“First things first I’ma say all the words inside my head I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been, oh ooh
The way that things have been, oh ooh
Second thing second
Don’t you tell me what you think that I can be
I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea, oh ooh
The master of my sea, oh ooh”
– from Believer by Imagine Dragons
I used to cry a lot as a child. I write “a lot” because it was never really defined to me what an appropriately level of crying was. All I was told was that my crying was “a lot,” and it was unacceptable.
It was unacceptable to the most macho of my uncles and cousins, and friends. “You cry like a little girl,” they would say, hurting my feelings even worse. “Stop crying, little girl.” Yeah, ’cause that’s how that works. (Only psychopaths and method actors can start and stop their crying on command.) See, in my culture, men don’t cry, or some bullshit like that.
Several of my uncles were very critical of me wanting to go to school instead of dropping out of high school and getting a job. They worried that education was making me soft, or something. They would chastise my mom for promoting in me a sense of wonder about the world around me. “Buy him a shovel and axe instead of that microscope thing,” one of them said. “Find him a job at the factory.”
I can only imagine what I would have been if they were the ones to tell me what they thought that I could be.
The two men who never gave me any crap about crying were my father and his father. When they saw me crying, they would hold me and comfort me until I was under control, until the fear went away or my brain reasoned things out enough to calm me down. In doing that, they kind of reinforced in me the idea that crying was okay, so I kept on crying.
I cried because people did or said things that hurt my feelings. I genuinely felt bad about those things, and I felt bad for those people. My brain would play out all the scenarios in which they were going to say the wrong thing(s) to the wrong person or people and then get themselves in a lot of trouble. Other times, I cried because I missed my parents greatly, or because they themselves felt sad about something. Of course, I also cried out of frustration, or from reading/listening/seeing a sappy story.
All those times, I remember thinking that if my dad and grandfather cried, and they had all those great friends — and grandpa all that respect from people in town — then it was okay for me to cry. Yes, I’d seen mom cry as well, but — as the culture around me led me to believe — she was justified in crying for whatever reason. Then again, she never sanctioned my crying, either… With a couple of exceptions. But that’s for another post at a later time.
Anyway, the story goes that I was a newborn and dad was just staring at me, holding my little hand in his as he held me in his arms. He was smiling, or otherwise had a look on his face. Upon seeing that look, one of my aunts told him that it was okay to give me a kiss on the cheek. From then on, she said, he didn’t stop kissing me. To this day, we give each other a kiss on the cheek when greeting and when parting ways.
One evening, when he was dropping me off at my aunt’s house and going back to Mexico, dad started to cry. I was staying with my aunt so that I could go to school in Texas. I’d spend the weekend with mom, but this weekend my dad had driven up to see me. We had gone shopping all day, watched a movie, and then had drive-in burgers. He cried and cried and cried, telling me that he missed me. I cried too. I cried every time mom or him dropped me off. It broke my heart to be away from them and in a home filled with… Well, people who were not like me.
On a different day, back in Mexico, one of my grandfather’s friends had passed away. I found him holding the obituary cut-out from the newspaper in his hand, tears in his eyes. He told me how they used to play music together, be at political rallies together, and how his friend’s death was yet another one of a string of deaths in his circle of friends and acquaintances. Sure enough, grandpa died the following summer. Dad called me, barely able to keep it together. All of my dad’s brothers cried, and cried, and cried some more.
So did a lot of men on the side of the road during the funeral procession.
As it turns out, real men do cry. We’re not robots, for crying out loud! (No pun intended.) Men run the gamut from very sensitive to very rough. Some men like to paint beautiful flowers while others bruise their hands rebuilding an engine. Dad understood this. He let me write my stories and read my books or watch my movies. He never once said that he was disappointed in me for not following in his footsteps when it came to fixing machinery… Because he never was.
“I knew you paid attention. I know you can do it now if you need to,” he said. Indeed, the intricacies of an engine are not a secret to me. I can see all of the moving parts in my head. Give me a wrench and I’ll rebuild that sucker. But, honestly, I’d rather be taking photographs, writing a short story, or playing with my daughter.
Other kids in my generation of friends and cousins were not so lucky. Some of them were raised by fathers who’d beat them and then beat them some more for crying about the first beating. Or they were labeled with some homophobic slur for crying after taking a bad fall and hurting themselves. They were subjected to some real abuse for not being manly enough as eight-year-olds, or for not having jobs and girlfriends at fifteen.
In the worst cases, I knew of some boys who were taken to brothels and forced to have sex with prostitutes when they were as young as thirteen. “They became men,” their fathers would say while mocking them for their ineptitude during their first sexual encounter. (I classify it as rape, knowing what I know now. And, seriously, was good old dad in the room?) “You should have seen him trying to find the hole,” they’d say while the poor kid looked at the floor and held back tears with all his might lest the belt came out again.
Yeah, someone actually saw that father and somehow accepted being his wife and mother to their child. Someone saw that behavior and did nothing to stop it. Some poor woman had to care for that ogre of a man when he became incontinent and disabled. Worse yet, that poor kid is now the father to boys and maintaining the tradition of mental, physical and sexual abuse.
The sins of the father and whatnot.
In trying to raise my daughter, I’ve decided that I’m going to cement what my idea of a “real man” is so I can pass on to her that knowledge. She needs to know what a real man is all about as much as — if not more so — than if she were a boy. Because she is going into a world dominated by men, and a lot of men are going to make a lot of decisions that will affect her. That is, if they don’t outright make the decisions for her.
Also, if she grows up to like boys, she’s going to need to know how to measure a man not by the “manly” things he does but by the good and honest and constructive things he does. Does he — like she will — want to help others and want to save the world? Will he be a help or a hindrance in her own ambitions? Will he love her more than she’ll ever know and write her poems or paint her pictures? And will he recognize the value of a good day’s work?
Unlike too many of the men in my culture and my group of relatives, I’m not about assigning men more value if they slept with more women, or if they exert more physical power. I never was. Meatheads with tempers were always an oddity to me. Fighting was never my thing. (I always empathized too much with the person I’d likely hurt if it ever came to violence.)
It makes me extremely happy to see in my brother and my brother-in-law two regular dudes who are well adjusted and connected to the world beyond the macho and the material. All three of us are married to phenomenal women who don’t think twice about putting us in our place, pushing us forward, making us better, or letting us fail only to celebrate in our comebacks and triumphs.
And those are the kind of men I’ve worked to surround myself with personally and professionally. “Good people,” my wife calls them. Men who are devoted to their families, work hard, stay out of trouble, and see the storms raging around the world not as big and insurmountable things. Like me, they see nothing but opportunities, dragons waiting to be punched in the mouth.
I’ll leave to their own devices the dudes who peaked in high school and never got over it. They’re the ones who are lonely and frustrated, divorced and struggling to make it on their own because they valued the quantity of sex partners and nights of blacking out on alcohol more than the quality of partners and quality of friends. They I stay away from. They I’ll teach my daughter to steer clear from.
They are the boys and not men.
“When I was a young boy
My father took me into the city
To see a marching band
He said, son, when you grow up
Would you be the savior of the broken
The beaten, and the damned?
He said, will you defeat them
Your demons and all the non-believers?
The plans that they have made?
Because one day I’ll leave you
A phantom to lead you in the summer
To join the black parade”
– from Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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