Two days out of the week, our children come home from school eager to go to soccer practice. For them, soccer is a time to hang out with other children their age and play a game they have learned to enjoy since moving to Mexico. To my wife and me, this extracurricular activity is an added opportunity for a break from all the energy that comes with raising three children under the age of seven.
Frequently, I use the time to catch up on social media tasks, listen to audible books, or take notes about activities I hope to accomplish when I get home. My wife often uses the time to exercise around the track that surrounds the field. In other words, soccer practice is a productive time for the entire family. The children have a full hour and thirty minutes to play with their friends, I get to tackle some other business-related tasks, and my wife works out.
Yesterday, however, was an exception. Our four-year-old son had a day when he refused to participate. It seemed that every five minutes he was on the sidelines asking for water and needing encouragement to join his brother, sister, and the other children. Each time, I stopped my work to address his needs. Of the seemingly ten thousand interruptions, there was one that triggered an internal dialogue about the construction of masculinity and how our cultural lenses inform our behavior.
A motorcycle ride toward clarity
The “profe”—a term used in Mexico by children to address male coaches or physical education teachers—blew his whistle for the team to take a water break. In anticipation, I immediately took a break from social media in search our children’s little feet and big smiles. Five, four, three, and in two seconds, they were there asking for water. As I reached into my book bag for a water bottle, a motorcycle approached the park.
Sitting on the motorcycle, which resembled a dirt bike, were two men dressed in casual clothing. The man driving the bike faced forward with both hands on the handlebars looking in the direction of traffic. Behind him sat the other man, with his hands on the seat, gazing toward the park where the soccer practice took place. For a moment, I thought about how infrequent it is to see two men riding the same motorcycle in the United States. It reminded me of my experiences years ago in Ethiopia and what they had taught me about the social and cultural construct of masculinity.
A detour to Ethiopia
In 2007, I traveled to Ethiopia to work with local schools and to get more acquainted with their history, people, and culture. Of the many cultural differences I observed between Ethiopians and Americans, one stood out among the rest. There, it was very common to see men holding hands as they walked along the streets. They were not ostracized or frowned upon by other members of society. This simple act was simply normal. Their understandings of manhood did not appear restricted by their physical contact with other men.
In my experiences in the United States, men often aim to make little to no physical contact with each other. Handshakes and the half-arm hugs are typically deemed in alignment with our codes of masculinity. The holding of hands is nearly forbidden between cisgender heterosexual men. Masculinity is different in the United States, Ethiopia, and Mexico.
Back on course to Mexico
When I saw the two men sharing the motorcycle, I thought that in some ways masculinity functions in Mexico in a similar fashion to Ethiopia. A man’s understanding of himself is not tied to physical expressions of love or comradery with another man. While I sat there looking at my children as they returned to soccer, I envisioned the conversation that took place between the two men who shared the motorcycle.
The driver said, “Man, hop on! I will give you a ride.” The passenger climbed on the back of the bike, and they proceeded to their destination. There was unlikely a moment when the passenger felt less like a man because he knew he would have to touch the driver to arrive safely at their destination.
The motorcycle was a means of transportation and not a tool that could adequately measure his manhood.
My goal with this piece is not to make the argument that men should conform to a singular form of masculinity that encourages more acceptable forms of physical contact. Our cultural lenses frequently inform the version of masculinity we accept for ourselves and the interactions we share with boys and men. But we must believe that it is possible for men to shape an authentic version of themselves and not feel constricted by social and cultural norms that restrict masculine behaviors.
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