(Inspired by a chapter called “Boys” in Glennon Doyle’s latest book, Untamed.)
The best thing that you can do is pick up Glennon’s book (you know, because she and I are on a first name basis) and read it, but read the chapter called “Boys” five times and ask everyone you know to read it too.
I have a son. He is five and, already, I have noticed how my husband, and even myself, are contributing to raising a boy who grows up to be the prevalent male archetype. The kind of man who is not comfortable with emotions. The kind of man who measures his power by his physical strength or his possessions.
Society seems to be doing a better job of not limiting women. Better yet, we are doing a better job of not letting society limit us. We are seeing more confident young girls who are not caged by gender stereotypes. Girl power is not just a hashtag but a movement. I am thrilled that my daughter will grow up in a world that challenges gender norms, but what about boys?
In this chapter, Glennon talks about news headlines like “members of a lacrosse team being charged with gang rape” or “a middle school gay boy hung himself because of bullying at school.” She writes, “I stared open-mouthed at the tv and thought: Oh my God. This is what it looks like to try to comply with our culture’s directions.”
I had a conversation with an acquaintance about a year ago. She was telling me that her teenage son had been suspended from a prominent private school in Westchester New York for being a part of a group of boys who texted photos of their genitals to girls. This is a thing. It’s called a “dick pic” and apparently, it is not only a pubescent pastime but a trend that has become commonplace in our society. A New York Congressman was one of the more recent public figures to be accused of sending images of his penis to women. Listen, if your partner wants to send you a pic of his schvonce, and you are cool with that, awesome. But men texting images of their aroused penises to a person they don’t know? The most frightening part about my conversation with this woman was when she told me that she had moved her son to a different male-only private school where they “understood boys,” and he wouldn’t get into trouble for something like this.
“Boys who believe that real men are all-powerful will cheat and lie and steal to claim power.”
“We train boys to believe that the way to become a man is to objectify and conquer women, value wealth and power above all, and suppress any emotions other than competitiveness and rage.”
There is no bigger evidence of this truth than Donald Trump getting elected, fairly or not, as the President of the most powerful country in the world. His leadership is the enormous whitehead on a pimple that we must pop, and then we must vow to take better care of this country’s skin so that this mother fucking pimple does not grow and create a festering and irreversible wound. I digress. Back to “Boys.” (forgive the pimple analogy)
My husband is a good man. I married him because he is kind and generous, but I also married him because one time, when he was ill with 103° fever on his couch and watching hockey, he became so riled up when a fight broke out that he clenched his teeth and fists and looked like he might punch the tv. It was the modern day equivalent of him plopping a bloody impala at my feet and hitting me over the head with a club. He would be mine.
I had just finished dating a series of men, all over San Francisco, who enjoyed splitting the check and crying occasionally. I was ready for a “real man” or at least that is what centuries of conditioning were telling me. Fast forward to now, 14 years later. Our son is five, and our daughter is seven. My eyes fall out of my head when I hear him say things to our son like “man up” or “boys don’t wear makeup and earrings.” Yet, I have supported these messages by saying things like, “boys can wear makeup if they are actors or performers.” I have prided myself on not nudging our kids in any direction, especially our daughter. It actually annoys me when people don’t let their girls wear pink or dress up like princesses. I happened to have been the little girl who loved Matchbox cars and mutilating the hair on my sister’s Barbies. I never pictured my wedding dress or fantasized about a white picket fence but if my daughter does, I want to be cool with that. However, it wasn’t until I read this chapter in Glennon Doyle’s book that I realized that if our son grows up to be an alpha-male, I am part of the problem, and it is in my hands to try to prevent it. My husband is simply being the man that he was encouraged to be by society. He has, actually, eased up a bit in his mission to groom our son into his version of a manly man. I believe he is realizing that our son putting on my heels or lipstick is not going to define what gender he ends up identifying with.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here as mothers of sons? Glennon talks about how she had raised her daughters to be strong since before birth.
“So I’d place headphones over my watermelon belly at night and play audiobooks about brave, complicated women. After they were born, I’d rock my daughters to sleep with stories about women who had broken out of their cultures’ cages to live free and offer their gifts to the world.”
“I do not recall rocking my son to sleep with stories about tender men. I do not remember pointing to men passing by: ‘I bet he is a poet, a teacher, a devoted father.’”
I recall pontificating on, before I had children, what a responsibility having a boy was. That it was in our hands to raise great men who would be gentleman and kind to women. Well, I only had it partially right. What I was missing was the piece about raising boys that would nurture themselves and not be afraid to be vulnerable and feel, not just open the door for women and change diapers. This was the big, fat missing piece in my plan to raise a great man.
One of the other reasons why I chose my husband is because whenever we go to a party, he is the one who takes care of people. Whether a friend needs a glass of wine or a chair, even if we aren’t hosting, he is there and always volunteers for clean up duty. He is the guy who always ends up at the bouncy house making sure that nobody gets hurt while the rest of the parents are imbibing pandemic-style. (He is also the one on clean up duty in our home and enjoys rearranging the dishwasher after I have filled it.) All men possess the power of tenderness, vulnerability and generosity but are not rewarded in society for these qualities.
Women subconsciously look down on vulnerability in men. Glennon talks about her friend Jason who, for the entirety of his childhood, had cried only in the bathroom because his tears would bother his father and mother. He shared that he and his wife were trying to raise their son differently, but when he tried to get vulnerable, his wife became uncomfortable. “She wants me to be sensitive, but the two times I’ve cried in front of her or admitted that I was afraid, I’ve felt her pull back.” When Glennon asked her friend/his wife about it, she responded with, “I can’t believe he noticed that, but he’s right. When he cries, I feel weird. I am embarrassed to say that what I feel is kind of like disgust.”
I am guessing that most men are afraid to be vulnerable because, historically, they have not been allowed to be. It is time to change history. We have a long and bumpy road ahead of us, but if all of society, not just moms, but dads and grandparents, make an effort to be more mindful about not forcing men to repress emotions, we could change the world. I have no doubt that we would see a vast reduction in crime at large, rape, police brutality, sexual harassment and war.
I am certain that I have not done Glennon Doyle’s chapter on boys justice, but I hope to have gleaned enough to motivate everyone to pick up this book and bookmark this chapter. I am going to read and reread it as my children get older, and I will also use it as a reminder to make space for my husband to be vulnerable.
By Claudia Ossa
Mother of Two People and Wife of One