My introduction to the secret lives of men came from watching my father. I think I was around three or four years old when my observations expanded beyond myself and began to consider the behavior of others. I watched as he foamed his face like Santa Claus when it was time to shave, be master chef and don an apron when making breakfast, lunch, or dinner for the family, and be tender and loving to my mother, sister, and me. My father’s humility and loyalty shaped my thoughts and ideologies of how to treat others and what I should look for and expect from a man. He taught me–-from a girl’s innocent eyes—that men are supposed to be strong, provide for his family through thick and thin, forsake themselves for the greater good, and rarely show any emotion beyond happiness.
As a woman, I held on to those beliefs and expectations of men for a long time and I felt that my father was the epitome of whom a man should be and how they should behave. Those theories, perceptions, and assumptions have greatly shifted over time. Through conversations with men, girlfriends, associates, and coworkers, I learned that men are not rigidly simple as society chooses to define them and their soul is not dormant. Men are multifaceted individuals who are responsible, and their extensive depth and character extend beyond smiling and providing for the needs of others.
There are myriad ways to define what and who men are, yet the self-narrative of a man’s path and sense of being—aside from the external expectations of them—is absent. The complexities go well beyond the worldly ideal and it’s a given that parental guidance, discipline, and environmental factors are vital to who we become. However, the notion that men lack depth and are apathetic conquerors who despise consistency, is absurd. Men want to have successful lives and relationships and they feel disappointed if professional and personal aspirations are unmet. It is unfortunate that they are unlikely to have or seek a strong support system and may battle the rejection alone.
Men learn at an early age to be stoic and that sharing feelings, being open and vulnerable, and anything beyond a fist bump and distant hug/pat on the back greeting are unacceptable oddities that question the “manliness” of the giver and receiver. With respect to exhibiting affectionate and loving behavior, there’s a double standard when it comes to men versus women: Although men want and need to feel connected emotionally just as much as women do, they may not verbalize its importance and may immediately shut down if they feel discouraged. Men perceive feminine vulnerability as a requisite to the progression of the relationship. It’s sexy, endearing, and confirmation that she desires him; women may perceive masculine vulnerability as unappealing, caustic, and a reason to leave the relationship because he’s emotionally soft, not “manly” enough to sustain the relationship and handle her as she may feel that he is weak and be easily controlled by her.
Authentic communication and trust are important aspects of personal growth and vital to mental health and socialization. Submission and vulnerability are counterparts of the same equation and is a key component of love, and friendship. A strong, healthy relationship can provide men with a foundation, release, and relief and can be the link between uncertainty and confidence. A male-driven support system or professional care alternative to assist men to navigate life changes is also tantamount to feeling grounded and connected. Unfortunately, if his spouse lacks respect for him, he may receive patronizing, or derisive words that shoot him down instead of building him up. It’s counterproductive and unacceptable to say “buck up,” “man up,” “don’t be a pussy,” or “you’re a loser” to a man who has lost his job or suffers some other loss that affects his person. Verbal assaults can be as damaging as physical assaults; a woman can build a man up and tear him down, all in one fell swoop. Feelings of inadequacy may be evident and normal, and although it is imperative to allow men to grieve and move through this space, often there are no exceptions or latitude. If there are no male connections to share life’s challenges, or if there are but the relationship/friendship does not touch or reach the deeper levels of existence, men will smother, squash their feelings and suffer in silence.
There’s a fine line between valor and man-eating. Subtle biases and discriminate overtures against men can undercut and undermine their ability to find and maintain their independence, keep their family intact and thriving, while engaging in demanding or dangerous careers that often take them away from home for long periods. Once the family breaks, men are usually the ones who have to relinquish their share of material wealth and parental rights through a court system that may not consider all the facts but instead, rests its decisions solely on the premise of gender: Women are the nurturers and men are incapable of nurturing beyond monetary support and assistance. Divorce is difficult and losing the day to day, parent to child affection, communication, and closeness are difficult to navigate, at best; the ensuing emotional intensity can result in mental anguish. The constant exposure to external stressors affects the life expectancy of men more than that of women. Violent outbursts against their peers or loved ones, drug and/or alcohol abuse, or suicide are tacit resolutions to the perceived incurable problems facing men who may feel that the deck is stacked against them. It is not to say that personal responsibility is irrelevant; rather, the idea that men are inept and incapable forces men to live on the perimeter of society, grasping for air and validation.
Stereotyping, ignorance, and the diminished significance of men in society and their families, and the push-pull/catch 22 scenario where strength and persistence is neither valiant or valuable to the man’s true identity is real. It’s a sobering fact that men are not encouraged to emote but that suppression, substance abuse, or violence are acceptable ways to handle uncertainty, sadness, or aggression, although not without consequences.
Men are human, flesh-and-bone, cut-and-bleed humans who feel. They desire acceptance. While they have performed mundane to great acts of bravery and kindness, they are not (super) heroes.
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