I had been toying with the idea of writing this article for a few days and, I just recorded a podcast with my friend and fellow coach, Dave Whitley, on his show Advancing Man Podcast. It seemed like now was the time to write it.
I don’t really think about the term “masculinity” very much. I wasn’t raised in a home where I was encouraged to be this hyper-realized version of a man. I was raised by a mother and a father who were kind and compassionate, not afraid to be sensitive or vulnerable, who showed love openly to each other and to me and there was never a definition of: a man does THIS or a man does THAT.
I also have to acknowledge a few other things because they may play into my interpretation of “manhood” as I’ve come to understand it. I’m a white, cisgender male, raised in a mostly middle-class family in mostly middle-class neighborhoods. I understand that with those terms has come some degree of privilege that I have not always been openly aware of, yet may exist all the same.
I have two sons, one who just turned 16 and is on the autism spectrum and one who is 6 and is not on the spectrum. Should either of my sons ask me: Dad, what does it mean to be a man? I have no clear answer to give them because my definition would probably fall into traits that men or women could equally exhibit.
In my estimation:
A man should be honest, and should have integrity, and where a man is not honest or does not have integrity, he should strive to improve both.
A man has been a son to someone and he should be a caring, considerate, compassionate and thoughtful son. This man, may or may not have had kind and loving parents to model those attributes, and if he did not, he has an obligation to learn those attributes so that he can be a better partner, and, if the opportunity present itself, a better father.
A man should be accepting that he not succeed in every area of his life, as no man can be perfect. Should he recognize that he has faults, he should learn from others how to improve his areas of weakness and vulnerability, not with the aim of being perfect, but with the aim of becoming better.
A man should have the ability to improve his fitness: his physical fitness for his own personal strength, his mental and emotional fitness so that he can treat himself and others with respect and kindness, and his financial fitness so that he can provide (or contribute in providing) for those he loves and supports.
A man should learn to love and be loved. He should know how to be a friend, how to be a caretaker, and how to be a confidant.
A man should be trusted.
If a man falls short in any area of his life, he should have access to people and resources who can help him climb the next rung up. No man should ever be in a position where he is forced to stay down. A man should have space to fail, and fail by fantastic measure so that he understands the value, sacrifice and effort it takes to be and become better.
A man should know how to cry.
A man should learn how to heal.
Should a man have the opportunity and gift of being a father, that man should not only embody all of these attributes but strive to teach them. He’s allowed to make mistakes, even in front of his children, as long as he teaches and shows his children that they are allowed to make mistakes too, with the knowledge that mistakes can be fixed.
A man should be able to say: I was wrong. I’ll do better.
A man should be able to say: I’m sorry. That was my fault. I can change that.
If I come back to this at a later date, I may have more to add. Time will teach me things and give me perspectives that could improve the message.
I don’t know what it’s like to live as a gay man or a transgender man but I believe (and am open to being corrected) that many of these attributes apply to them as well.
I don’t know what it means to be a man of a different color and any societal pressures those men may live with. I only have my experience, in my own shoes, and respect for those who live differently.
I’ve learned how to be a better man through my wife, through therapy, through fatherhood and through coaching. I am still the epitome of a work in progress.
If my sons ask me: Dad, what does it mean to be a man? I think it means all of these things (and likely more).
I’ll tell them I’m mostly a good man, who has done mostly good things but there have been periods of my life where I wasn’t a good man and I didn’t do good things. Maybe they’ll get more detail than that or maybe they’ll accept my words and know that I can just be their father and they’ll love and respect me all the same.
I’ll have to be fair and show them a picture of my father, because he was the best at all of it: he was a great man, he was a great father, I believe he was a great brother and a great son.
But truthfully, my mother taught me plenty about being a man, because she married the one she loved the most, and if I know anything at all, he was a great husband, so anything I know about being a man that should be passed on to my sons, I learned it from both of them.
And I’d like to thank my parents for giving me the space to fail when I failed, because I learned a lot from that too.
Hours before he left this world, my Dad whispered to me: You’re my guy.
No, Dad. You were mine. Thank you.