One day my son will ask me what he needs to do to be a man. He might not use those words and he might not even ask it as a single question, but over the years I know him he will ask me this question in some form:
“Dad, how do I be a man?”.
What the bloody buggery am I going to say?
“Well a man is important…
No, women are just as important.
“A man is different to……
No, men are very different to each other too, they aren’t a homogeneous group.
“Men are like…..
No, that’s going to be a hideous generalisation.
“Well, uhhhh, what do you think?….
“Some day you’ll understand.”
We all know some day never comes (with a hat-tip to Creedence Clearwater Revival).
Once it was easier. Simpler. A man is strong. A man is a provider. A man is a protector. A man is a leader.
But, is that what I want for my son? When we cut through the nostalgic haze and have a hard look at the golden age of simplicity we discover the state of play in the world.
A man is more likely to die early. A man is more likely to commit suicide. A man is more likely to have a mental illness. A man is more likely to be obese.
I am sure I don’t want that for my son.
More questions, but what’s the answer?
The thing is I will have already taught him about manhood. He’s seen me, watched me, copied me and idolised me for years already. I’m a model he emulates, even though he doesn’t know he’s doing it. So what do I do to “be a man”?
And suddenly I become self-conscious. I work. I do things around the garden, I try to fix the house. I am currently trying to fix the ride-on mower (that I broke myself). What am I? A cardboard cut-out from a 60s sitcom? What if I am a problem-solving, objective-driven, map-reading, sex-driven chauvinist?
Then I pause, breathe and think. No wait. I did humanities, I’m a drama teacher (one of 6 men in a class of 40 at uni). Hell I am male teacher. I’ve performed in musicals, I cry during movies and I blog about parenting. Clearly I’m a sensitive, caring, lovey-dovey teddy bear. Right?
Or maybe being a man is complicated and nuanced. Maybe the world isn’t (and never was) black and white. Or should I say pink and blue?
I’m not interested in posting photos of my boy running around in a dress and saying “LOOK I R TOLERANT!!!!” to the Internet. (Although the story of him running around wearing my T-shirt, which was down to his knees, shouting “I am a princess” is pretty cute…)
I’m not interested in telling my son to “toughening up” or telling him that “boys don’t cry”. (Although there have been times when I have left him to work out problems on his own so he can learn and grow and I say “use your words” a lot when he’s bawling).
I am interested in producing a son who is happy, well-adjusted and comfortable in himself. Whatever “himself” turns out to be. He may be a singer, a kick boxer, a painter, a CEO, a comedian, a stay at home dad, a scientist, an accountant, a teacher, a builder, a doctor, a hair dresser, a politician…
He may be straight, gay, bi, trans. I couldn’t care less so long as he is happy.
So, how do you be a man? I still haven’t answered your question.
Look around. No one actually knows.
And yet the world is full of good men, happy men. Men who provide. Men who protect. Men who nurture. Men who heal. Men who lead. Men who console. Men who help. Men who teach. And yes, men who cry.
The world is full of women who do all that too, and give birth on top of it.
The world is also full of crazy people who want to pull humanity back into an historically imagined era of gender segregation; of strictly proscribed roles for men and women. Its not confined to a particular place or a particular creed. In some parts of the world that’s the life that has been forced on people. It helps no one, it harms everyone.
So my answer: don’t get too hung up on it. Whatever you are, the world’s idea of “manhood” isn’t fixed. The biological differences ensure that men and women aren’t the same, but these differences shouldn’t be regarded as barriers that confine you.
Manhood (and womanhood) is a construct. It changes. It is changing all the time. Your generation will come up with its own ideas of what it means to be a man, you’ll be part of working that out.
Okay, that’s a bit much to take in for a child, so maybe I’ll just offer this little over idealistic and simplistic platitude:
Be yourself. Working out how to do that is hard enough without worrying about “how to be a man”.