My oldest son is taller than me by about two inches. He’ll be 15 tomorrow. He is lanky and lean and strong for his age. He hasn’t really put on too much musculature yet, but the days when I could physically overmatch him are gone. This is a sensitive time for a father. Another reminder that your days of prowess are waning, and that you’d better have some other tools in your toolkit if you want to be a relevant influence in your son’s life.
So what to make of this? How do we unpack the baggage that our society forces us to carry about boys and men – and what the hell is masculinity anyhow? What is it that our sons must confront as they build their understanding of who they are in this world?
Being a man is difficult. Societal messages tell us that strong, tall, self-assured, physically imposing, clever, rich, talented men are who we should aspire to be. Powerful, we all want to feel powerful, but what if we don’t possess these qualities? Does that make you less of a man? To whom must you prove your masculinity? To women? To other men? To yourself?
Status, we are creatures of status – not so far evolved from our primate relatives. Every man, somewhere in his deep subconscious, wants to be the Silverback, with his harem and his territory, don’t we? But we are beyond this as well. We are not just bodies with muscles. We have minds. We have feelings. We can recognize the futility and ugliness of the cage match mentality – although it can be compelling to watch. (Thank you, UFC.)
The basest feelings and emotions – our fear and survival instincts, our desire for sexual conquest, our lust for power, are triggered each and every day by the cultural maelstrom that is the Information Age. Most media entertainment feeds us these endorphin blasts like junk food. It’s the sugar, fat, salt, starch recipe for emotional obesity, the titties-and-beer adolescent fantasy of “Animal House” made manifest as a cultural identity – and we eat it up. Why? Because it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s an emotional Big Mac, and it sells.
There are many of us who make our living creating this content. We may even know that it’s toxic, and yet it sells and sells and sells. It’s hard to say no to that draw. Why should we care if people are making themselves sick? I didn’t put the needle in his arm...
And there it is: The first murder. And Cain slew his brother Abel…and said, “I am not my brother’s keeper.” But we are our brothers’ keeper, or at least we should be. When it’s your son, you have to be. But how? How do we teach emotional maturity and moral clarity in our current cultural context. Everything is available to my son – the most graphic sex and violence are just a few clicks away, parental controls be damned. Even if I limited his access to the content, he spends most of his day engaged with other adolescent boys, either at school or online. I can’t control what comes out of their mouths or what their parents let them see.
I try to bear witness to my son’s experiences and to understand what he sees, thinks, and feels. I engage him in conversations on difficult topics. I allow him some privacy to work it out for himself. I hug him, as much as he’ll allow, so that he knows that masculinity can also be tender.
I give him opportunities to be around other men, my friends, who are strong and also gentle, who know how to love and share their feelings, who respect their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters for the powerful, independent beings they are. I teach him the value of hard work, independent thinking, and joyful engagement with life.
This is the rub, though: How do we raise boys with these values if we’re still trying to figure this shit out for ourselves? That is the question, but it’s also the answer. The process of grappling with these difficult issues not only teaches us but also teaches our children how to learn for themselves. They watch us struggle, no matter how we may try to hide it. They learn from our mistakes.
I am not my father – thank God for that! But I learned so much from his struggles, from his weaknesses as well as his strengths. He carried a lot of burdens so that I wouldn’t suffer the way he did, which is the definition of love, isn’t it? It took me a long time to understand that.
It wasn’t until my first son was born that I realized the crushing truth. When I first held that tiny, slimy, squalling boy in my hands, I felt my heart break open like a tiny, hard acorn sprouting, growing, embracing its potential, and I thought about my dad. That was the killer. I had never felt such love and power as the day I first held my son. When I realized that that was how much my father loved me… It absolutely broke me. I changed that day.
You see, the armor I’d been wearing to protect me, to make me strong, hard, invincible, had also trapped me. I had fashioned for myself a cage, a narrative of power, an identity as a MAN that didn’t leave room for tenderness. I am not a man who possesses many of the qualities that our culture tells us men should have. I am not tall or physically imposing. I am not wealthy or powerful in business. I am not a particularly talented athlete or artist, although I try to be. I am not even particularly clever – or at least I’ve been humbled enough times when assuming I was clever, only to find out that I’ve actually been a bit of an ass.
And then you hit middle age… Oooff! What a gut punch that is. Whatever prowess or good looks you did have turn south. The hair you want turns gray and falls out while plenty of unwanted hair sprouts robustly from your nose and ears. Your belly grows and your pecs shrink. All of these things are happening as you watch your son wade into that maelstrom that is adolescence, and he’s looking for role models. Men aren’t supposed to show fear, but it is hard not to feel it. The tide of life is turning.
You become more yourself as you age, for better or worse. For all that it takes away, life gives back this at least. The men I admire go there gracefully, with wit and perspective and self-deprecating humor. We still play and compete with each other, but we’ve let go of the illusion that we must be The Best.
I can’t beat my son in a foot race anymore, but I love watching him run. I will be satisfied if he grows up knowing who he is in the world. I love that he is respectful to women. He has a very strong role model in his mother. I am thankful that he doesn’t seem inclined toward addiction or depression as my father was. It makes me sad to see him struggle, though I know it would be the cruelest thing I could do, if I could just take it away…
I’m afraid I don’t have any magical answers for those who might have hoped for a great insight when they started reading this. The work is the thing. My father did many things wrong in his parenting of his own son. At 17 I would have been happy to give you a long and detailed list of what they were.
But here’s what he did right: He never gave up. He muddled through. Yes, he had weaknesses and doubts and shortcomings that made me resent him for not being the superhero that I needed him to be. As I’ve matured into adulthood, and realized how treacherous navigating the shoals of fatherhood can be, I’ve realized that he never quit on me. He never stopped believing in me. He was always there for me, imperfect as he was, and that was his true strength. That was my father’s quiet masculinity, his true grace.