Growing up, I feared the men in my world. My father, with his Marine Corps exactitude, forcing us to tuck in our shirts and our bed covers with the same brisk edges, governed our world with devastating outbursts. In the same heart that feared him, I held him as the ideal man: tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, and explosive.
I was fearful of my uncles, too, though with little reason beyond my father’s example. My Uncle John, a sweet and kindly Irish priest, was never angry around me, but I couldn’t trust his placid ways. Uncle Steve, similar to my father with his wit and twinkling eyes, terrified me, sending me running into the other room when I saw him coming. Anyone with a voice lower than my mother’s was a threat to my timid spirit. When I eventually came out of hiding, I discovered my uncle’s playful and gentle mien.
My brothers were treated much more roughly by my parents than I was, expected to “grow up” when they were just boys, dismissed when they expressed any emotion. When they became physically aggressive with each other, it was understood because “boys will be boys.” While not encouraged, it was tacitly accepted as part of the cost of living with males.
When I came to parent boys, I was keenly aware of the problems associated with teaching boys implicitly and explicitly to ignore their feelings, though at the time, I couldn’t have named the source of that understanding. I just knew that these children’s future mental health was my responsibility, and I worked to give each of them a place to understand and express what was going on inside him. I wasn’t always successful, but I was aware of it.
As my husband and I have grown and developed in the last two years, we’ve learned that humans are “feelings machines,” each of us made up of complex systems designed to take in and process sensory input. From our skin interacting with temperature changes to our eyes witnessing the world, we are constantly gathering data about our world and trying to make sense of it. And this happens whether we are male or female, but for some reason, we have been programmed to believe that only females are allowed to have “feelings” about this data, that it’s only acceptable for females to “get emotional”, even though women are regularly dismissed as weak for doing so.
And yet as a society, we see the negative effects of disregarding the natural physical responses of half of the population because we have imposed upon them a rule that “men don’t have feelings.” Anger, violence, suicide, heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, sleeplessness, anxiety, divorce, depression, child abuse, affairs, chemical dependency, alcoholism…is there really a reason for us to continue this attitude that having feelings or expressing feelings is bad?
Is what we gain from avoiding feelings so great that we want to defend it so vigorously?
I’ve come to respect the origins of my husband’s tumultuous anxiety over the expression of feelings — mine, his, the kids — and stand by at the ready as he trains himself to navigate this rocky terrain. And he is working harder at this than I’ve seen him work before: like when he learned to do his own car repairs, he’s reading books on the subject, consulting experts, trying different techniques, and taking each step very slowly. And he doesn’t even realize how far he’s come, but it’s impressive.
I used to see men as frightening creatures, ferocious and angry or militaristic and disciplined, with no room for compassion or warmth in their rigid chassis. Now, as I am learning the vast array of sensory input we are all processing every minute of our lives, and as I’m seeing the piss-poor job we have done as a society to teach men how to handle that input, I am overcome with compassion. So few men have the tools to handle well the complexities of emotion, and when they finally realize — with age or experience or both — what’s happening to them, how overwhelming life can be, things have already gotten beyond their reach.
That’s a sad price to pay for something that is so easily prevented.
Hold that little boy. Tell him how special he is. Make him feel safe. Don’t let him close himself off to the world; help him understand it. The good you do by raising boys who love and feel love will reach into many generations.
Some extra reading…