Cameron Conaway discovers the important intersection of masculinity and fatherhood while at a malaria research unit and refugee camp in Thailand.
The sounds of various languages took the shape of fog and swirled through the air in front of me. Burmese was maroon, Thai was blue, Karen was yellow and the various accents of English were green. They merged and melted and drifted upward but always maintained their integrity, their separate selves.
Such was the image my mind created a few days ago during the community board meeting at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit in Mae Sot, Thailand. I was there, and would later drive an hour to the Mae La Refugee Camp at the Thai/Myanmar border, on a research grant from the Wellcome Trust to study malaria in order to write a future book of poems on the parasitic disease. The meetings are held every six weeks and the purpose is to bring everyone together: the Karen tribe members, the Burmese and Thai people, the malariologists and physicians working here. They discuss health concerns, recent studies taking place and form the human bond that comes only with time and trust. This particular meeting dealt with a new neonatal study the researchers were conducting.
Across from me sat two Karen men, to my right a Burmese man and two Karen women, to my left sat a Thai man and two Thai women. The researcher presenting a series of slides – a Thai man who studied at Oxford – presented recent findings in both English and then Thai and then would pause while a translator shaped it into Burmese and Karen. To be honest, much of the science was lost on me through the confusion of translations. But a beautiful part of it all was not just that everyone came together, but in how the humor was not lost but actually found within the translations. When there was a mistranslation or a joke, everyone (myself included) would burst into a chorus of laughter. Regardless of where we came from or what we did for a living all of our faces wrinkled in the same way.
After an hour of talk about the impact of the mother’s health on the baby’s development, a quiet Karen man who had until then only listened began to clear his throat. The hush in the room showed the respect this man commanded. He said a short phrase that lasted maybe two seconds and the Karen all began nodding their heads in agreement. Then his phrase was translated to Burmese and all the Burmese nodded enthusiastically as well. Then from Burmese to Thai and at this point the majority of those at the table were smiling and nodding and in total agreement at the importance of whatever he had just said. Then the phrase trickled down from Thai to English.
“He asked, ‘What about fathers?’” the translator to my left told me. It only took a heartbeat of time to ask that simple question, but its sheer validity brought us all closer than we’d ever been. For a moment, the researchers and the room went warmly, radiantly silent. For a moment, the conversation was entirely redirected. Millions (likely billions) of dollars each year are spent on studying everything from the mother’s nutrition on fetal development to how the mother’s presence impacts the baby’s mental and physical development. But what about fathers? I flashbacked to the 2007 article in TIME that opened, “Does being more of a father make you less of a man?” That night I reread the article and reflected on this passage:
Though many fathers still cleave to the old archetype, Rochlen’s study finds that those who don’t are happier. Other research shows that fathers who stop being men of the old mold have better-adjusted children, better marriages and better work lives–better physical and mental health, even. “Basically,” says Rochlen, “masculinity is bad for you.”
Masculinity is bad for us? I mulled it over all night before realizing that the faux strength of the statement arose through the weakness of the way masculinity has come to be defined.
The next morning I visited the refugee camp with all of this in mind. Within minutes I was blown away by how modern and safe it was. Sure, the roofs of the huts were made of leaves and needed to be replaced every couple years, but there were world-renowned doctors with state-of-the-art equipment working round-the-clock and driven by their wanting to help those struggling and displaced. Then I saw newborn babies just hours after birth, their yellow jaundiced bodies writhing as their big toe was pricked in order to get a blood sample. In one of the huts I saw ten or more mothers sitting on the bamboo floors all by themselves just a few hours after delivery. Some were breastfeeding their babies while others were sprawled out from the exhaustion of giving birth.
Side note: I was told frequently that mothers here do not make a sound during the entire delivery. No screaming, not a whimper. And these are with natural deliveries. I asked several physicians why and how and received a similar answer: “They take the pain. They don’t mask it by screaming. It’s all part of the process for them and it makes our job easier because if they do wince or moan then we know there is something seriously wrong going on.”
What about fathers? I asked myself as I looked around at all these women. Where are they? And just then a small Burmese man with calloused hands, bags under his eyes and the brightest smile I ever saw walked in with his newborn baby girl all cocooned in blankets. She was tiny in his hands and there was something so profound about this moment. Not only was he the rarity, a man there with a baby, but the juxtaposition – a rugged and tough migrant farmer strolling in with the most gentle grace while cradling the most innocent little being in his arms. Never have I noticed so much pride in a man’s eyes. Never have I been in the presence of such absolutely masculinity.
The man set the baby on the counter to be weighed and we bowed to each other and shook hands and I congratulated him by meeting his smile with my own.
On the road home I wondered what other major studies by major research institutions have been done on fathers. Not just male genetics, but actual fatherhood. Science often proves what we already know, but this is important nonetheless. I hope you the reader will help develop the discussion by posting articles about and links to fatherhood studies in the comments section.