We were going to have a boy, at least biologically.
When my wife, Elenor, and I learned this it unleashed an unexpected swirl of emotions. It was like a weighted blanket: warm, cozy and yet heavy on every part of my body.
We were going to be partially responsible for the actions of a man.
Now, I don’t mean to sound second-wave feminist with “all men are bad” sentiments (my experiences alone prove that wrong), but the reality that most crime, war and violence has been perpetuated at the hands of men hasn’t escaped me.
Nor have I escaped the painful manifestations of toxic masculinity myself.
But if my gender studies education taught me anything, it’s that the ways we perform our gender, whether stereotypically or non-binary, are important ingredients that make up our individualized flavors. But as meaningful as those expressions are, they are not all innate, and so much is influenced by our environments.
Think about Western cowboys versus New England gentlemen. Or machismo versus drag culture. The ways we’ve defined how men should act and look are as numerous as there are different places and cultures, although some characteristics seem to span the vast majority of masculinities.
The notion that expressions of manhood can be shaped from the outside gives me hope, but also, the blanket feeling. It’s on us to help create the environment in which a compassionate, equity-minded, respectful dude person can bloom. But what kind of soil and how much light does it take to nurture non-toxic masculinity?
Elenor and I have had conversations about this since before our son, Harvey, was born. And when I recently had the most serendipitous experience of hearing Sarah Jane Johnson’s story on “The Moth | Radio Hour” (she spoke of surviving sexual assault in college and the triumphant work of reconciling that past as she planned to birth a son — who she and her wife named Harvey!! — through the same place she was so violated), I decided to dig a little deeper into the topic.
I researched and reached out to some of my favorite feminists (including my new “life doppelgänger,” as she puts it, Sarah Jane Johnson) and the wellspring of wisdom that is my Facebook community, seeking to understand how others approach raising sons.
Four ideas became fortified for me:
The golden rule says to treat others as you want to be treated, but the platinum rule is what we go by in our house: Treat others as they want to be treated by you.
To borrow a line about respect from the great Aretha Franklin, “find out what it means to me.”
This idea is the foundation of consent and it applies to all things: showing affection including when and how, taking photos, allowing privacy, etc.
Be curious and courageous enough to ask how someone wants to be treated in any given moment, and respect their wishes. Full stop.
Feminist powerhouse Gloria Steinem said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.” I’ve long wondered what she meant and then I found Claire Cain Miller’s piece in The New York Times called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” that shows how “we raise our girls to fight stereotypes and pursue their dreams, but we don’t do the same for our boys.”
We’re now investing significant resources (and rightly so) into teaching girls that the traditional notions of femininity need not always be applied — that girls in the 21st century can be and do anything they want. Celebrated athletes? Yep. All-female spacewalks? Now that we’ve got enough suits that fit, you bet. President of the United States? I believe it’s possible.
For example, tomboys and female pantsuits are now celebrated, but on the flip side, the Scottish and actor Billy Porter are among the small minority of men embracing dresses (and I’m not even sure kilt-wearing men consider their attire as feminine-inspired).
If we expand the possibilities for our boys from clothing to toys to emotional expressions, we can shatter the confines that keep them feeling like they shouldn’t cry, nurture, feel fear, be gentle or twirl like a princess.
Plan International’s State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents survey of more than 1,000 boys ages 10-19 found only 2% said society values honesty and morality in men, 33% said they are expected to hide or suppress their feelings and 44% said society expects them to be aggressive or violent when they get angry.
Ah, there are the seeds of toxic masculinity we might reconsider sowing.
Much of the great advice from my peers was about modeling positive behavior, using inclusive language (like, not all bugs are male) and providing repeated exposure to ideas that challenge old norms.
Several folks talked about highlighting women’s triumphs and challenges, and introducing their children to successful and powerful women. The same is true about showing and revering men who share in household work, get in their feels and who use their privilege to empower women.
I asked queer/feminist activist Kate Kendall how she’s managed to raise a feminist son, and she said in a reply tweet: “Talking about sexism, values, kindness early and often. Wide ranging political convos as he gets older, exposure to books and media that frames your values. Good men in his and your life, aka, Grandpa....” She’s referring to my dad who has dedicated his life to leveling the playing field for marginalized folks of all walks of life. Good idea.
Elenor and I also curate our kidlet’s media library pretty carefully to include books with female heroes and stories of lions who write poetry. Constant, thoughtful, diverse, representational fun.
If respect is born from the same place as doctors’ Hippocratic oath (in essence, do no harm), then engaged kindness is respect elevated.
Johnson described what she hopes for her now 2 ½ year-old son, Harvey. It’s not that she’s expecting a savior or superhero, but she wants him to be an active part of making the world a safer, more compassionate place. She wants him to “walk through the world seeing when someone needs help, and taking action.”
I like that.
I see my Harvey and I want him to be the man he is — whatever that may be — and I also plan to do my best to show him the power and possibility of compassionate masculinity.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.