“Growing up, my sister and I were treated very differently. I was forced into green and blue onesies, and later sports. I learned to grasp a football in my tiny little hands way before I could even teeter across the hardwood floors of my childhood home without nearby faces etched with worry, arms hovering in a hug-like embrace ready to catch me. My sister’s world was saturated with glitter and butterflies, ponies and makeup.
I remember sitting at the dinner table at 6 years old, my sister and I locking eyes and trying not to giggle. We had stolen gum from our mother’s purse. A little yellow package that read ‘Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit’. We covered our squirming lips with the backs of our hands to keep from blowing our cover. Our plan was to get through the whole meal with the gum still safe and sound under our tongues. First one to swallow was a loser.
When my sister burst out laughing, my mother asked, ‘What’s going on here? You two look fishy and redder than the devil. Eat your broccoli!’ I stabbed my broccoli and tossed it in my mouth. I swallowed it, along with our little secret. I remember a friend telling me, ‘If you swallow a piece of gum, it’ll stay in your tummy for 7 years!’ Something about this excited me. I looked over at my sister. ‘I lost.’ She stuck out her tongue and wiggled her fingers at the sides of her ears. In doing so, her wrinkled piece of gum accidentally fell down into her mashed potatoes.
My mother was shocked. ‘Where did you get that from?! Chewing gum is not for a young woman. It’s unladylike. You’ll chase all the boys away with a nasty habit like that.’ My sister looked down at the table, embarrassed. ‘Go to your room now.’ I was brave and willing to defend my sister. ‘Momma, I was chewing gum, too. I took it out of your purse.’ She didn’t look up from her plate and continued to cut her steak. ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ Why was it fine for me?
As I grew older, I learned how to be a man. I learned to be outspoken, aggressive. I was a go-getter, not someone who ever sat inside their head and pondered for long. I never had to think about the things I did or said. I know now that’s a privilege.
I remember being in 6th grade and the teacher asking a question about the Heimlich maneuver. There were girls next to me with their hands raised. My teacher’s eyes glossed over them as if they were invisible. He waited. The answer was obvious, so I raised my hand. I was instantly called on. ‘It gets stuck in the trachea.’ It made me feel good about myself. Those other girls couldn’t have possibly had the correct answer, right? Incidences like this happened again and again. I started to think that girls just simply didn’t have the answers.
One day, I walked with my sister to the corner store on a Saturday morning. We were tasked with getting bread and sliced cheese from the deli counter to make grilled cheeses for lunch. It was a hot summer day, so my sister and I wore tank tops and shorts. As soon as we approached the entrance to the deli, an older man said to my sister, ‘Let me get a taste of that.’ When we looked up, he was sticking his tongue out and wiggling it in the air.
She instantly turned red and lowered her head as if to make herself invisible. She was 12. When she didn’t give him attention, he closed with, ‘Okay, ignore me then. Slut.’ He laughed and I laughed with him. I don’t know why, but I did. I guess it just felt like the manly thing to do. I never asked her if she was okay or how she felt. We made our grilled cheeses and the day went on like nothing happened, at least for me.
Fast forward to high school some years later. It was prom season and I had been talking to a girl for about two months. When I asked her out to prom, she accepted my invitation with open arms. ‘You know what that means,’ my friends said with a wink. I was ready to reap the benefits.
When the night came, I prepared myself. Clean shave. Mouthwash. Condom. It was practically all I could think about from the time I put on my tux and got into the limo to the time I motioned my date over to an isolated corner at the venue. ‘Here’s good, right?,’ I asked, smiling. She looked confused. ‘Nevermind.’ I leaned in for a kiss, but she pulled away. ‘I’m not ready,’ she said. ‘I really like you.’ I was shocked. Not at the second part, but at the fact that she denied my advances. ‘Oh, come on,’ I said. I leaned in again. ‘I said I’m not ready,’ she repeated. By this point, I was furious.
‘What do you mean you’re not ready? You accepted my invitation. Now give me a kiss!’ I grabbed her by the shoulders, pushed her closer to me, and she began to cry. ‘Oh, whatever,’ I said. I turned around and walked away, avoiding her for the rest of the night. I’m not sure, but I think she might have gone home, alone. I didn’t think about it another second. I moved on, kissing three other girls that night. I was keeping score, like they were somehow just points in a game and not real people with real emotions. These girls didn’t refuse my kisses. Wracking up ‘points’, I felt on top of the world. The next Monday at school, I bragged to my friends about it. I vividly remember one of them saying, ‘Nice, dude. Girls are sooo easy these days. It’s gross, but good for us!’
Today, I am 33 years old and a father to a beautiful baby girl, 2 months old, a little boy, 4 years old, and my oldest, a 9-year-old girl. When I look back on these moments in my life, I am ashamed. I am ashamed at society for teaching me that this behavior is okay. For letting it slide. For teaching me that girls, women, ought to be invisible, only until we want something from them. But most of all, I am ashamed at myself for not seeing this earlier. For even sometimes knowing when things felt wrong, but doing it anyway because, well, others were too. For silencing that voice in my head because I knew I could get away with it. Because boys will be boys, right?
Recently, I stumbled upon an article that claimed masculinity was dying out. It claimed that men were losing their positions of power to women and that, God forbid, some men were even starting to believe the ‘false’ abuse allegations that some women put forth. A lot comes to mind when I think of the question, ‘What does it mean to be a man?’
To me, being a man was helping my sister hastily move her things out of her and her boyfriend’s apartment while he was at work after he had beaten her senseless. It was looking into her blackened eye, empty and deadened with insurmountable pain, and telling her, ‘I love you and I’m here for you,’ before collapsing to the floor with her in tears.
Being a man was pushing another man to the ground when he grabbed my good friend Sarah’s butt in passing at a concert. No, not the pushing part (Sometimes it’s hard to control my temper, but I’m working on that). But the part where I stood up for her. Where I got angry for her, with her. The part where I asked her, ‘Are you okay? That guy was an absolute jerk. I am so sorry.’
Being a man is sometimes being silent. When I recently went to an educational conference, it happened again. History repeated itself. A panel of men in suits told the audience, ‘We have time for one question.’ A sea of women raised their hands. Then there was me, sitting in the back, a hand raised. I was the only man with a question. Needless to say, they called on me. I put my hand down and gave the other ladies a turn.
Being a man is standing by my friend Kayla’s side when she said ‘me too’ after 15 years of silence. It’s believing her without question and googling therapists in our local area as we sat through tears. I’m not a lawyer or a judge. I’m her great friend. I’m a human. And she is, too. She deserves all the love and support she can get.
Being a man is letting my daughter do whatever the heck she wants. It’s telling her ‘Honey, own that Jersey’ when she comes home from school crying after a boy in her class told her to take off her Jersey because girls ‘don’t play’ sports. She is now the top player on her soccer team, soaring through school with As. And yes, she loves makeup and dolls too. Her favorite color is pink. But she’s most alive on that soccer field, covered in dirt and grime, cheering on her team when they make a goal.
Being a man is kissing my wife’s stomach and telling her she’s beautiful, even with her c-section scar and stretch marks. It’s rubbing her temples when she gets those hour-long, God-awful menstruation cramps like knives that honestly NO man could ever handle.
Being a man is looking into my new little baby girl’s eyes, kissing her forehead, and promising to give her the world. To protect her from it, but also teach her to nonchalantly sucker punch any man that lays an unwanted hand on her.
Being a man is not about muscles, beer, ass-grabbing, go-getting, loudness. It’s worshiping the mother of my children and other strong, female warriors in my life. Encouraging more women in power and supporting their venture to the top, tooth and nail. It’s opening my eyes to the injustice around me. It’s kindness and love. It’s spreading that for every man, woman, and person in between. This is what it really means to be a man. Oh, and lots of facial hair, too. Can’t forget that part.’
Do you know someone who could benefit from this story? SHARE this story on Facebook with family and friends.