Sons and Daughters
“You can get the earring, but you’ll have to wear a dress as well.” I thought my father was joking but he wasn’t. “Seriously, Ben. If you get an earring, you can’t leave the house without first putting on a dress. End of discussion.” It was 1985, I was sixteen, and I wasn’t about to wear a dress. Sophomore year should have been the right time for self-expression but my dad was a throwback. In looking at my friends, the boys who were allowed to have an earring didn’t have a dad at home. Steve and Peter wore one and each lived with their single mom. Kit didn’t because his dad would “whip his ass” if he did. Jason used a needle, ice, and a potato to pierce his own ear but that same evening, his father held him down and literally ripped it out of him. The five of us were tight but three of us were told all about masculinity by our fathers while the other two got to discover for themselves. Was this a generational thing? I’m fifty-two now, white, and my generation is large and “powerful,” and did most of us go through this? Did all those fathers do this to us?
My nine-year-old daughter, Frances, my wife, Jessica, and I are on vacation near Mt. Hood in Oregon, and Frances is playing on the rocky shoreline of the Sandy River, where we are the only people in sight. She stands two feet into the current and throws rocks into the swift waters while sunlight reflects off the river’s surface and I bask in the summer heat. It is a stunningly beautiful scene, watching Frances like this. She is learning things about herself every day, and today she is just so content and happy playing in the water my heart can barely take it. She lifts up a fairly large rock, sees all sorts of bugs on the bottom, and disgustedly throws the rock, bugs and all, back into the river.
My senior year in high school, I went on a date with a junior cheerleader, Tina. It was the typical dinner and a movie affair. First we had pizza at my parents’ restaurant and then hit the theater where Dirty Dancing had just come out. Tina loved the movie and we held hands the whole time. Afterwards, I drove her to a secluded parking lot so we could have some alone time. We liked each other, and although this was our first date, I figured some alone time was going to be productive. I didn’t ask her if she wanted to go “park” and in fact, asking didn’t even occur to me. Of course she wanted to.
I never really had a sex talk with my father. He sat me down when I was fifteen and asked me if I had any questions about sex. I said I didn’t (I did—I had so many questions and was so misinformed). He said, “Just make sure you always wear a rubber.” What I knew from talking to my friends was that when you were with a girl, the goal was always full intercourse. Start with kissing, then hands up the shirt, then hands down the pants, then try for sex but if that was shut down, settle for oral. Every single one of my peer group followed that protocol. We also firmly believed that when the girl stopped us at one of the markers, she might not actually mean it but just didn’t want to look like a slut. To counter this, you had to try at least three times before accepting their no.
With Tina in the back seat that Dirty Dancing evening, after she moved my hand away from her breast, I tried a second time because I was playing by “the rules’’ of guyhood. She slapped me across the face and said, “What part of, ‘No,’ did you not understand?” I drove her home immediately. In hindsight, that should have been an epiphany. I wish I would’ve reflected on that event and realized that “the rules’’ were bullshit. But I was young, dumb, and a boy.
Frances is at the age where she hates boys. She thinks they’re stupid and gross and I have done nothing to dissuade her from thinking exactly that. She has a boy cousin named Walden with whom she enjoys spending time, but he’s the only exception to her No Boys Allowed rule. Sometimes when they play, Walden’s friend, Cole, comes along, and Frances has accepted Cole into the boy exception rule. She says it’s because Cole is really fun to annoy, but I don’t know. In two years she’ll hit middle school, and she’s just growing up too fast. It must be a universal feeling for parents to bemoan their child’s impending entry into young adulthood, but I know boys. I was a boy. I was not a good boy. I fear I have not yet prepared my daughter for what is surely to come; I ache for the upcoming harassment and misogyny coming from both boys and men.
My first memory of something resembling the antithesis of toxic masculinity was the 1974 television movie/special/show Free to Be You and Me. I don’t remember too much about it except Rosey Grier, a huge professional football player who sang a song called, “It’s Alright to Cry,” which stuck with me every time I did cry as a kid. Which was truthfully, sort of all the time. The other thing I remember from that program was another song called “Billy Wants a Doll” about a boy who didn’t want a basketball or a bb gun or a toy truck for Christmas, but rather a doll. Even at eight years of age, I remember that was pretty remarkable. I, however, wanted as much sports equipment as possible. Dolls were for girls.
Few men of my generation realized at the time that we were being raised into a culture of toxic masculinity. It was absolutely normal. Boys were boys and girls were girls and gender norms were there for a reason. We didn’t realize the reason was to keep women down. Maybe we just didn’t care.
I struggle with the karmic implications of this in my life today. I was a prime example of “bro culture” when I was younger and just because I know better now doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for my past transgressions. Saying, “That’s just how things were back then,” shouldn’t cut it. Step nine in my twelve-step program is Make Amends, and how much better would things be if every man of my generation examined their behavior, acknowledged it, and tried to make amends with women they’ve done wrong to?
In fact, while writing this, I found Tina online (Thank you, Facebook. You’re good for something.) and reached out to her. We chatted for a bit, and then I apologized for that night. I didn’t say that I was a product of the times or that boys will be boys or that that’s how things were. I just said, “I’m sorry for how I acted that night.” She texted back, “Thank you. I appreciate that,” and that was it until two days later when she texted again and said, “Seriously, thank you for your apology. It meant a lot.” Maybe there’s something to this Make Amends thing for men of my generation? I think my father’s generation of men were mostly Neanderthals, but I have hope for the next one. My generation seems transitory but hopefully it’s not too late to write us off.
My wife and I got Frances a phone because with pandemic work schedules, sometimes the girl has to be home alone. The last three text messages I’ve received from her are:
- I love you so much.
- My friends were mean to someone today and I’m crying about it.
- When are you going to be home because I miss you and I want a hug.
I don’t feel like I deserve this girl. She amazes me daily.
I have spent the last ten years eating lunch with my fellow English teachers. We are a group of eight, two men and six women. These lunches have been my education into how toxic masculinity has been ingrained in me. All six of the women I work with, Bethany, Leah, Jenn, Sam, Ashley, and Sunni, are fierce feminists who take no shit from anyone, and they have taken Geoff and me to school regarding gender issues. They have been patient with us as we tried to understand the world as it exists for women. They have been forgiving as we stumbled awkwardly around our upbringings. Thank you so much to them for their help. Because of them, I’m able to look back and see how much I’ve been a product of my environment. When you’re raised with toxic masculinity, it becomes the default outlook, a natural way of thinking and seeing the world. These lunches are a reckoning, and I have been a typical prick for most of my life. Those lunches didn’t teach me shame, but they shamed me nonetheless.
For my birthday, Frances gave me a bunch of handwritten index card coupons I can redeem at any time. One says, “I will scratch your back for 15 minutes.” Another reads, “I will empty the litter boxes for you when it’s your turn.” My favorite one is “I will give you a hug even if I’m mad at you,” and I’m saving that one forever. My wife and I talk often about how incredibly kind and caring our daughter is and we both wonder where she gets it. Neither one of us wants to take credit because neither one of us was nice as a child. Sometimes we both just look at her and cry proud and happy tears.
A couple years ago, I was at a day conference with Jenn, one of the English teacher lunch crew, and we were learning about something English-teacher related. There were about forty people in attendance, and I was one of only four men. The facilitators were both women. About an hour into it, I realized that the other three men were doing most of the talking, easily taking more airtime than the thirty-seven women and two facilitators. Without my ten years of Awareness Lunches, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. But once you know, you know. And I knew. I watched the rest of the conference with my eyes wide open, in awe of these three guys who just couldn’t help themselves. Their experiences were more important than anyone else’s. Their ideas were the only valid ones. Any challenge to one of their points by a women was met with derision and scrunched up faces of incredulity. It lasted for six hours. I was ashamed of myself because I knew that had been me only a few years prior. I was also ashamed because I didn’t call them out. I think Jenn was proud of me for noticing it happened and that made me feel like I was growing.
My biggest wish is that my daughter doesn’t come across someone who behaves like I did when I was younger. Teenage years are hard enough without terrible teenage boys, and I can’t help but wonder if karma is real. Parenting boys seems easier because boys really just have it easy. If my offspring were a boy, what would I be worried about? The world is literally primed for him to be successful. I think I’d actually spend most of my time trying to teach him how to treat women. But a daughter? There are just so many inequities and asshole men in her burgeoning world that it keeps me up at night.
In the school district where I teach, there are fifty-one books designated as acceptable to teach high school students. These books have passed the “Community Standards Panel,” which ensures that nobody will be offended by reading these fifty-one books. Thirty-six of these books were written by dead white men, which I find extremely offensive.
I used to only read books by male authors because I thought what men had to say was most important. I thought they were the only ones I could relate to. I read Alice Walker, Harper Lee, and Annie Dillard in college and found them enjoyable, but they didn’t speak to me like dead white guys did. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Whitman, Hawthorne . . . those were my guys. But times have changed, and in 2020 I read seventy-three books, of which only fourteen were written by men. I’ve been reading mostly women for about a decade, and this, too, was a product of lunching with my women colleagues.
Frances and her best friend Layla don’t get to see each other very often due to COVID, but they chat each day online. Layla is the type of kid who takes no shit from anyone, and I just love her for it. Frances is more sensitive, and the one time I raised my voice at her she cried and walked into the closet rather than face me. I still haven’t gotten over it, and the thought of damaging my precious child, even for a second, shatters me. I’m torn. I want her to be tough like Layla, but I also want her to feel things deeply and to be open and to have confidence and to enjoy every second she’s alive. I want her to be excruciatingly happy, but I know she can’t always be.
How I viewed and treated women as a young man is constantly on my mind as I now watch my beloved daughter grow into her young woman years. I feel like I’m on the sideline at a football game, rooting for society, and men specifically, to hurry up and evolve. I occasionally see an article about the rare man who does show women respect, and I want to show it to all the boys in my neighborhood and say, “You need to read this! It’s possible! You don’t have to be an asshole!”
In August of 2022, my daughter will start middle school, and that month weighs on me. I don’t know how to prepare her for what’s to come from boys and men, but I have extended an invitation to her. She knows that when she has her first bad day and people are being mean to her, I’ll take her to get her ears pierced. I’d told her the story about my father saying I could only wear an earring if I wore a dress, and so Frances asked if I would get mine pierced when she gets hers done. I immediately agreed. “Daddy,” she said, “You don’t have to wear a dress when we get our ears pierced, but you can if you want because nobody cares about that stuff anymore.”
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov