[FATHER/HOOD] Retooling Manhood for Sensitivity

I am writing this on International Women’s Day. My daughter, 18-days away from turning 5, is asleep in my lap. Her breathing is even when she inhales, but sounds like a little puppy growl on the exhale. Her hair is out. Wild. Free. She is still, except that her feet—so much like her mother’s—are rubbing together, tiny movements that I’ve learned are an indicator of comfort. She is at peace. I feel so honored that she chose to fall asleep on me. Being asleep is when we’re at our most vulnerable, and it’s the idea of vulnerability that’s on my mind today.

The two most important people in my life are female: my wife and my little girl. My wife is the Olivia Pope of higher education (except for the sleeping with the president part). She’s strong, compassionate, has a DNA strand of degrees after her name, is a fierce advocate for ethnic studies, and is a phenomenal wife and mother. She also has a sensitive vulnerable side that, after 11 years of marriage, I’m still trying to be at peace with. She’s not one to shy away from being demonstrative with her emotions.

I’m the exact opposite; seeing her cry or upset in any way makes me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t raised to make my emotions so readily accessible to others—not to mention being a man of color. Any type of emotional expression (other than anger or distrust) was frowned up to the point of violence. When I see her express sadness, it acts as a mirror that reflects how damaged I am. To this day, my immediate gut reaction (in that moment) is to question her strength. Why is it that I equate tears with weakness?

There are so few social spaces where a man can express sadness, hurt, or even anxiety without having his “manhood” called into question. Granted, some of this stoicism (especially among men of color) is an effective defense mechanism against the multitude of attacks many of us endure daily. I’ll speak for myself: sometimes I have no idea what I’m defending against. There might not be anything there, but I’m walking around like an unemotional stone wall.

If I can’t be emotionally available to myself, how can I support my wife? How can I be the compliment she needs? This is the height of male internalized oppression. Many of us lock away our emotions to the point that, when they arise, we don’t have the tools to deal with them effectively. While this is damaging to us, those in our lives bear the brunt. We’re like 5-year-olds holding loaded guns, barely having the strength to keep them off the floor. However, we can accidentally do major damage. This is no way to live. 

The amount of damage that emotionally stunted men have done to women is staggering. Combined with male privilege, it’s a toxic combination. This toxicity poisons not only us but also those we are closest to, and it’s time for a change.

The amount of damage that emotionally stunted men have done to women is staggering. Combined with male privilege, it’s a toxic combination. This toxicity poisons not only us but also those we are closest to, and it’s time for a change. It’s time to heal.

While I’ve been doing what spiritual-type folks call “inner work” for several years, I think that it’s important for me to put it out there that I’m actively working to redefine what my masculinity will look like for my future, and for the future of my family—not to mention the future of the world that I live in. I will no longer follow lockstep in outmoded ideas of what a man can and cannot be.

For the women in my life (and those I will come into contact with), I will start living the way I want our world to be, and stop reacting to and mimicking the way it is. I want our world to be filled with love, mutual trust, true equality; I don’t want my masculine privilege to outshine or smother your feminine energy. I want to raise a powerful daughter, and be able to comfortably take the back seat when my wife leads. I admit that there’s a ton of work to do to reconcile the damage done along the male/female axis, and I can do no more than what I can do. I have to try and be the example for other men—despite how arrogant it might look.

My daughter changes positions and a smile creeps over her face. I think she approves.

Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.