Afraid of Becoming a Man

Some day soon, Oliver Lee Bateman will have to raise a family, and even though it’s his choice, he’s still scared.

Here’s what I’m afraid of: becoming a man. And by this I don’t mean that I’m afraid of being bar mitzvahed or standing up to a bully or getting my cherry popped. Of course, judging from the seemingly endless barrage of horndog teen comedies, the latter two activities have assumed a strange transcendence in our culture—which is fascinating, seeing as how they’re usually trivial, fleeting, and eminently forgettable stages on life’s way.

What I’m afraid of can’t be so easily shaken off, though. Becoming a man, in the sense that’s got me quaking in my patented Crocs-brand footwear, entails entering a world of white-knuckle, long-term strategic planning. Twelve years of post-secondary education was valuable in a personal sense, and perhaps even in some vague economic sense (although that’s arguable, given that both the JD and the Ph.D. in history I’ll have earned will do little besides grant me not-so-exclusive membership in two shrinking and troubled fields). Nevertheless, this amounted to an essentially selfish period in my life, one where the stakes were low, the bills were paid, and no one else’s well-being depended on whether or not I finished a particular paper or fellowship application.

Now, however, manhood looms. I’m going to get married in June, and at some point in the future—two years? three?—I’ll establish a family with my future wife. I’ll need a full-time job. Bigger bills will need to be paid, a more capacious living space rented, a second reliable car acquired. Mind you, I’ll be working in tandem, but the onus remains, appropriately or no, on the male partner in a heterosexual relationship to “deliver the goods.”

Then don’t do any of that, you say. Don’t have kids. The planet’s already overpopulated, anyway. How selfish to add a few more carbon footprints! It would be better not to undertake any of these unnecessary rites of passage—in the end, all is vanity. Just hunker down, lead a totally self-absorbed lifestyle in a rat hole apartment, and work with a partner to pinch pennies and await whatever form the apocalypse takes (Zombies?  Meteors?  Tebow leads a Second Coming comeback drive during the Life on Earth Bowl’s fourth quarter?).

I concede that it’s a bit hypocritical, given that I’m steadfastly opposed to gambling in every form, to consider a riskier arrangement. But I’ve done the same old thing for years, and it’s not so much terrifying as it is terrible. Because if I do just hunker down in said rat hole apartment, my life will end, predictably enough, when I die. And if I don’t, well … the same thing happens. So why even bother? Why not just do a hemlock keg stand and then enjoy the resulting eternal rest?


Brighter people than I have reduced life to some variant of this question, and it’s beyond my limited abilities to compose a coherent answer that will satisfy everyone. For me, it’s a matter of preference, albeit a preference backed by reasons. You could say that I’m foolish and illogical and so forth—and believe me, in graduate school and among the disaffected twenty-somethings of today, the boring life I’m seeking to undertake may represent the minority position—but that won’t change the fact that I intend to raise a few children and possibly even live in a house. My free selection of such an existence doesn’t make it any less unnerving.  I might screw up, and, for someone who has always picked whatever path of least resistance also happens to yield the least likelihood of failure, this is a horrifying prospect.

There’s some hope for me, however, and it’s been provided by my mother and father.  First, it helps greatly that they were dismal parents:  emotionally uninvolved, concerned with their own messy lives, unstable, chronically unhappy, impossible to please, and largely unsupportive until well into my early adulthood.  And although this might sound terrible—fodder for one of those Lifetime movies where Angie Harmon overcomes a series of struggles and discovers her inner strength—it’s actually great news. It’s highly probable, even with zero effort exerted on my part, that I’ll be better at parenting than they were.

On top of that, my ancient father, who is old enough to be my grandfather, never made any effort to seem “cool,” “now,” or “with it.”  He didn’t care about my hobbies, didn’t ask me to share my inner thoughts, and never once did something as disturbing as make me listen to his favorite Bob Dylan LP with him.  And now, with the benefit of 29 years of hindsight, I’m glad he didn’t. The “parent-as-friend” phenomenon is absolutely disgusting.

Recall those horndog teen comedies. As depicted therein, all parents are clueless, even the ones who are supposedly clued-in, so why waste precious time buddying up to some 10-year-old? What could you possibly share with this little person, other than a household and a handful of reciprocal duties? And besides, it’s common sense that any person fighting for the affection of another—particularly a mercurial little preteen—is bound to lose, or at least to wind up sorely disappointed.

Some concerns remain, though. These talking-point accouterments of grown-up existence—McMansions, import cars, overpriced private schooling for children well in advance of college—are something I can spurn now, but will the passage of time make me lust after them?  Will an inability to acquire these trappings of success leave my family disappointed in me? In the course of becoming a “provider,” someone who “provides something,” will the bill of goods I’m selling fail to attract any buyers? “Oh Dad, he was just this aloof jerk who sat in the corner reading books about pro wrestling and never took us on annual trips to Europe or sent us to Phillips Exeter or bought us those cool Fila sneakers and Sprite sodas that Grant Hill endorses” coming by way of summary from the mouths of my unborn children is a disheartening thought.

Even taking that into consideration, I’d still rather be a man than whatever I was before. There’s nothing in my past about which to wax nostalgic—no great bully-fighting or cherry-popping anecdotes to hug tight to my breast and never relinquish—and 40 or 50 years of future yet to be survived. After which I can retire and thereafter, uh, you know.

That’s not too shabby.

—Photo Jon Åslund/Flickr

About Oliver Lee Bateman

Good Men Project contributing editor Oliver Lee Bateman is a columnist for Al-Jazeera America and Made Man Magazine. His writing has been featured in Salon, The Atlantic, Johnny America, Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature, the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, STIR Journal,, and NAP Magazine. He is also one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, two blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that he co-curates with web developer Erik Hinton, medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writers Christie Chapman and J. R. Powell. Oliver is a lawyer as well as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS or on Google+.


  1. “First, it helps greatly that they were dismal parents: emotionally uninvolved, concerned with their own messy lives, unstable, chronically unhappy, impossible to please, and largely unsupportive until well into my early adulthood.”

    Actually that probably doesn’t help at all. They were your model for what a parent is, no? How else do we learn parenting–or at least a large majority of it– than from our own parents/caregivers?

    Well, yes, I am trying to learn more about it in the “Family” section of this magazine, but a lot of parenting is an immediate–sometimes emotional–response to a given situation with your child. And for me, that response seems to be influenced greatly by what at least one of my parents did in such a situation. There isn’t always time to rationally plot out the best parenting choice in the moment. Sometimes you just have to react. Some examples: 1) Your kid is about to put their finger in the eye of a younger baby, 2) They are kicking some delicate part of your body while you change their diaper, 3) They are weeping into their homework because they don’t understand the lesson and have a test the next day.

    Anyway, I ramble on… This isn’t a contest right? Just because there is a strong chance you can do better than your parents doesn’t mean you’ve done a stellar job.

    And is this you or your parents talking: “What could you possibly share with this little person, other than a household and a handful of reciprocal duties?” — I would say there is a lot more you can share with the little person! You don’t have to kid yourself into believing you know what they do on Sat night, but if you try, you can share a lot with that person. One day they won’t be so little, and that could be when you most get to reap the rewards of your hard parenting work.

    Thanks for the article and sorry if this sounds harsh. Good luck on your journey!

  2. Wellokaythen, you bring up the dilema for the “Modern Man”. To have or not to have children. Once upon a time it was automatic. Now not necessarely so. My take from his article is that OLB feels that his (Pardon the expression) shitty childhood leaves him somehow “incomplete”, and he would like to show some innocent life a much better one. It’s been my personal (And very unscientific) experience that these are the very people that make GREAT parents. They make happen the childhood they wished they had. That’s my mt advice (For what it’s worth) is GO FOR IT!!!

  3. wellokaythen says:

    Not the most nuanced, balanced view of reproductive choices. I recommend a little research on being “childfree” before setting it up as a choice between 1) waiting selfishly for the apocalypse and 2) becoming a man. Seems to me that one should decide to have children or not based on good reasons and not vague stereotypes that one swallows uncritically. Have you had a frank and open-minded discussion with someone who chose not to have kids?

    I think I read the article carefully, but I never did spot your reason for having children. You just sort of decided that you would in a few years because…? Because you’re getting married and so that’s what you do because…?

    I’m sure many fathers out there would say that when they became dads they were forced to be more responsible, forced to grow up, etc. I have no doubt that’s true in many cases. But, that raises at least two questions:

    1) If a guy needs to grow up, is becoming a father really the best way to do it?
    2) How do you avoid being one of those men who still doesn’t grow up even though he has children?

    Yes, I’m childfree myself and am obviously biased to some degree. Speaking for myself, I think the environmental rationale for being childfree is pretty lame. (I don’t mind stupidity that blocks reproduction, however. Better to be childfree for stupid reasons than to be a parent for stupid reasons.)

  4. Jean Valjean says:

    I’ll admit it, after the first few sentences I stopped reading. I find it offensive that I have to become anything at all let alone the arbitrarily and capriciously assigned designation of “man”.

    What is a man? To me a man is a slave. A person who puts the needs of everyone else (women and children) above his own. A person who is expected to be a provider but is limited by laws and custom in making the most of his talents and ambition and is often pigeonholed into a death occupation because that’s the only way he can put shoes on his kids feet and appease his wife’s material whimsy (or attract a wife in the first place).

    A man is property on loan from the state and until he turns 42 (and is no longer physically useful) will always live under the threat that some draft dodging rich ass politician will decide that a war is necessary (for his cronies to make a buck) and pull him from his family, job, and life to resume his birthright as government issued cannon fodder. But this is OK because we would never do it to teh wyminz!

    A man must surrender his hard earned money to his wife even if she treats him poorly. He has no reproductive choice. He has limited property rights. He has limited parental rights. He will be sexually mutilated at birth without anesthetic by the preference of his “loving” mother who thinks he’ll look nice with a viable piece of his sexual anatomy electively amputated. If not done properly his penis will likely curve sharply, he will suffer pain during erections for life, his scrotum may be pulled up the shaft during erections, he will endure abrasion around the most sensitive parts when he runs and exercises and works (and he will surely work). And because he’s a man he will be ridiculed and shamed if he complains about any of it and ridiculed and teased and even shunned if his partner doesn’t like the “new” way his penis turns out.

    A man is shit. A dog, a pig, a bastard, a loser, a creep, a pervert, and a million other derogatory labels that women think up whenever he fails to meet their arbitrary and often contradictory expectations. And most men will fail at many of these expectations because some are impossible paradoxes.

    I don’t believe I have to be anything except happy. I don’t have to be a father or a husband or pay women money for children I never consented to in order to be entitled to the human respect, dignity, and deference that all women get for having the good fortune of being born without a penis.

    I don’t believe my value and worth as a human being should be contingent on how much money I make or how willing I am to give it away to selfish women who use and exploit me.

    I believe that my value as a human being should be inalienable and that if I make mistakes I shouldn’t be branded for life and put on watchlists so I can be hounded and shamed long after I’ve served my time.

    The very notion that I have to be “a man” is itself an expression of hatred towards all men.

    I shouldn’t have to be anything in order for people to treat me with respect and dignity. Qualifications such as this not only belie the so-called theory of “male power” but reinforce not only unreasonable stereotypes but also unreasonable expectations.

    MODERATOR’S NOTE: This comment is in violation of our moderation policy because it is much too long. This is a warning. Further comments that are in violation will be removed. See complete commenting guidelines here.

  5. I don’t know why you’re taking all this flack OLB? You clearly stated this is what your choosing to do with YOUR life. I didn’t read anything into it where you’re saying this something EVERYONE should do. Has this site become so avant garde that anychoice that seems in anyway traditional must be ridiculed? I mean, some articles on this site are “from the edges” , but I never hear the authors attacked like this.

  6. Oliver, I found 28 to about 33/34 to be a weird time. I wasnt young anymore, yet I wasnt a mature man. It was a time of confusion for me – i was neither young nor old, what was i?
    I was less and less identifying with adults and their cultures under 25. Yet the suit of maturity was still ten sizes too big for me, and mature men still looked ‘bigger’ than me – they existed on another higher level.

    What happened in my case, is that the brain hardened around 34 (i swear this is biological). Suddenly the ‘suit of maturity’ was no longer ten sizes too big, but fitted perfectly. Fears seemed to have less intensity. Other mature men were now on the same level as me, and even if they could destroy me – i knew could stand toe to toe with them

    Perhaps you will identify with my posts in this thread, on the process of aging

  7. Why would you marry?
    It’s a contract with the State that will cause the loss of all you hold dear and ever worked for.
    Spend a day in family court first my friend.
    Look up Briffaults law.

  8. Exceedingly valid points. I was merely trying to offer a sense of the stress that accompanies the acceptance of adult responsibilities, regardless of what those responsibilities were. The inclusion of so much personal information serves only to raise legitimate concerns about outmoded social expectations. If I were to re-write the piece in light of these criticisms, I’d couch my argument in more general terms. That being said, I stand by the link that accompanies the phrase “getting my cherry popped” in the first paragraph.

    • @Oliver, after I posted my comments, I realized it sounded harsher than I meant.
      I didn’t mean to criticize (hey, it’s your life, after all 🙂 ), just to state my POV.
      Sorry if it has come out rough.
      Kudos for your replying with poise.

  9. Hmm, your plans sound highly stereotypical. I wonder how much is “your true self” and how much social conditioning.
    But ok, whatever floats your boat. 🙂
    Best wishes anyway.

    But, please, don’t call your course of producing offsprings and living in a house “being a man”.
    That sounds:
    1) So much 1950’s old clichè
    2) Disrespectful to men choosing to live in different ways

  10. Why reduce your options to either “a self-absorbed lifestyle in a rat hole apartment” or a traditional marriage with procreation as its main purpose? It seems that a lot of the questions you are struggling with stem from your inability to divorce masculinity from this narrow definition of marriage. I think the piece is less about becoming a grown-up than it is about how patriarchy hurts men as well.

  11. I’m glad you’re making choices that suit you and that you think will bring you happiness and fulfillment.

    Why you equate YOUR particular choices with “being a man” puzzles me, though. Other males do the same and make very different choices–are you saying that they’re NOT men?

    If “marriage with kids = manhood” for you personally, that’s one thing. Saying that it should be everyone’s definition is quite another.

    • I don’t think OLB means that to be a “Real Man” you have to be married with kids. If this site does nothing else, it shows some of the MANY ways someone can be a “Real Man” / “Good Man”. I think he means(and I totally agree with) is that to be a good Father and Husband, you need to be a “Good/Real Man”.

  12. Good luck OLB as you leave the “Cocoon of Academia” and not only venture into the real world, but take on the dual role of Husband and Father. It can and will be , if you let it, the most harrowing and at the same time, the most rewarding thing you ever do with your life. I took the plunge myself many many years ago and if you want some unsolicited advice, here goes. “Take the plunge” literally. That means “Ready or not, here I come” 100% of you (Trust me, you get back what you give and then some). When it comes to child rearing ,I prefer the KISS method(Keep It Simple Stupid) Take all about your childhood that either you liked or wished you had, and give that to your children. Take all that you DIDN’t like about your childhood, and banish all that you possiblly can. (note; I’m not speaking of necessarly speaking of material things). One more thing. As my children are all grown now, Ican say the first memoties that come to them are the memories of times we spent doing things togeather. Look, just lead with your heart and you’ll do fine.

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