What Does it Mean to be a Man?
I wrote a blog post with this title about a month ago. I couldn’t quite get the sections to “feel right” to me and I never posted it. Then the Donald Trump “locker room talk” video controversy erupted. Many people across the political spectrum have called his actions and words (the two are really the same) out as unacceptable. I was surprised it took this long for some to see it, but I’m glad its being seen. The idea that the locker room makes abusive and oppressive thoughts, words, and actions “okay” has got to go.
Many people have stood forward to speak (again) about the objectification of women. I completely agree. Not for the first time I find myself offended by what many of us think it means to be a man, and what we allow men to do and think and believe about themselves.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about men like me.
Because I’d like to imagine there is a place to be a man… like me.
So I want to share a bit about what I think that is, and I want to share not so much for my sake… but for the sake of boys who are boys today in much the way I was 30 years ago, and in my heart still am today. Because there isn’t much of a masculine bone in my body. Don’t hear me wrong. I’m male, and without regret. I was born a man and want to be proud of what that means (though in the public sphere I rarely am, I’m mostly ashamed of what “being a man” has come to mean). Being a man does not mean I’m reckless, it does not mean I’m rough and tumble or big and brash, it doesn’t mean I have to let fly with offensive language to be in the club (though I can… if I do or if I don’t, it has nothing to do with being a man), it doesn’t mean I’m strong and athletic, and it doesn’t mean I am due any different rights or privileges than anyone else. I completely disavow any of that as being definitional to being a man, for me or anyone else. They may be true of you, but not because you’re a man. They are true because you are you. What it means to be a man must be far bigger and deeper than that small caricature, and must be far less an excuse than it serves as today.
What does it mean for me to be a man? It means I’m an active father and there is no task that isn’t MY task. I read an article once, in a parenting magazine no less, from a father who said he learned to be okay watching Sports Center while his wife did bath time because he wasn’t good at it. WHAT? No one is good at bath time. Its horrible. Its loud. No child listens to you. You get wet, lose your patience, and regret it. You remind yourself to laugh and roll with it so you make bubbles in the water and soap beard for the kid to trim. Turn off the TV and jump in the water because that’s what it means to be a man.
It means I’m terrified of locker rooms. I always have been and I always will be. It means that I cry when I’m hurt, physically or emotionally. I guess I should back up and say it means I’m emotional. I was a sensitive kid who cried a lot, was among the shortest and weakest in every classroom I was in until most of the way through high school, and (as you can tell) I was a late bloomer. And none of that makes me a weak person, in fact I’d say it makes me strong in most of the ways that have mattered through my life. But it also doesn’t make me masculine – a word that makes me shudder and draw away- I’m a man, not masculine.
I grew up with three sisters and no brothers, and I think mostly I was far more comfortable around girls than boys most of my life. Because I didn’t feel like I fit the definition of what it means to be a boy… or what it meant to “be the man” that I wasn’t yet, nor ever would be. Its probably a good thing I was comfortable around girls because three of my four children are girls and when we get to tampons versus pads, and all of that – it won’t be taboo to me because I shared a bathroom with sisters my whole life. I can talk strings tucked up in underwear just as well as football (been there and done that). None of that makes me, or excludes me, from being a man.
So what is my point? My point is that I always talk about being an introvert but probably don’t acknowledge enough that its because I’m not sure I ever felt like I fit in as a kid. My introverted tendencies were exacerbated by the sense that I did not belong. I walked in a lot of circles but I never belonged to any of them. I had a lot of acquaintances but very few friends, and most of those who I called friends were other people who didn’t belong. We were broken. But mostly we weren’t. We just didn’t “fit” in. We didn’t measure up to social norms.
And so I’m speaking now because my heart goes out to other boys like me, who hear so many stories of what it “means to be a man” and who hear that “boys will be boys” and hear about the appropriateness of inappropriate “locker room talk” and inside the say to themselves, “well I guess something is wrong with me because none of that makes the least bit of sense of to me.” Boys like me who feel something must be wrong with them because they don’t look like the “them” we talk about when we talk about what it means to be a boy or a man.
My son is one of the sensitive ones. Sometimes his emotional nature bothers me, I want to tell him to toughen up. In fact, I have told him that. And then I die inside. Because I realize what I have just done. I tried to make him toughen up because I was too weak to handle his emotion. And that’s the rub of it. Most of what we think it means to be a man is based in a deep underlying insecurity with who we are… mostly it has to do with acting tough so we don’t have to admit how weak we are. Its easy to do, and so damn hard to undo. I try my best to raise my kids with a healthy of sense of self, and of self-differentiation from me, from you, and from social norms. But I too slip up. I too slip back into the garbage the world taught me.
We need to deconstruct our myths of what it means to be human, and what it means to be strong, and what it means to be a man. Not only because those myths are destructive to other people, but also in the way they destroy ourselves. I want to be the little boy who played on the playground with ants in the back corner of the sand lot while everyone else played kick ball. I want to be the little boy who sang made up songs around the campfire about how his day went. I want to be the boy who played as much with dolls as bats and balls growing up and who cried when the world overwhelmed him rather than trying to be tough and strong. I want to be me, when me has nothing to do with what I was lead to believe it mean to be a man. And still be proud that I’m a man.
I’ve rambled again, and lost my way a bit – I think this is a subject too complicatedly close to my heart for me to stay on point but I want to get it said again: we have to take care about our words (which are actions) and our norms and expectations and how they are heard. Our children, our neighbors, our friends are listening… on the street AND in the locker room. And without knowing we may be crushing their spirit. And as strong as they are in their own identities… the indignities add up, and leave their mark. So the next time you see that popular meme about the what its like being the parent of boys, or you are about to excuse rude or violent behavior by saying ‘boys will be boys,’ or you feel the impulse to tell someone to toughen up because you imagine they have to conform to you and not the other way around… stop. Just stop. Because it isn’t true. And it isn’t good. And when the laughter dies away… so too does the spirit of some kid who just got told they don’t belong. That they are fundamentally flawed in their inner being.
For all of them – for all of us; I love you for you – just as you are. I thank God for you and that God made you as you are to correct me about my too-shallow understanding of all that it can mean to be human. Because without you the world is a smaller, more monochromatic, less interesting place to be. Bless me, by being you: unencumbered, freed from norms, fully expressed you. I deserve it, and so do you.