Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adoption - The Un-Manliest Enterprise, Part 1

I'm going to be looking at some themes in perceived gender roles, rights of passage, and socially endorsed expression of gender roles in this post. As a result there's going to be a lot of discussion about what "society expects" and some fairly global language about pressures on men , boys, and how they should behave to affirm those identities. I won't waste everyone's time with caveats every time I say something definitive. Consider this the catch-all: every man experiences social pressures differently. This is my experience and understanding. It has been garnered not only by direct experience but also through intensive study of anthropology and meandering study of gender issues in the U.S.A. and abroad.

I've heard since early childhood that if every man could just get in touch with his feminine side all conflict would end, world peace would be declared, famine would end, total racial equality would occur overnight, border disputes would end, global warming would be reversed, and there would never be another natural disaster as long as humanity survived, which would be forever. Naturally. Okay, I made up the one about natural disasters.

Sounds pretty good. So how do we get in touch with our feminine side and get the ball rolling here? Watch Sex and the City, use hand lotion, shave obsessively, consider allowing your significant other (who is a woman, naturally) to put nail polish on you for fun, cry when you see kittens, openly love everyone by giving them lots of hugs and listening intently to everything they say, and start asking people if those pants make your butt look big. Admittedly I made up this entire paragraph. However it isn't very far from the ideas typically expressed about how a man can successfully touch femininity. The general approach seems to be something like this:

Man - Masculinity = Man + Femininity

How wonderfully convenient that it should be so simple. Unfortunately that isn't actually the case. Femininity is its own entity. I believe it is much more than the lack of masculinity. If the equation above were true that insinuates the default position for humans is feminine. Therefore masculinity only shows up what it crushes femininity to take control. Right from the premise we see this is a set up for a fight. If that's our basic understanding of gender there cannot be a constructive dialogue because oppressor and victim roles are already firmly established. More so the oppressor can do nothing corrective to the power structure short of disappearing entirely! Even more dangerous is accepts femininity as being inherently fragile. As a result the only strong sense of femininity is one that is masculinity-proof. This is a very destructive view. It also happens to be the view of many "feminists"* I've encountered.

*quotes used because I believe these women are co-opting a term to lend credence to their views

We also encounter troubling messages on the other side. I recently read a quote from a popular television show that got me thinking about this. On a crime show, the studly, troubled, masculine police officer speaks about his obligation to love and care for his children like this;

". . . it's not an obsession. It's a love. It's a connection that transcends anything and everything. I would die for my children. And there's nothing in the world that will change that. Ever."

Why would he die for his children? Is he going into battle? Does he expect their lives to be threatened by raiders in the harvest season? No. But why wouldn't it be manly for him to respond "I would sacrifice my happiness," "do even what I consider unimaginable for their benefit," or even "I will love them completely"? His statement reflected a preparation for death but not for compassion. Why is this the case? The answer is, unfortunately, a very simple one. In the western world masculinity has become associated with war, ownership, and procreation. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes some sense because it means the man will have resources, the will to defend them, and progeny to carry on the line who are likely to share those traits. In short he's got enough testosterone to keep humanity going. But this has become so overblown as to lampoon whatever biological basis may have existed. We're making fun of ourselves. It's now extended to other arenas. Mild homophobia is manly. Working with large, heavy bits of steel (preferably phallic) is manly. Listening to Country music or Classic Rock is manly, as is driving a pickup truck. Driving a sport car is compensatory manliness. These messages are all around us. All one need do is turn on the television and watch ten minutes of commercials. Oh, right, it's also manly to get skin cancer so one should never apply sunscreen and become very, very tan.

But more than any of that being masculine means ownership and procreation. Those add up to fatherhood. Being a man means being a father. Where does this put first-fathers? The primary directive of manliness has been violated. We have willingly surrendered our child. We have forsaken ownership. Our bravado is now hollow because no matter what we achieve, nor how virile we are, we could not care for our child.

Now I must transition and speak only to my own experience.

For a long time it felt like a formal declaration of inadequacy had been tattooed on my face. Everyone around me could see that I was not a real man. I was an unprepared boy playing dress up in adult clothes. It seemed something was fundamentally wrong with me that I didn't have the ability nor the desire to raise my son. Somewhere inside of me there was a horrible mutation that made me less than human. No matter what I did from here on I was not a man. I was not a father. I was a pathetic freak that would disappear from the face of the earth. Evolution made a mistake with me that it was soon to correct.

I count myself fortunate that I sought therapy as soon as Athena told me she was pregnant. Through those weekly sessions I was able to work through and unpack all the baggage I had brought into the pregnancy and develop a new definition for masculinity. It doesn't have a check list. It doesn't fight femininity tooth and claw for dominance. My masculinity is my own. No one can take it from me because no one gave it to me. It had to be built up piece by piece. Masculinity is the confidence that I am exactly who and what I am. My sense of gender is my sense of self. That is to say I cannot use gender to define who I am. First I had to know myself, then love myself, and recognize my confidence and strength. Then I could look outward to see what it means to be a man. To be a man is to be me.  Just as it is to be you. Or to be a woman.

I know my femininity and masculinity because I know myself. As a culture we're getting the cart before the horse. If anyone has a genuine claim to being a man it is a birthfather. Few others have had to deconstruct and rebuild their identity as thoroughly as an honest first-father.

That's all for the moment. No doubt there will be more on this later.

Addendum  in response to some questions put forth.


  1. This post (which was excellent by the way) really got me thinking about the gap in value placed on parental rights during an adoption. I, of course, can only speak to how it is handled in my own state. But here, the birthfather can terminate his parental rights at any point, however, the birthmother must wait until after the birth to do so. Why the disparity? Is it a societal assumption that the mother must give birth and possibly see and/or hold her child before she can fully make the decision to go forward with the adoption? Is it because the state assumes the father won't be involved anyway, so what does it matter when he terminates his rights? Whatever it is, it seems terribly skewed.

  2. Oh dear.

    I agree with many things you say here ("feminism" should often be in quotes, the term has been rendered entirely meaningless) and I register my lack of empathetic understanding because I am not a man. But it just seems, well, silly to talk about femininity overpowering masculinity in our culture.

    First, I kinda wanna pick at your argument, because something bothered me. You say: "In short he's got enough testosterone to keep humanity going. But this has become so overblown as to lampoon whatever biological basis may have existed. We're making fun of ourselves. It's now extended to other arenas." Sure, okay, but your examples - phallic imagery, homophobia, big trucks, etc - to me those things may be true, but they have little to nothing to do with what you said before. You're linking two different things (man's perceived evolutionary role based on body chemistry, and media portrayal of "manliness") without showing how one led to the other. Correlation does not mean causation.

    And the media. Oh, the media. I almost want to put you in the shoes of a woman for a day and deal with what that's like. Think it's annoying that men are supposed to be tan and manly and whatnot? Try push up bras, high heels, makeup, hair products bath products you-have-to-smell-like-watermelon-or-no-man-will-ever-love-you-and-you'll-have-to-drop-out-of-society-and-wear-live-animals-as-hats products, magazine and TV shows telling you to be blonde, be dumb, etc etc. Do you know how unbelievably hard it is to be a woman today? And if you WANT to succeed in a "man's world" then you have to make yourself into a man. Cut your hair like Hilary Clinton and wear pantsuits. There's no PLACE for women to embrace femininity in a man's world - unless, of course, that femininity is expressed through big boobs, tight clothes, and a vacant expression hanging off a man's arm. I agree that "feminism" today is a farce, but to me it always meant that we should have the same opportunities as men (though we don't necessarily have to take them all, just as men don't). But we don't, and it might also be hard to navigate masculinity for a man, but the two simply aren't comparable.

    Okay, /end rant. I think it's great that you found a way to balance yourself - I just don't know if you're expressing it in the right terms. Being at peace with the whole of yourself does not really equal having "embraced your feminine side". Frankly, I don't even think there is such a thing as a masculine side or a feminine side: we are what we are, discovering the whole of yourself has to do with just THAT, the whole of YOURSELF - not necessarily combining different sides. If that makes sense.

    ANYWAY, the important thing in this post, the thing I will take away from it, at least, is that through becoming a first-father, you discovered that whole. I don't know if it has to do so much with masculinity and femininity, but you know yourself - you know yourself better than you ever would have before. That's heartening. It's such a good thing that you got therapy early and often (I'm in it, too, and thank god) and such a good thing that you can come to peace with your situation. I hope I'm able to do that, too.

    Sorry about the rantiness. Just wanted to get my reaction across! You know you've got a good post when you get strong reactions! A very smart and pleasurable read, if I may say so.


  3. Lia - This is going to be a long one, so if I ramble any more than necessary I apologize.

    The notion of correlation not being synonymous with causation was exactly what I was trying to underscore. Media portrayal of masculinity bear scant resemblance to anything directly associated with physiology or evolutionary benefit. Hence "lampooning" our notions of masculinity. The expression of masculinity is so far removed from anything that could be construed as causation as to be laughable.

    "Do you know how unbelievably hard it is to be a woman today? " In a word, no. I'm not a woman. However here we're encountering the classic battle stance. Neither of us can say "I have it worse" because there is no empirical data to back any claims about how hard it is to be a man or woman. I agree that feminism, at its heart, is about a gender neutral world. Women and man in perfectly equal standing with no expressed, perceived, nor experienced bias. I think we're right on the same page on that one. However, I think you may be overlooking some of the gender specific difficulties that men encounter that women are not subject to (just as there are pressures that women are subject to that men never encounter). The point is that men have their own cross to bear, just as women do, but without recognition. For example, I doubt you've been told that you're evil and can never be a force for good in the world because of your gender. I have. On eight separate occasions. What I'm starting to get at (this is the first of a series of posts to explore this idea) is gender inequality cuts both ways. Just as white people aren't the only racists, men aren't the only ones to benefit and be hurt by gender arch-types.

    "Being at peace with the whole of yourself does not really equal having 'embraced your feminine side'." I was going to take issue with this statement until I read your follow up. The reason I underscore this statement is to clarify. I may not have been entirely clear at that portion of the post. I was trying to address the issue of gender expression and identity through the terminology used previously. In effect I was trying to tie back in with the claims at the top of the post about how men just need to get in touch with their feminine side. My notion being sense of self defines gender rather than gender defines self. It's a difference between inductive and deductive self applied deconstructionism. Many people operate with a check list of who they are. Self definition becomes a series of nouns. I came to terms with scrapping the noun, looking at myself for definition first, then applied that definition to the term.

    The point of this post was to stir up the notions of fatherhood and how they are tied to adoption plans. What I discovered while processing the adoption plan was that gender identity was something I'd not completely taken apart. There was still a deeper understanding to be won. I don't know how much you've dealt with gender identity issues that aren't also tied to developmental roles (kid, girl, teen, young woman, adult, et cetera). I've had enough conversations with bi/pan/trans/homo/non/multi-sexuals to know it gets incredibly murky and the assumptions made are often so deeply rooted that we are utterly and completely blind to them. Like the notion we each face the same challenges, or even roughly equitable ones.

    I recognize and respect the challenges you face. I shall do my best not to add to them. I ask, and indeed trust, you will do the same. I ask this especially on behalf of Max Power. Please recognize there are things happening in and to him you may not see, even if they're happening right in front of your eyes.

  4. Yay I love thought-provoking internet conversations! Nice clarification - I feel I understand your point much better now. As for the LGBTetc movement (it's hard to think of an all-encompassing term, isn't it? I like to just call it "the fluidity movement" but people take issue) I have no internal knowledge of it - I'm as disgustingly straight as they come and completely comfortable in my body as a woman (lucky me!). But I have bunches of external experience (hell-O, I go to NYU, in terms of gender identification I'm the most heteronormative of my friends) and my familiarity with the fluidity of gender is why I sometimes take issue with notion of femininity and masculinity and the separation/clarification of those two ideas. But as I can see, we are it seems completely in agreement when it comes to that, we just put it in different terms.

    Sorry to jump down your throat about the "it's soooo hard to be a womaaaaan" thing - I was having a testy morning. It IS hard and you will never know how hard, but I will try my very best to recognize that it's hard for guys, too, and that I will never know THAT. "The point is that men have their own cross to bear, just as women do." I'll agree with that.

    I'm doing my best with Max Power. I know he's having a rough time of it - and he doesn't really talk to me about it. I don't want to push, but I feel like he needs to open up or he's gonna go nuts. He can't just internalize everything. That's gotta be dangerous. But I don't think he'd ever consider counseling. Which is fine, I don't think it's for him. But I'm gonna make sure he sees the social worker, with and without me, and avails himself of the other resources at our agency. Keep reminding me that his feelings count, too. Sometimes I forget! It's easy to get wrapped up in my own feelings to the exclusion of the rest of the world. I'm allowed. I'm GROWING A PERSON.

    How long have you been off cigs? I honestly plan to light up the second the seabass pops out of me. IN THE HOSPITAL. I also want a margarita the size of my head. I will make Max Power bring it to me in a Big Gulp. (I recognize that this is all silly. Humor me.)

  5. OMG not to spam your comments but I FORGOT to say in my original ranty comment that I fucking used that Eliot Stabler quote in a blog entry not that long ago (I am a proud and certainly not ashamed in any way addict of SVU) - except, you know, in a slightly less combative context. I don't really think it's supposed to be an overtly masculine or violent comment. It's just an expression. I don't know ANY woman (or script writer) that would say, "I would give up my happiness for my child!" when asked about how they feel. They said, "I would die for my children." My mom has said that before. Dying is just an intense thing, the most intense thing there is, so it's a way to express just how much love and feeling exists in that bond, I suppose.

  6. Lia - Your blog is where I read the quote. I don't have a TV so I would otherwise be entirely ignorant. Thanks for the inspiration.

  7. First off, I have to say that I laughed out loud at some of this, not because I thought it was dumb or mocking you but because I have six brothers who are jocks (and very athletic), and my dad was very male chauvinistic. I felt like I really could read where you were coming from. I had a hard time finding myself in a very male world with a father and mother who defined womanhood for me. I equated my worth based on my physical appearance and abilities. I was very confused.

    I loved this, "My sense of gender is my sense of self. That is to say I cannot use gender to define who I am. First I had to know myself, then love myself, and recognize my confidence and strength. Then I could look outward to see what it means to be a man. To be a man is to be me. Just as it is to be you. Or to be a woman." To this day I'm still figuring it out. You expressed exactly what I've been feeling the last six months about who I really am.

    P.S. In regards to my blog post, you didn't offend at all; you opened my eyes, and I will post a comment soon. I'm not good with words on the fly; I really have to think about what it is I'm trying to say, or I get it all wrong. I really appreciated your comment and perspective.

  8. There's so much going on here in both the original post and the comments. Great discussion.

    I believe having a son (that I actually talk to about stuff) has helped me to see the male journey in life isn't a walk in the park. Being a female, of course, enables me to care about it ; )

    Joking aside, I do believe there are inherent gender differences that exist. Of course they don't apply to each and every person but generally speaking, to offer very basic examples, men tend to be physically stronger and women have less facial hair. Depending on a person's culture, age, and/or "upbringing" even these kinds of simple gender traits can be manipulated to support agendas of those who seek to benefit by perpetuating the battle of the sexes.

    In my opinion, feminism (not that unlike labour unions) is/was a necessity in which the pendulum can swing too far one way. Unfortunately it's not in the best interests of some for things to be as truly equal as they could be.

    I am 47 and cannot think of a time where I was discriminated against based on gender whereas I can think immediately of a few times when my 20 year old son was.

    Lastly I'd just like to add, dads matter!


What do you think? I'm curious.