When I was a boy growing up in the rural farmland of Indiana, masculinity practically poured through the garden hose. I grew up the way, I believe, most red-blooded American boys would like to grow up: I played in the creek that ran through our small agrarian community; I hiked through the woods; I trapsed through the miles of cornfields and spread out in my own back yard.
But there was something missing.
There was a disconnect someplace between doing all the right boy things and feeling intrinsically masculine. I didn’t feel feminine, and I liked being a boy. I just didn’t have that thing coursing through my blood that the other boys in our small town had coursing through theirs — that thing that made them tough, hard-headed, and confident.
When I was a boy my dad worked hard. He worked construction, so it was long days that lasted well into the evening most weeks. He came home exhausted wanting to eat dinner, take a shower, and recline next to the t.v. with a beer before falling asleep. I remember watching the other boys at school with their dads. Sometimes they’d come into the school in the morning to drop them off or we’d see them together in town. These dads were tough farm dads, but they had a certain gentleness toward their boys. They’d put their hands on their boys’ necks when they walked, they’d rub their backs lightly, and they’d hug them without care of who they were. They trusted their sons with important work, too. Once, at the bus ramp at school, a father who also drove a bus knelt down in front of his son, a boy who was in my class, and gave him instructions to feed the cows and bring the horses into their stalls. There had been some kind of emergency and the only one in the house capable enough was this fifth grade boy. My only job was to get the trash into the right can and on occasion I had to drag the cans to the side of the road for them to be unloaded.
My dad didn’t touch me a lot. He was, as his dad was, lonely. Keeping mostly to himself, he drank his beer, watched television, and did woodworking for clients in the back yard on the weekends. He took me fishing, but I don’t remember a time when we actually talked. We went hunting a few times, a chore I loathed because I had to be so quiet, and a handful of times we hunted for mushrooms for grandma to fry up in bacon grease.
I wanted dad to wrestle with me. I remember wishing he’d ask me to rip my shirt off and wrestle with him like boys did with their dads on t.v shows and in the movies. I didn’t have words for it as a fifth grade boy, but I wanted his presence wrapped around me. I wanted him to teach me how to fight. I needed him to tell me that I was all-boy, that I was tough, because I had two huge secrets I was carrying around.
I was shy and thoughtful–something boys were not in farm country. My friends consisted of only two boys and the rest a rather large sampling of girls. I played Four Square on the playground between games of monkey bars and freeze tag. The other boys were playing basketball and were wrestling under the big shade tree near the Jungle Gym. Like any playground, I was taunted for not being one of the boys. Not knowing exactly what it meant, the other boys called me the general smattering of playground names: gay, faggot, fairy. I put on a strong exterior, pretending it didn’t bother me, but inside I was crushed. Since the third grade, a family member had been sexually abusing me. He was old enough to know better, but he was nowhere close to being an adult. He was thirteen to my eight and told me that what we were doing was something most people do together. He said he learned it in school and that it made you a man and a better adult. By the fifth grade I knew that what he was doing was wrong.
I finally told my mother. The abuse stopped and after a long while things became normal. We moved away to Florida and I was able to start fresh. Florida boys living near the beach were a whole lot different than Indiana boys living on farms. I fit in better. And years later I was married with a son of my own.
My relationship with my own son, I decided, was going to be different. For starters, I wasn’t going to be a lonely dad. I was going to be present and accounted for. And I was going to hug my son a lot…and wrestle with him. I tell him how awesome he is. I tell him how tough he is. And I don’t neglect to teach him how to be sensitive and thoughtful. He’s taught that being a boy means you’re tough when you need to be, but you’re gentle too. This world needs men who will be strong leaders and gentle fathers and lovers. We need men who will stand up for what they believe in and be inspiringly confident while remaining humble too.
I lay in bed with my son at night and rub his bare back. Each night he half-turns and asks me if I can “do it for a long time.” I always say yes. It’s important to him that I’m there. I often think about how I wanted my own dad to rub my back or wrestle with me skin on skin. And I wonder if things would have been different had I known my dad’s presence in a more fatherly intimate way. There’s no telling now.
But I can ensure that my own son is raised how I wanted to be brought up. He will have the confidence to stand up to bullies, to fight for those he loves, and gently lead his future family down whatever path he and his spouse sees fit.
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