November 14, 2011

Sadness and Longing

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.

One Comment on “Sadness and Longing

January 12, 2012 at 3:32 am

Do men have to be uncomfortable being who they are just because nobody has told them how? Why do we need an external definition of masculinity?

I did most of my growing up without anyone I regarded as a father figure, but I do not feel as though I lacked anything essential. I am a man, and have never had doubts or qualms about my gender or sexuality. In large part, this was because my mother made it absolutely clear that so long as I wasn’t hurting anyone my nature and choices were completely okay. Whether other people see who I am and what I do as masculine is not a serious concern of mine. Given this experience, I’m not at all convinced that male role models are needed for a man to develop a healthy self-image/gender identity/sexuality.

The important thing that I think is lacking is an acceptance of boys and men for who they are and who they are becoming as they grow and mature. What’s needed for many isn’t so much the knowledge of how to be a man but the acceptance that they are men no matter how they choose to express it. Beyond that, of course, is the need in society for acceptance of all kinds of gender identity regardless of physiology or cultural ideas about what is masculine or feminine.

Nonetheless, I agree with your complaints about the way our society makes it difficult for men to take part in childrens’ lives outside of a very restricted set of circumstances. That applies to girls as well as boys: I think children in general do not get a wide enough variety of positive contact with men. This is bad for the children, bad for the men, bad for the women, and bad for our society. I wish you luck in your explorations of ways to ameliorate some of these issues via mentoring and your work.


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