When my son, Macallah, was a baby and I read to him, I did something I had never done before. I edited the books aloud.
I tweaked one particular word.
No matter which book I read to my son, mothers applied the emotional bandages, while fathers flexed adventure, daring-do, physical stamina, rules-bending, independence and, in newer books, the ‘cool’ factor. Every time I came across a story where the rabbit, raccoon, or bear mother soothed and nursed her upset, scared, or sick young offspring, I changed the parent’s gender to “father.”
One morning when Macallah was two, my wife, Elizabeth, walked by and heard me voice-editing. “Hey,” she yelled out, “I know that story! That’s supposed to be the mother who’s kissing her son’s paw — not the father!”
“Yeah, well, there are no books where fathers do that,” I replied.
“That’s because caring and nurturing falls on mothers,” she said. “Fathers don’t want it.”
I wanted it.
“Boys need to know that fathers are more than a bunch of stereotypes — that fathers can nurture them, too,” I shot back.
That back and forth with my wife helped me ask the question I had been avoiding: What kind of masculine identity would I model for my son, if he ultimately decided to identify as male? I knew that I wouldn’t join the new boys’ club splashed across cyberspace — images of tutu-wearing fathers pirouetting with their little girls, painting their fingernails and showering them with hugs but fist-bumping or wrestling with little boys. But, I wondered, could I be the kind of father who edited expectations about masculinity outside of the safety and ease of my home, as well as in it?
After my own long, painful journey, I wasn’t sure that raising my son into the man I had struggled to become would serve him throughout childhood, maybe even adolescence. At a very young age the trauma and tyranny of the narrow script boys were expected to follow became all too clear to me, and I vowed that I would somehow escape it. By my late 30s I finally did. To girlfriends I’d ask: “Can you please hold me? I had a really tough day.” To guy friends I’d ask: “Can we skip watching [fill in the televised sport here] and talk about what’s going on in our lives over a beer, instead?” Eventually, to my wife I finally built up the courage to request the thing I needed above all else: “Can we work harder for vulnerability in our relationship?”
It has taken a long, long time to get to the point where I can make these requests, because they have always been met with reactions — from shifty-eyed discomfort, at best, to outright rejection, at worst — that have pushed me further and further to the fringes.
By the time Macallah was born, I had finally come to peace with my alienation because, well, this was my path. My liberation narrative. But, I wondered, could I really pass on this legacy to my very young son? If I did, wasn’t I just setting him up for a future of great pain and alienation at far too young an age? If I didn’t, how could I look myself in the mirror each day, knowing I had forsaken all I had fought for in my past, just to make his path towards manhood easier for both of us, father and son?
When Macallah was a few weeks old, Elizabeth and I broke through our considerable dissonance and decided to have him circumcised. We were assured by the clergy person who performed it, as well as by family members and friends who attended, that the pain was minimal and fleeting for the baby. At one point in the procedure, I heard the clergy person mumble, “Wow, that’s a lot of blood.”
The crying that erupted from my son went on for hours — until his tiny vocal cords emitted a raw baying like an animal caught in a steel trap. Afterwards, the clergy’s solution to calming our son was to cradle him in his arms, hurl him through the air and slap his back over and over. When the he saw the look of worry on our faces, he bellowed, “He’s fine! Both of you need to stop being so sensitive for this little boy’s sake!” That night, my wife and I finally got Macallah, his vocal cords raw and his cries hoarse, to stop wailing by sucking on a swab soaked in red wine.
Once they both fell asleep, I went to the kitchen and rewound the voices of friends who, after the ceremony, tried to cheer me up with familiar male assurances. “Dude, he experienced a little pain. It’s no big deal.” And this: “Look, this whole ceremony was about initiating your boy into manhood. This is a good time to start modeling real strength for him.”
When Macallah was ready to start kindergarten, we chose a school with a strong arts focus which sounded perfect, because such programs typically encourage tolerance and diversity. Elizabeth had returned home beaming from a Mother’s Day breakfast, which included songs that would make a feminist mom proud, so I eagerly anticipated the same in honor of Father’s Day.
On the morning of that celebration, all of the fathers and their children sat in a huge circle, when one of the teachers introduced a song they were “really excited about.” It was a song they sang every year and was developed in collaboration with students years earlier. The song began: “Oh, my dad is big and strong…” and was followed by descriptors which lauded fathers for their ability to “hammer a nail” and always be “really cool.” I looked around the room, hoping to see the same surprise or, better yet, incredulity at these stereotypes, that lined my own face. But what could I do—create a scene? Leave? The fathers glowed, some playfully flexed their biceps, as their children squawked the lyrics off-pitch. I flexed a forced smile and slid my son and me farther forward into the circle.
Many days during first grade, Macallah came into the car after school sad and distant, distressed over struggles he was experiencing with a boy he considered his best friend. Day after day laments came from the backseat because, according to his friend, Macallah didn’t draw action heroes with sculpted, hyper-muscular torsos; he hugged this boy; Macallah was too sensitive when they played “business” during recess, even though his friend who wore sunglasses atop his head continually “fired” him.
Whenever I tried helping, my response began with a prescriptive “Why don’t you….” and ended with such suggestions as drawing something different and playing something different during recess. But this only sidestepped the real issue. Day after day my young child’s sullen, defeated countenance reminded me that I was merely bandaging him instead of helping him neutralize the weapon.
During second grade this boy no longer attended the school and Macallah’s affections were invested into a new boy. The week before winter holiday break the boys had their first playdate together, which took place at our home. Things went well until the end, when Macallah parted on a note of well-intentioned-bonhomie-eight-year-old style. “You know,” he told his new friend, beaming. “I used to think you were fat. But now that I know you so well, I don’t think you are!”
When the friend’s mother arrived she asked her son, “Why do you look sad?”
“I’ll tell you in the car,” he replied.
Over the holidays Elizabeth noticed on social media that this boy’s mother had gastric bypass surgery for cosmetic reasons. She posted her anxiety and anger over body image issues and was outspoken about protecting her own children from them.
When school resumed in January, Macallah’s best friend wouldn’t play with him anymore. When he asked why his ex-friend told him, “You’re a bully.”
One of the things I had always liked about the friendship between these two boys was how supportive and kind they had always been with each other. Now, though, Macallah came home with stories about his ex-friend making fun of things he wore (“Nice leggings, dude”), said (“You sound like a girl!”) or did (“Why do you draw so much?”) in front of other kids. Whether it came from other classmates or of his own choosing, Macallah began isolating himself during recess. This wasn’t the right kind of outlier path that would serve my son.
One day that winter I picked up Macallah during aftercare at school. I had to leap over a large ring of wooden blocks he and some other boys had constructed around them, a “castle moat,” one of the boys informed me. When Macallah saw me, tears welled up. When the other boys saw this, they smirked. Macallah caught himself and narrowed his eyes and steeled his jaw. This time I pulled my son out of the circle.
“It’s okay to cry,” I said, loud enough for the other boys to hear. “What happened?”
“He’s still calling me a bully in front of everyone!” he bellowed, fighting back tears. “I should just beat him up! That’ll shut him up!”
“No,” I said, kneeling down so that our eyes leveled. “Apologize and tell him you didn’t mean to hurt his feelings by accidentally calling him ‘fat,’” I said. “Tell him you hope he’ll forgive you.”
Macallah’s head and eyes drooped and, in a hushed voice, he said, “I can’t. It’s too hard. I’ll look weak. Like a girl.”
“Yup,” I said. “You’ll look like a girl, a strong girl—and like a strong boy—for taking responsibility for your actions and for doing what you need to do even though you’re scared.”
The next Monday when I picked Macallah up from school he was smiling. “Did you apologize to your friend?” I asked.
“Yup,” he said, clearly proud of himself.
“So, he forgave you?”
“Why are you so happy, then?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “he called me a ‘girl’ for wanting to talk about our feelings. So I told him that strong boys figure out problems with words, too.”
In front of teachers, parents, and other children, my son hugged me and said, “I love you, daddy.”
I couldn’t have edited a better story.
Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University, and is the author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Resiliency. You can find him on Instagram at @andrew.reiner.author.