Brad Kelstrom has never had a male “buddy,” and he hopes his son won’t be able to say the same.
Like many men of his generation, my father was an emotionally detached dad. Shortly after coming home from work, he made his way down to the basement to watch whatever game happened to be on that night. He sometimes made an appearance at the dinner table, but generally ate supper in front of the TV. If you were lucky, he would put the TV on mute during commercials and you could talk to him.
Despite his love of sports, my father rarely included me in watching or playing sports. Although he encouraged me to play baseball, I don’t have any memories of him practicing with me. Overtime, I attributed the feeling of rejection from my father with sports and in turn rejected anything that had to do with team sports. As I grew older, this started to become an issue. As I entered pre-adolescence I became the boy on the playground with the girls.
One of the defining moments in my life happened on the third day of junior high. I was terrified of junior high and getting bullied. I was standing at my locker in between classes struggling to master the combination, when two boys came to a locker close to mine. One of the boys asked me if I had a pencil he could borrow. The second boy interrupted saying, “Don’t ask him, he’s a fag.”
That word. That moment. I immediately recoiled as I struggled to hold back tears. I became isolative and mistrusting of peers, especially other boys. It became emotionally safer and easier to be friends with girls, which only frustrated the situation and increased my feelings of not being good enough as a male. I spent the rest of 7th grade on constant guard, waiting for the moment that I would be called a “fag” again.
Over time, I became hyper-vigilant. I was constantly on the defense towards peers, presuming that they were laughing at me or talking about me. I became self-conscious of my personal attributes, always wondering what it was about me that would cause someone to question my sexuality. Was the way I walked, talked, or acted feminine? The rejection of sports and enjoyment in theater only added to my feelings of inadequacy in the masculine world.
While I never had a peer call me such a harsh, derogatory name again, people implied that I was effeminate and even others openly questioned my sexual orientation. As I went through my teenage years, I continued to resort inward, rejecting things stereotypically masculine. I had several short-term male friendships, but always struggled with the façade I felt I had to put on to be perceived as masculine enough. Despite my best efforts, I always ended up feeling the sting of rejection by male peers that started in my childhood with my father.
I eventually came to a point around age 19 where I was tired of living below my potential as a human, regardless of my gender. Through work with a therapist, I was able to overcome a lot of my self-defeating beliefs about myself and socially constructed expectations for males. My mantra and goal became to define masculinity on my own terms rather than fit into a mold created by society. Regardless of the progress I made at that time in my life, I still find myself struggling with the same issues surrounding masculinity nearly a decade later.
As much as I don’t want to admit it, I still have no idea what “real” masculinity is. I still find myself at times trapped in believing the stereotypes that society has created for men. As I compare my current attributes and interests, I still have feelings of inadequacy in my manhood. Although I’m a husband, father of two, and successful in my career, accepting my own masculinity still feels like the ever elusive kudo.
Despite my efforts to convince myself over the years that I don’t need male friends, I still find myself feeling sad that I have never had a close male friend in my life. While I can name two or three healthy, older male mentors, I’ve never been able to experience having a “buddy.” I feel embarrassed at times to be 28, still dealing with my lifelong yearning for a close male friendship. I wouldn’t know how to approach another man to be his friend though, wouldn’t know what to say, or what to talk about. The thought of allowing myself to be vulnerable in that manner terrifies me.
As I look at my 13-month old son, I worry that my issues with masculinity will cause him the same feeling of rejection and awkwardness that it did for me. Not that I will be hyper-masculine and emotionally detached, but the opposite. I fear that my lack of knowledge of the rules of football will not prepare him for boyhood, and that he will experience the same rejection by male peers as I did because he does not fit into the stereotypically masculine world.
More than anything, my ideal for my son is the desire I always had for myself growing up. I hope that he will never comprehend that there is any other way to exist than to have a buddy or buddies. I pray that having a male friend will never feel special to him like it did for me, but just the way it is. I hope that he will fit into the masculine world and I hope that I can figure things out enough to help him navigate through it.