Stereotypes limit what we believe we are capable of, but only if we do not challenge our beliefs in them.
I was driving home from work on a normal weekday afternoon, with the clouds finally parting from a rainy week and entered my street, sitting at the top of the hill were a couple of young boys who gave me a dirty look as I dared to enter into the road where they were riding their pushbikes. I couldn’t be annoyed at them for being in my way—like anyone, they were enjoying what little sun we had for the week. After what seemed like an eternity of eye contact, they finally decided to yield right of way when they realized that I was serious about driving my car down the road and that their choice of vehicle was much smaller than mine. I drove a little down the road and pulled into my driveway, into the garage and stepped out of the car, simultaneously hearing a scream from out on the road: a single scream that turned into a wail that after an eternity, turned into loud crying and sobbing. There was a part of me that was so shocked by the sound on such a quiet and dreary afternoon that I started to think irrationally.
“Did I hit one of those boys without realizing it?” I asked myself, but quickly shook this off realizing that it could not be true as in the back of my head I knew that the boys were up to mischief by the way that they had stared me down, and that I needed to exercise a little more caution than usual.
The screaming continued and I knew that something needed to be done. “I know,” I thought. “I will get my wife,” who was inside the house, just a few steps away. This is when rationality finally came flooding back into my consciousness. Why my wife? I am First Aid trained, I am the closest adult, and I have sustained, as a child, enough injuries off pushbikes to be able to understand the pain, shock and embarrassment that go with these events. I went and rendered aid, sat him down and checked him over, tried to calm him by talking about his day and he was fine in the end, just some scraped hands and knees. It was the shock of the fall and resultant embarrassment in front of a friend that had made him scream like he did. It was all sorted in a matter of minutes with no permanent damage.
I look back on that incident and see that a child was screaming in the street in obvious pain and distress, but the issue that had pushed into the front of my mind was, “But what will people think?” This thought took a matter of milliseconds to pass through my consciousness: I wasn’t spending long minutes pondering the question.
I had read an article in the newspaper not long prior, in which a prominent Australian researcher had been approached by security while shopping for underwear for his daughter. When approached by store staff, he was asked, “Don’t you have a job?” as though a man buying children’s underwear was an obscene act, that the act in itself had to be associated with some other hidden and dark cause. For me, and I am sure other fathers and men, there is the constant feeling that I am being judged by my proximity to children.
Despite the boy being only superficially injured and no real aid required, I noticed that there is a belief in me, that has been instilled from somewhere, that a mother can do a better job, and if not a mother, then a female, any female. In my semi-deluded, socially imposed automatic thought state I thought that the criteria of who can help a screaming child went: mother, female, father, male, in that order.
I could say that this belief is a result of traditional gender roles, of mothers being the usual primary caregivers of children. I could say that this belief is due to a history of a tiny number of male strangers perpetrating horrible crimes on children. But I don’t believe that either of these things is the absolute truth. With any belief system, there are a number of not just cultural and societal precursors, but also individual inputs: our choices. The reality is, when I look back on this incident, that the instinctual part of me didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of potentially having a finger pointed at me for providing care for a child who wasn’t mine, I automatically assumed that something bad would come of providing care, and I didn’t want to be judged. On a rational basis it was not only acceptable, but the right thing to do. If I offered comfort to a child in pain and someone had a problem with that, it is their problem, not mine. I made the choice not to allow personal embarrassment to stop me, not to take the lazy and stereotyped way out.
I don’t see this as a cultural perception, but a personal one, of me as a man. I think that this challenging one’s own beliefs doesn’t occur enough, and in fact as a practicing psychologist, I know this to be the case. When we have been handed down beliefs and they have been tested and reinforced over the years, they stick, regardless of whether they are adaptive or maladaptive, and unfortunately it is only in watershed moments (like depression, trauma, relationship breakdown) that people tend to really evaluate what their beliefs mean to them.
This incident displays to me some of the most important aspects of addressing equality in parenting, caregiving and ‘traditional’ gender roles: that despite the stereotypes that are taught to us, we still have a right to choose whether to accept them and assimilate them into our own daily experience and active belief systems. This is why I decided to write for the Good Men Project, because the ethos of the project does exactly what I am talking about here: it challenges the assumptions and old beliefs that have been culturally set and passed down over generations, beliefs which, for the most part, have limited application in modern manhood.
Image credit: emrank/Flickr