Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Like Father, Like Son

I guess this post is a bit of a confession about my relationship with my wife and children mixed with some introspection about how I was socialized by significant male figures in my life during my formative years. This just popped into my head last night, so it may come across as disorganized and perhaps even pointless.

Last night, I was watching the new Jillian Michaels show on NBC. There was a very moving segment in which a mother described the grief surrounding the loss of one of her children shortly after he was born. She described how the only time she ever got to hold her baby without him being connected to lots of tubes was on the day he died. She also talked about how the only time he opened his eyes was to look at her right before he drew his last breath. Her story really resonated with the parent in me. The family that was the focus of the show was crying, Jillian Michaels was crying, and before I knew it, I was all choked up and had tears in my eyes. Not wanting my wife to see my tears, I kept going back and forth between our living-room and kitchen to dry my eyes. After I had “composed” myself, I started wondering, “How in the world did I come to be a man who is afraid or reluctant to let his own wife and children see him with tears in his eyes?”

Anyway, one thought led to another, and it wasn’t long before I was really thinking about my father, my uncles, and the men who were my father’s friends when I was growing up and the things they taught me (or maybe didn’t teach me) about being a man. These were “men’s men” whose favorite actors included John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson. Like the characters portrayed by the actors they admired, the men most significant in my life had a tendency to keep their feelings bottled up inside themselves, face challenges and stressors alone rather than reaching out to others for support and help, and rarely display what we might think of as tender emotions. Tears, crying, and overt displays of fear were viewed as signs of softness or weakness. At the same time, these men were not huggers, although they were very liberal with their handshakes. Finally, they made every effort to protect their families from any sort of bad news, thinking it was their duty to shoulder the burden alone.

Don’t get me wrong. These were good men. They were honest, down-to-earth men who worked hard to take care of their families as best they could. I learned enough positive lessons and values from them to keep this blog going for years. However, they never really taught me how to: (1) accept and express emotions and vulnerability, (2) let my guard down to let others see when I’m scared or when I don’t know what to do, and (3) admit to myself and others when I need help and support.

I’ve gotten a little better in these areas on my own over the years, but I still struggle sometimes (as was the case last night when I didn’t want my wife to see me teary-eyed). Be sure to note that, even now, I haven’t really described what I was doing as crying. I also have to recognize those situations when I’m replicating or about to replicate some of the perhaps less desirable practices of my father and uncles with my own children. A week or two ago, one of my little boys fell. It wasn’t a bad fall, and he wasn’t hurt, but he got up with tears in his eyes and looked to me for comfort, and I really had to fight the urge to say what my father or one of my uncles would have said –“You’re a big boy. You can take it. Brush it off.”

Anyway, that’s it. I would appreciate hearing comments from others regarding their own socialization experiences, especially those experiences related to gender socialization.