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.