Manning-up is not just for men any more.
The cut looked like a shark bite.
I hadn’t seen it in full until the doctor unwrapped it. I was queasy as I watched, but not too queasy to snap a photo with my iPhone. The doctor laughed. “That’s going on Facebook, I bet.” The cut looked even worse than I expected. I didn’t understand how it could be that deep, that long, that open. The doctor explained they would need to do 10 stitches on the inside – and 20 more on the outside.
It wasn’t even my leg the doctor was working on, but my 17-year old daughter Shannon’s. We’d been skiing – me, Shannon and my oldest daughter, Kit. It was Shannon’s first time in a couple of years, we were starting on relatively mild intermediate slopes, there was a bit of ice. When Shannon fell, I didn’t think anything of it. Kit helped her up. It wasn’t until Shannon skied off that I screamed, “Where is all the blood coming from?” “My leg!” Shannon shouted back. There was nothing to do but follow them down the slope.
With four children, I’m no stranger to hospitals. Shannon plays hockey and has asthma. We’ve gone from the rink to ER by ambulance more than once. Once it was for an asthma attack, but a couple weeks before the ski accident, it was for a concussion. Shannon was playing forward against a rough team; she was down in the corner, trying to get the puck out of the zone. I was sitting in the stands with other parents, and saw her hit the boards. Go down. Lay completely still. I ran the length of the rink, peered through the glass. “Move! Please Shannon, move!” I didn’t scream it out loud, but the words in my head were like jackhammers. After an interminable amount of time, with three people hovered over her, her knee rises. When they finally are able to get her standing, the requisite audience applause starts, and I realized I had been holding my breath. They let me into the locker room, where the trainer and I helped get her equipment off. She seemed dazed and far away. The trainer thought she should go home, lie down, see how it was. But we barely made it out to the lobby before Shannon had to sit down. Ghost-white, lost looking. While I went to get Shannon something to drink, the trainer called 911.
The first ones to show up were three guys on a fire engine. Big, burly guys, equipment in hand. “Where’s the injured hockey player? Someone got banged on the head after being checked against the boards?” The guys looked quizzically around the lobby. Shannon was sitting quietly on the bench, her head on her knees, long blond hair cascading over her. “Right there,” the trainer and I pointed to Shannon. We were the only ones in the lobby. “Where?” the firefighters asked, still looking around the room. You could see them visibly startle, as they gradually understood that this quiet, slender teenage girl was the “injured hockey player.”
And now, here we are again, different emergency, different sport. The cut that looked like shark bite is all sewn up; it now looks like some weird baseball stitching, holding her leg together. The doctor gives us crutches and strict orders to stay off it as much as possible for two weeks. Shannon faints as she’s trying the crutches, and has to stay a half hour longer than expected while they give her fluids and get her blood pressure up. The nurse gives us a wheelchair so we can get her out of the hospital.
Before we even get to the exit, Shannon says to me, “Mom! I have to go to hockey practice tomorrow.” I tell her that surely her coach will understand – she just got 28 stiches. “No, you don’t understand,” she said levelly. “If I don’t go to practice, I won’t be able to play in the game on Monday.” Slight pause. “I already missed one game because of my concussion. My team needs me.” Another pause. “I really don’t want to be seen as weak.”
“Man Up” is a word usually reserved for men. It’s said derisively, to someone who others think should be stronger than they are. Shannon is trying to man up for her team. She’s a hockey player, for goshsakes. Hockey players play hockey. A little thing like 28 stitches in their skating leg just doesn’t slow them down. Nobody was telling her she needed to man up. But toughness becomes her.
I go over the potential consequences in my head. The stitches could rip apart. Not likely if we wrap tape over the already secure bandage. More worrying is that an opposing team member could bang into her leg, hurting it so badly she falls and hits her head, getting another concussion.
“Let’s get home, rest, and see how well you can walk tomorrow.”
The next day, I let Shannon go to practice. I let her play in the game. She does fine. We hurry home and unwrap her leg. As we’re unwrapping the bandage, she says, “Now I’m scared. What if we messed it up mom?” The cut itself looks ok, but there are red lines down her leg. We dash to the clinic – it’s New Year’s Eve – and get on antibiotics. She goes to three more hockey practices and two more games. Four days before the stitches are due to come out; the area swells up like a baseball. Another mad dash to the clinic. “Did you bang it?” the doctor asks? “It shouldn’t be that swollen if you’ve been resting it and keeping it elevated.” Shannon shakes her head slowly. “I don’t think I banged it.” The two of us sit there, each silently thinking, “other than playing three ice hockey games, we can’t think of what possibly could have caused a problem.”
Man up. Tough it out. Be a man. Act like a man. Don’t be a wimp. We’ve been teaching men those phrases so long they’ve become stereotypes of our macho culture. So now we talking, quite often on these pages, how those stereotypes might be harmful. Guys are supposed to emote, open up, and not be so tough. Ask for help, admit to being weak.
The slam poet Guante, in his great “10 Responses to the Phrase Man Up” says it this way:
#9. I want to be free, to express myself. Man up. I want to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other men. Man up. I want to be weak sometimes. Man up. I want to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical power or dominance. Man up. I want to cry if I feel like crying. Man up. I want to ask for help. Man up. I want to be who I am. Man up.
And Carlos Andrés Gómez writes about 25 Ways to Re-define the Words ‘Man Up’: By being a peacemaker, embracing fear, showing how much you care, saying I love you. It’s a great list of ways to be authentic, as a human, and thus be manly for being human.
And then there’s Shannon. She did not want to be weak. She did not want to be seen as weak. She never cried. She didn’t want to ask for help. She wanted to go back and play hockey with 28 stitches in her leg.
She’s a girl who wanted to “man up”. And I didn’t say, “no, being that tough can be harmful” – I let her.
I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Shannon and I weighed the risks and consequences carefully. We had a plan. We went straight to the doctors when needed. Shannon was actually being all of the things Carlos was saying about ways to re-define “man up” – she was embracing fear, she was showing her team how much she cared. She was being open and honest with me about what was really important to her. “Manning Up” was being more than physically tough. But it was being physically tough as well.
Yet through all that – she was also as feminine as she could be. Her and I would burst into giggles over our top-secret actions to hide her leg. We wrapped her calf in bright pink pre-wrap. After one of her games she turned herself from a tough hockey player into someone who looked like a prom queen in less than 10 minutes. She’s not afraid to be feminine AND tough. In fact, it would never occur to her not to be both.
I’d like to think that just like Shannon can be feminine and tough, men can be tough and – whatever the heck they want to be. That there’s nothing inherently wrong with being tough, or macho or strong – and maybe there’s nothing inherently masculine about it either.
Men can be who and whatever they want, of course, and – sorry to generalize – but I think they are pretty damn great just the way they are. But I’d like to see the switch from thinking men, “shouldn’t be a certain way because it’s not manly enough” to thinking that “manly enough” can be anything they want AND anything else they want. And they can still have all the qualities that makes them “men” — and that it’s actually the integrity and authenticity of themselves as people that makes them so incredibly attractive.
It’s the complexity of both genders that I love. Having strength and compassion. Being tough enough to get done what needs to be done plus the ability to love fearlessly. You can be both logical and emotional. A fighter and a poet. And within all of those things, be a man or a woman of your own making. Yes and yes and yes and yes.
If you don’t believe it looked like a shark bite, you can see the picture of the cut that I snapped in the emergency room here. But you have been warned.