A Note to my Sons On How Men Get it Wrong

To my sons.

There’s a lot I can help you with. Even more, I suspect that I’ll try to help you with. Perhaps even long past when you cease needing it. At those times I suspect you’ll be frustrated. You’ll wish to be left to do things on your own. You’ll wish it too early and I’ll let go too late. That’s what a good dad does. While I can’t give you everything you’ll ever need I will do my best to give you a good dad. In that attempt it occurs to me that there are some things I should share with you when they occur to me. This is one of those times.

img_3575You are little boys right now and I can’t tell you how delightful that is. For us and for you. Your problems are plentiful but mostly easily solved. Life has only just started and without a baseline for context the fact that your brother wants to play with your Halloween costume is enough to  bring you to tears. We hug you and kiss you and assure you that those tears are not necessary. We might be wrong. We’re wrong a lot. Anyway, I went a long time without crying. I cried so much when I was little, just about the ages you guys are now, that I was removed from Kindergarten. I wasn’t ready and as a result I cried everyday until all the grown ups agreed with what I knew. I wasn’t ready.

I believe that men have often so confused the concepts of weak and strong that it’s a reasonable conclusion to come to when you are young that true weakness is strength and true strength is weak. It’s a real mindf*ck for young men. We are taught that crying is weak. We are told that needing others is a sign of weakness. We are told to ignore pain. To quiet our emotions. To not emote, to be stoic. Truth is I don’t know if I was ever told these things but I knew them. The message got through that manhood, that true masculinity was immune to pain, stoic and self-reliant.

This is total bullshit. It took me way too long to understand that.

To the contrary. In many cases those very same attributes, at least for me, were indicative of my own fear. I think I went a good decade without crying. I trained myself to be stoic, literally berating myself and commanding myself to be disciplined and to shut up when I would drive to parties or family gatherings. Seriously. I’d say it out loud. ‘Just shut the fuck up. Why do you have to make a comment about everything. Shut. Up.’ And when I’d do it, when I’d stay aloof and removed and not needing of so much attention, I’d be proud of myself. And I wasted yet another chance I had to tell people how much they meant to me, how much I needed them, to show them how much they meant to me because I was trying to be something I thought I was supposed to be. Strong. Stoic. Self reliant. I wasn’t any of those things. I was weak. I was afraid to be myself. I was a million miles from being able to ask for what I needed. I was a man.

img_3520Well, it turns out that strength is exactly where I thought it wasn’t. I’m 42 years old now and I’m as prone to tears as I was at just about your age. I’m as needing of the love and support of my family as you are now, just in a different way. And I’m oodles happier for being comfortable with the truth which is that it is so much better to be able to ask for help than it is to be staunchly resistant to it.

I asked for a little help, in an office, from a professional. I figured out, with her help, that I needed to poke some holes in the bubbles I’d surrounded myself with and I did that, after years and years of avoiding it, by having a long overdue reality testing (revealing) conversation with your amazing Nana, my mom. I confirmed that it was okay to need someone by falling fully in love and revealing my full self to your mother when we met, almost immediately upon meeting, actually. Finally, I was a changed man who understood what it meant to be strong when I held you the first time and shed tears I didn’t know I had.

Don’t be afraid of feelings. They are to be embraced and explored. The reality is you can ignore them forever but if you do you’ll miss out on all that life had to offer.

Unburdened

I’ve always been hypersensitive. Which isn’t something I’ve always been comfortable acknowledging.

When I was growing up it was a real issue for me. It’s still a thing that can be hard for me. But as I get older, especially after having kids, it’s practically unavoidable. When I was young everything I felt was turned into the only emotions testosterone could amplify. Rage, Joy, Jealousy, Sadness or Frustration.

Having feelings, being filled with emotion was terrible. The loss of control was awful. It felt vulnerable. It felt dangerous and I chose instead to express my feelings, at least the joy, jealousy and sadness ones through stoic denial of them. Which conveniently turned them all to rage and frustration. The two emotions I felt comfortable showing the world. Somehow those two feelings felt invulnerable.

But sadness was there at times. Sadness is still hard. It tends to come out as rage, but I can at least recognize it now. Jealousy is mostly gone. Sometimes I might feel a touch of envy but it’s mostly for made up stuff like money. Sometimes I read something brilliant and wish I’d thought of it, but I don’t know if that’s jealousy.

The world instills in boys the misconception that painful  feelings are the opposite of strength. They aren’t. The fact that I couldn’t kill them completely, those vulnerable, painful feelings is because they were important. They were protecting a part of me that couldn’t be fully removed. No matter how hard I might have tried. The part of me that is ultimately my greatest strength.

The only feelings that can own me are those I hide. The ones I keep to myself. The ones that I’m afraid of people seeing. 

I would never have believed that I’d ever have been comfortable sharing so much of my concerns and so many of my worries with the world. So many of my shortcomings, failings and feelings. I was invested in them staying hidden. I’d made them shameful by keeping them hidden. I’d made such simple and beautiful things as feelings and need and frailties and worries my undoing by being so afraid of them that I loaded them into my bones and my body and my bags and anything I could carry and then dragged them with me wherever I went. When they inevitably became too heavy and I’d become weary I’d crumble, drop it all in private, curse my weakness and then add that weakness to the pile that I’d once again pick up, pack on and carry around. It was untenable.

I don’t imagine that I would have carried this burden forever. I imagine that some event would eventually have shown me the light and taught me that I needed to unburden myself. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been an event. Perhaps it would have been the slow learning of a lifetime of pain that would have taught me my lessons and prodded me and encouraged me to finally let it go by putting it down, laying it out and sharing my load with anyone who’d care to see and take stock of it with me. I imagine I’d have gotten there some way or other had I not gotten there as I did. But thankfully I didn’t have to wait for either of these things.

What let me know it was okay to be my entire person in front of the entire world was becoming a father. I have two sons who will grow up in a world that is prone to teaching it’s young men that ‘manhood’ means being more powerful than feelings of frailty and weakness. It’s an unfortunate tradition and residual instinct of a time less enlightened than one I hope we get to some day soon. But until we do I need to be the proof that having feelings and being sensitive to them, all of them, rage and compassion and needing and passion and frustration and sadness and guilt and all of them, is a strength. It’s in fact how you grow strong. Having feelings, expressing them, then putting them down is the only way to move on. It’s my duty and my pleasure to show them this, to be the proof of this valuable nugget of earned wisdom.

More so than that even, it’s my pleasure to show them gratitude for teaching me this lesson. For making my life so much more harmonious with the life that has been coursing through me that I could never fully come to grips with and feel comfortable in before meeting them and learning how to be brave and strong because of the love I have for them.

Thank you guys. You opened life to me. You made me strong enough to live it fully and honestly. You’ve made all of it, the joy and pain, pure bliss.