things comes from. I told him that it comes from deep inside and from the same place that doesn’t allow me to feel my emotions.
For now, my son has accepted that people like his old man are ‘like this only’. To my utter relief, he doesn’t show much hesitation in expressing his own emotions. When he’s angry, he’s not told that anger is a bad thing. Rather, that he has to learn to express it in healthy ways. When he is sad or anxious, as he has been on occasion during the pandemic, he is encouraged to sit with his feelings. And when a teacher told his class that one “shouldn’t be negative, but positive at all times”, he wondered later on if that was really good advice. (It wasn’t, he decided.)
As for me, I have a long way to go. My notions of masculinity intersect with practically every part of life and every aspect of fatherhood. Some of these old values are definitely worth holding on to, but increasingly I find that masculinity has been a built on a foundation that is harsh, unyielding and … brittle.
bell hooks prefers to write her name in the lower case.
I read her words in Rebecca Solnit’s collection The Mother of all Questions
I’m reading hooks’ book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love
Brain Pickings has displayed a few pages of A Tango Makes Three
A must-see movie about kids and feelings is Pixar’s Inside Out.