By Jason Menard
Just one word is all it took to remove any of the last vestiges of any sense of cool masculinity to which I was still clinging. Of my own volition, I uttered the word “tummy,” and completed my decent into the land of doing fatherhood.
And you know what? I’m a better man for it.
There were no excuses for my actions. I awoke at night, feeling slightly nauseous, and when my wife turned to ask what was wrong I replied, “My tummy hurts.” And, at that point, it felt even worse as my concept of masculinity plummeted into my gut. Sure, I was tired, but there were no kids around. Just me and my vocabulary diluted to the point where “tummy” was my first reference.
The overall decent has been slow and gradual, like a glacier eroding away the rugged edges of a coast, my carefully crafted, grizzled exterior has been systematically smoothed away by an unyielding force of nature – children.
It’s an interesting parallel watching my son enter that delicate pre-teen age bracket. At 11 years old, his life is all about proving himself in front of his friends. Like all of us at the time, he has a foggy idea of what it means to be a man, but is unable to comprehend what manhood is truly about.
That lesson is one we don’t truly learn until later in life. Even as we progress into our teenage years and our young adulthood, our growth is all about defining ourselves as individuals, showing ourselves to be rugged men capable of standing up against the ravages that the world throws on us. We engage in social rituals and sporting events, which at their very root, are designed to establish a masculinity hierarchy. It’s just nature over nurture and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Yet, for all the chest-thumping, testosterone-fuelled bellowing we do in our youth, the irony is that the true indication of when we become a man is announced not with a roar, but with the dulcet tones we use with our children.
We spend our lives searching for ways to show our dominance. Whether it’s through drinking contests, games of one-on-one, or comparing financial statements, we spend our youth looking for external validation of our manhood. And when we do find it, it’s not through our friends or co-workers, but in the outstretched arms, unconditional love, and unyielding trust of our children.
It is at that moment, when we look into our children’s eyes that we see, reflected back to us, all we need to know in life. It is at that moment when nothing else matters in this world. We stop caring what anybody else thinks, because all that matters is that we do right by our children.
It is at that moment too when we can drop all the pretences and tear down the artificial walls with which we have surrounded ourselves. We can lie down on the floor and just be ourselves with our family. It is in that time when everything finally seems to make sense.
Yet still there are stereotypes that persist. As a parent with two children, one boy and one girl, I can attest that there are differences in the way we experience things. For my initial interaction with my son, the need to remove those traits of masculinity was lessened. He was and is going through the same things that I was and I can understand where he is in life. I can tell him what it truly means to be a man, but it’s a journey that he’ll have to take for himself, so that he can appreciate it more. But, as such, we can fall into the same trap of reliving a juvenile form of masculinity.
In a father-son relationship, we often look to help our children be what we determine a man should be: strong, yet caring; respectful, yet willing to stand up for your beliefs; tough, yet compassionate. Yet those are the same ideals that I strive to impart to my daughter. In the end, gender is a generality, and it’s the individual that matters. So there should be no difference in my experience with my children.
But there is. My son and I share common ground through his current experience as it mirrors my own youth. I’ve walked the path that he’s walked down, so there’s a comfort level associated with him. My relationship with my daughter has required me to step out of what I know and see the world with an entirely new perspective.
Of her own volition, my daughter became interested in babies, princesses, and all the traditional things that some would say stereotypically define a girl. My wife and I left her the choice to select her toys (and with a bunch left over from her older brother, there were no shortage from which to choose), yet she gravitated towards these choices on her own – and forced me to come along for the ride. And, in the end, it’s hard to cling to those youthful ideals of masculinity when you’re one the ground playing with your daughter’s Princess dolls.
The 17-year-old version of me may have laughed at seeing a grown man playing with dolls. But the 32-year-old version of me knows that young punk doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. They say that a parent’s job is to teach their children, but it is with great thanks that I can say that my children have taught me the most important lesson of all – what it truly means to be a man.
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