Growing up with a dad who wasn’t around much, how does a boy learn to be a man? Owen Marcus talks about his journey.
My father wasn’t around much. He left at 7 AM for his commute into New York City, and didn’t get home until 7 PM—which wasn’t unusual for men, then or now. Men of his generation felt their primary responsibility was to provide for their families, which left my mother as my primary parent. Between her and my teachers, the vast majority of my adult interaction was with women.
I didn’t know I was missing anything. My friends’ dads were no more available (a few were even less available due to their drinking habits). I am sure they loved their dads, just like I loved mine. But when you don’t see someone regularly, you never get really comfortable with that person. Interaction doesn’t feel easy or natural. I can remember a subtle tension when my dad was around. The times I would “help” my father with chores, I would try extra hard to do it right because I wanted to show him how good I was. He was a kind man, but looking back now, I can see I felt like I was with a stranger—a stranger I had to impress. On family vacations, that tension would dissipate a bit, as we all grew re-acquainted with each other. But after two weeks, we’d go back to the same routine.
A couple of generations of American men have now grown up with our dads who were gone for most of our waking hours. Unless you are the rarity where you lived on a traditional farm or lived above your family’s business, you probably didn’t see much of your dad.
My mom was a great mom. She was always there. She cooked healthy meals before eating healthy was the thing. She baked a dessert every night, helped us with our homework, and took us to our events. She also stood up for us when needed.
I had great teachers, too. Mostly women (before high school, the only male teacher I remember was the gym teacher). I learned how to make these women happy. I learned to be a good boy, not misbehave, not be rowdy and not question their authority.
Since we didn’t have men around when we were growing up, there was a void of masculine presence. But we didn’t even know we were missing it.
Nature hates a void, though, so we filled it with the feminine. Our mothers and teachers wanted the best for us, so they stepped up. They did a great job filling that void as women. These newly-liberated women stepped up to the challenge as best they could. Inspired to teach us to be emotionally expressive they taught us to be emotional like women are emotional. I’m glad they did. Without them, we would have filled the void on our own as some boys did. You know what that leads to: drugs, alcohol, trouble with the law. Our mothers and teachers kept us on the right path.
BUT… you can’t learn how to be a man from women. You wouldn’t ask a football coach to teach you how to play baseball. Modeling our emotional selves on women, we ended up playing baseball with a football while wearing shoulder pads.
It felt normal. All our friends were wearing the same equipment. What did we know? In fact many of the girls liked that we were “sensitive”.
Just as a child will eat dirt when he is deficient in minerals, we ate up more of the feminine attention to make up for the lack of the masculine. If you were like me, when you hit high school, something felt off. I had no idea what it was. I found myself picking fights with my mother for little things. Even as I was doing it, I knew it wasn’t about whatever little thing I was focusing on. But I didn’t know what it was about, so I kept doing it. I had always been the “good boy,” so I felt guilty about misbehaving. That tension only made me angrier.
I had to do something, so I rebelled. By 16, I was buying booze, getting in car chases and stealing. It was fun. For the first time I felt the thrill of risk, and the win of doing something in spite of the consequences. My friends were equally stoked, not knowing we were crudely teaching ourselves how to be young men.
I needed to be with just male energy. We would invent new challenges to test our new-found masculinity. One prank we loved to pull was drive to the local parks on summer nights, where couples were enjoying themselves. With our car lights off, we would quietly drive up to the rolled down window of the car where the man was on top of the woman, then we’d hose them down with a fire extinguisher. Once we’d emptied as much as we could on the lucky couple, we turned our lights on, pulled up the road fifty yards and waited. Within a minute, the man was dressed, driving, and chasing us. Then the fun began. Driving our parents’ cars we shot down rural roads to see how quickly we could lose the poor guy.
One night, driving my father’s new Impala Chevy station wagon, I couldn’t lose the guy. He was a good driver, and the country roads weren’t enough, we took him into a neighborhood with a maze of streets that was impossible to navigate unless your drove them regularly. That didn’t work. He was still on our tail. We lost him when we turned into a garage and closed the door.
I never told my father why his new car suspension never seemed right, and his brakes pads wore so quickly.
My years of high school were my initiation into manhood. Taught by my peers, I began to learn how to be independent of the feminine, and the thrill of being a teenager distracted me from the deeper longing for male role models. Being a juvenile delinquent was foolish and fun. That distraction ended before I finished college and I fell back into some of the feminine traits when I studied psychotherapy and body therapy.
Fifteen years ago, I realized I needed to hang with men who were being men. That drove me to join, then lead, men’s groups. At first I was scared to join a group of men. I knew these guys would see right through my mask of a being a man. And they did. But it didn’t matter, because they had their own masks.
Spending time with men—independent of women, or other social or professional expectations—began to teach me how to just be a man. I grew to love and respect my father and other men even more. Very few of us had what I have now when we were growing up.
Now the void that I didn’t know existed is filled. I am the man I wanted to be. Not perfect, not flawless, but true to myself.