Carlos Andres Gomez talks about what it took for him to walk away from stereotypical definitions of masculinity.
By Susie Arnett
I was reading Ted Zeff’s article, Healing the Highly Sensitive Male. He is the author of The Strong, Sensitive Boy. He writes,
“Given our societal norms, it may come as a surprise that newborn boys are actually more emotionally reactive than girls. One study showed that baby boys cry more than baby girls when they are frustrated; yet by the age of five, most boys suppress all their feelings except anger. However, even though boys are taught to maintain emotional control, measuring their heart rate or skin conductance (sweaty palms) in emotionally arousing situations demonstrates that there is no difference between boys’ and girls’ responses. Boys have the same human needs as girls.”
Although it doesn’t come as a surprise that how we present ourselves to the outside world may not be an exact match to what’s going on inside, we’re living in a time that seems to have a lot of catch-22s in the area of gender. As women have been stretched to the breaking point between the two polarities of the madonna and the whore, for example, we are also living in a culture that on the one hand, shames men for being too sensitive and then on the other hand, shames them for being too strong. And as women have become more empowered and demanding of their men over the past century, men are also caught in a bind between who women want them to be and who men want them to be. As Robert Frost wrote in his poem, Home Burial,
“…A man must partly give up being a man
This made me wonder, can a man be both sensitive and strong? There is this testosterone that flows through his veins and directs him in certain, specific ways and there is also the increasing complex and sometimes contradictory conditioning that men receive that is sometimes at odds with his biological impulses. Not that being sensitive is at odds with a man’s biology but in a culture of polarities, both men and women can easily lose half of themselves in their journey to adulthood.
Carlos Andres Gomez, spoken word poet and author of Man Up, talked about the messages he received as a kid and how his journey to becoming a man revolved around walking away from all the definitions and stereotypes he had been taught and claiming the entirety of himself. He’s deeply tuned into his emotions and for him, this has nothing to do with being male or female.
Talking to Carlos made me curious to know what my son had learned in his 12 years on this planet about what it means to be a man so I asked him. We had the following conversation:
Me – What is a man?
My Son – A boy over 18
He’s so concrete. And then:
Me – What’s the difference between men and women?
My Son – Besides the obvious stuff, nothing really. (he shrugs)
I wonder if like so many boys being raised primarily by single mothers, the world holds less polarity. Single parents of both genders have to be both mom and dad now. I remember being in the checkout line at a Trader Jo’s on a Friday night recently. A daughter and her single dad were chatting with the woman at the register as she rang them up. The check-out person asked them what they were doing that night and the dad said that he was helping his daughter dye her hair. If there were a mom in the picture, the dad would most likely not have been involved in that way (Research shows that fatherhood, especially involved fatherhood, reduces T levels http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/fatherhood-childcare-and-testosterone-study-authors-discuss-the-details/). Changing family structures and roles is expanding gender definitions in many cases but is there still something about traditional masculine qualities that is foundational in males and that we can spot in our children?
I continued with my son…
Me – When do you feel masculine?
My Son – When I am stronger than someone else.
Me – Is it possible to feel strong without comparing yourself to someone else?
My Son – If there’s nobody else there, how do I know I’m strong? You could think you’re strong but there could be somebody else out there you didn’t know about who was stronger.
These “traditional” masculine tendencies towards competition and hierarchy are a part of my son. It’s maybe the first way we define ourselves, in relationship to another. Being small for his age, I see how life is already setting my son up to have to earn his own sense of strength and power. Whether he succeeds on this hero’s journey will depend on a lot of factors like his testosterone levels. Also, it will be heavily influenced by the messages he receives as a kid.
Carlos told me what he thinks boys and all kids need to hear today.
As a parent, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that children learn more from what you do and who you are than what you say or try to teach. I think the only way we can support our boys and girls in being their entire selves is by cultivating that wholeness in ourselves. Doing that isn’t always easy but it’s worth it.
Carlos Andrés Gómez is a poet, actor, and educator from New York City who wrote the memoir “Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood,” released by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin. A star of HBO’s “Def Poetry” and Spike Lee’s #1 movie “Inside Man” with Denzel Washington, he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was named Artist of the Year at the 2009 Promoting Outstanding Writers Awards. A former social worker and public school teacher, Carlos has performed at more than 300 colleges and universities and been featured on NPR, TEDx, Upworthy, and MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry.” For more: www.CarlosLive.com
Photo: Tweisemann / flickr
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