I’ve written a lot about women’s changing role and the impact those changes have made on me and my family. For all of that knowledge, I am also keenly aware of the changing roles for men and the confusion it has caused them.
The men of my father’s generation were as trapped and suffocated by the role that was expected of them as the women of that same generation were. They were expected to be strong, to handle all of the financial responsibility and to be almost another parent figure for their wives. Crying was an almost unimaginable option for a man of that generation. To cry was to be weak. How hard that must have been for any man who had even a drop of sensitivity in their make-up.
My father was a brilliant, yet damaged man. He had one of the most horrifying childhoods I’ve ever heard or read about. Both of his parents were severe alcoholics who consistently made bad choices for themselves and their two children. If you were to try and make a list of every form of abuse a young boy could endure, you might come close to being able to comprehend his childhood. I always found it immeasurably sad when he would tell us that the happiest time of his life was when he was sent to military school at age six.
As a result of this upbringing, my dad really didn’t have an emotional map that would help him navigate being in a healthy family. All he knew was dysfunction. When you add this severe trauma to the restrictive expectations of his generation you get a recipe for disaster. Daddy never felt safe enough to work on all of his issues and, although his temper would flare most often at me, the child who was most like him, I always understood that he came from a place of great pain.
In 2006 my father was diagnosed with cancer that had already metastasized throughout his body. The course of his disease was so quick that I was only able to visit him once after he was diagnosed. A brain tumor caused him to shuffle through time and re-live experiences from all phases of his life. He was a strong man and had to be physically restrained because the man would so often lash out against the abuse the child had endured. The pain and sadness I saw in his eyes that day will always haunt me. While I was deeply saddened when he passed away, I was also relieved he would be released from his memories.
My generation of men had their messages switched mid-stream. As children, they were raised with the same stereotype that so imprisoned their fathers. Then, as young men, they were told that women could think for themselves and that it was okay for a man to have feelings. It was a confusing time to grow up and it created a whole generation of men who were never quite sure when they were supposed to be strong and when they were supposed to have feelings.
My brother came of age right in the middle of the flood of change. He was taught to hunt and be tough by a father who was shut off from his emotions, but he was also encouraged to explore different philosophies by a mother who would turn the radio up as loud as she could when “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” came on the radio.
When I think of my brother during his college years, I remember a young man who was fascinated by different philosophies and wanted to study them all while working on a degree in English. However, a degree in English, much less an interest in philosophy, was not highly regarded in my family because a man was supposed to go to school to become a professional and earn lots of money. I can still hear the debates between him and my mother about what he was going to do with his life with “just” an English degree. After almost a year of these discussions, he decided to go to law school.
Not only did law school give him an opportunity to pursue a career that fit into the 70’s vision of “success,” it allowed him to meet and marry his wife, who was in law school with him. My brother and his wife have worked for 36 years to try to balance both their careers while raising their daughters. Like the rest of our generation there was no road map or history to show them how to do this. I was not in their shoes, and I most certainly do not have a 36 year relationship track record, but I can guarantee you the road was bumpy at times.
My family had an entire generation without a single male being born, so I can’t tell you what it was like to raise a male of my children’s generation. I raised three daughters and their cousins are all female, so I can only speak with authority about raising girls. I can tell you that my daughter’s husbands are doing more for their children than the majority of men in any previous generation. I applaud them for that effort. But it’s still not an easy line to walk. It’s a challenge to try to figure out what is the right amount of co-parenting and co-existing in today’s marriages.
My four grandsons are all as different as they can be. They all have their own ways of looking at, and interacting with, the world. Only time will tell who they become and what interests they pursue. One thing I know they all have in common: their very independent mothers are trying to raise them to be men who will think it perfectly natural that men and women have equal footing in their relationships and in their future parenting.
For this next generation, I hope they feel like they can pursue anything that interests them without worrying about whether or not it fits into anyone else’s idea of “success.” I hope that the idea of “men’s work,” and “women’s work,” will feel outdated to them. I hope they grow up and fall in love with people who also find those concepts antiquated and foreign.
I also hope they occasionally remember their grandmother loves them, and that they take time to call her once in a while to see if she needs help feeding herself.