Mark Sherman wonders if “acting like a man” should simply mean acting like a grown-up.
These days the whole concept of masculinity is being analyzed, discussed, criticized, and evaluated, and the net result is that no one knows how to define manhood any more. If we come up with adjectives to describe a “real man,” these same adjectives could easily hold for women too. Bravery? Of course women can be brave. Competitive? The same. Strong? Of course women can be strong.
And it goes the other way too. Qualities once primarily associated with women can also be part of a man’s trait profile as well. Sensitive to others? Of course a man can be sensitive. Empathic? Same here. Emotional? Of course a man can be emotional.
A little more than a month ago, I was grateful that the whole status of the concept of the “real man” is in a state of limbo, since by almost any traditional definition I did not come through as a real man. I felt embarrassed and humiliated by how I behaved and found it hard to let go.
It was Christmas Eve and my wife and I were on our way to have dinner with a wonderful couple and their family. They live about 30 miles away, and the weather forecast was not bad—maybe just a little bit of light snow, certainly nothing I hadn’t encountered hundreds of times in my more than 50 years of driving in the northeast.
We were within about six miles of their home, on an unlit state highway, when it began to snow, lightly at first, but then a bit heavier. And heavier. Within minutes I began to realize that I couldn’t see anything. I had forgotten the term for this, but was reminded of it when I told a friend about my experience the next day.
“So you were in the whiteout,” he said.
“Yes!” I said. “I had forgotten that word. I couldn’t see anything!”
“I was caught in it too,” he said. “It was pretty bad.”
I may have forgotten the term “whiteout,” but that didn’t matter. All I knew was that I was on a two or four lane highway (you really couldn’t tell), where it was almost impossible to see where the right side of the road was. And the yellow lines in the middle? They were quickly covered with snow. As my friend said when we discussed it the next day, “You had to rely on mailboxes.” And thinking back, even they were not helpful if they didn’t have reflectors. (Incidentally, this friend drives 18-wheelers for a living, though he was in his car when this freakish storm hit.)
I was just plain scared. At times I was going five or six miles per hour. I would have pulled over, but I could easily have gone into a ditch. And perhaps most disconcerting was the fact that without any visual cues for motion, it often felt like we were standing still, even though my speedometer showed that we were moving.
What would a “real man” do in this situation? I wondered later. Would he be yelling to his wife, as I was, “Omigod. I don’t know what to do! I’ve never driven in anything like this! If I had known this was coming, we never would have left the house. I can’t stand this. What do I do?”
My wife was being as good a partner as she could be. Typically, when one of us is driving, the other person is the navigator, and she was doing a fine job of navigating, mainly by telling me when I was practically going off the road on the right, or being so far over to the left that I was in the oncoming lane (though traffic was so light and going so slowly, there was little chance of a head-on collision).
The crisis didn’t last long. Within about 15 minutes, the snow had lightened to just a moderate snowfall, and visibility was much improved. But as soon as conditions improved I had an anxiety attack. I could barely breathe. I thought I’d faint. I began to do “squared breathing,” a technique I’d learned from my therapist, which helped. But still, at the earliest opportunity I pulled over, and just sat there, gradually getting back to normal breathing.
I didn’t have an accident, but I felt that I had failed as a man. This had been a rare opportunity to come through in the way that husbands have done for years and still do. My wife is a smart, competent, independent woman—and one who has driven in all kinds of bad weather. But I was behind the wheel, and she was counting on me. Later she said that my driving was fine; after all, with her helpful navigation, we had stayed on the road, and mostly on our side of it. But what she was upset about was that I kept yelling out about how terrified I was.
In the day or two after the experience, I thought a lot about how I performed. Are the movies showing men being brave in stressful experiences not true to life? Is male bravery mostly a matter of media hype?
This feels like rationalization on my part. I remember years ago talking with an older man who, along with his wife, provided daycare for our two young children. Eddie was a veteran of World War II, and had served as an officer in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
“How did the men under you feel as they left the boats to storm the beach?” I asked.
“They were scared,” he said.
Aha, I thought, all those movies showing men fearlessly rushing into harm’s way were Hollywood whitewashing of human vulnerability.
“How about you?” I asked.
“I couldn’t be scared,” he said. “I was responsible for two hundred men. All I could think about was what I had to do.”
Okay, I was responsible for two people, including myself. But still, I imagine that for Eddie, driving that night would have barely been a blip on his “man” screen. He was a member of the “greatest generation.” Was I a member of the wimpiest?
You hear a lot about the “man box” lately and that term is largely used negatively, as something men should break out of. And certainly the expression “Act like a man,” as addressed to boys has come under fire. Early in the trailer for a new documentary about boys titled “The Mask You Live In” Joe Ehrmann, a coach and former NFL player says, “The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told, ‘Be a man.’”
But as my wife said to me, later that night, and she said it about as gently as she could, “You know, sometimes a woman likes a man to be her hero.”
Well, there goes another male stereotype, I guess.
But, you know, through it all I am a believer that we do what we have to do; we can all be heroes when we have to be, both men and women. And the best chance to do that is with our children. That night in the whiteout reminded me of a winter’s day some 45 years earlier, when I was driving my four year-old-son back home to his mother. He had been with me at my parents’ home in New York City, and we were driving the 75 miles north to his mom’s apartment in Poughkeepsie. We were on the Taconic State Parkway, a very curvy road, known as one of the most dangerous roads in southeastern New York, even in clear and dry conditions.
The morning I was driving my son back to his mom, there was an ice storm. Trees were falling across the road, and I was “white knuckling” it.
“Are you scared, Daddy,” my son asked.
Was I scared? I thought. I’m petrified.
“No, honey, not at all,” I said. “Everything is fine.”
I didn’t hesitate before I said it. Not for a moment did I want my son to be fearful. But in today’s world would there be something wrong with pretending I wasn’t scared? Do we want our sons growing up thinking that being a man means you are never afraid?
Perhaps not, but I do think we want them growing up learning that fathers do comfort and protect their children.
But so, too, of course, do mothers. So perhaps it’s not a question of “acting like a man,” but rather “acting like a grown-up.” I was doing that with my young son, but not with my wife. And “acting” is the appropriate word. I suspect that most of us never really feel like grown-ups, even if we have no choice but to act like we are when we’re with children.
Or when you’re a 28-year-old army officer in charge of young terrified soldiers who absolutely depend on you for strength and guidance.
Photo: One Tree Hill Studios/Flickr