I’ve often thought about what is masculinity. I’m clear that it has absolutely nothing to do with anatomy. I’m feeling more and more that it has to do with what we learn as boys. I recently saw a survey that asked 100 adult men at random if they felt like an adult male inside. Only 7 answered unequivocally yes. By contrast, 33 said “mostly” they did, 40 said “less than half the time”, and the rest said “hardly ever”.
I’ve felt this many times myself. Sometimes I don’t even know what an adult man is supposed to be. I believe that it’s because no one teaches boys how to be men. Many of my peers express the same sadness and longing for a father in their lives. I know for myself that my father was often physically or emotionally absent. (Many times, I preferred it that way because I was also afraid of him.)
Girls learn how to be women almost by default. They share the company of their mothers and other female relatives from an early age. The learn the unspoken rules and behaviors of women from their closest female caregivers. of course, there are always issues, but because of this closeness, girls learn how to be women without even thinking much about it.
But what of boys? We begin life cared for by our mothers. Similar to my experience, many boys’ fathers are often away at work, or emotionally absent. Boys go to school and are cared for mainly by women. There aren’t many male teachers. We simply don’t learn how to become men. Many times, the only role models we have are other boys.
And our culture is afraid of relationships between men and boys. The recent ugliness coming from Penn State makes this situation even worse. Sexual predators are evil and should be locked away for life (or worse.) Unfortunately these scenarios feed the fear our culture has around mentoring. We assume that adults are guilty until proven innocent – and even then we’re really not sure.
As a result boys continue to have few, if any, opportunities to work with adult men to learn how to behave and learn what’s expected of them as men. Many boys then grow up with unrealistic expectations, anger, resentment or worse. We are uncomfortable being men because we simply don’t know how.
Many authors have written about this challenge, chief among them Robert Bly, who speaks of a time when boys were actively engaged by the culture to learn how to become men. Many non-western cultures continue this effort. However, in our culture we’ve lost the skill to teach boys how to be men.
One of the most common things I see working with men is a profound sense of loss around father and confusion around masculinity. One of the ways to address this loss is to look at masculinity beyond the anatomy and explore our own definitions of masculinity.
I’m also exploring mentoring. I’m very aware of the cultural confusion around adult relationships with boys. However, that doesn’t stop me from establishing mentoring relationships with younger adult men.