What makes a man?

My dad, now 91, brought a largely hands-off approach to parenting. Especially when we were young, his job was to earn the money, participate in family events and, when the situation was especially serious, assist with discipline. Day to day, minute to minute, the parenting was left to my mother.

As my siblings and I grew older, our father played a larger role in our lives. He was my frequent companion (and cheerleader/critic) as I travelled to public speaking competitions throughout southern Ontario when I was in high school. He often accompanied my younger siblings, along with our mother, on their athletic endeavours.

A highly competitive game player, he taught us the principles of cribbage, bridge, chess and, when we were older, poker (a game he played seriously for many years after he retired and that my two brothers continue to enjoy). He even invented some board games, models of which he carefully packed up and sent off to Parker Brothers, to no avail.

But the bulk of primary parenting, with all of its irritations and joys, remained with our mother, which was consistent with most families of that time.

The times they are a-changin’

Family roles and responsibilities have changed since the 1950s. More and more women work outside the home and, in 2019, many fathers play an active role in their children’s lives.

However, according to Statistics Canada, in 2013, only 30.8% of new fathers took the parental leave available to them. And, as recently as 2010, mothers – including those who worked outside the home – spent twice as much time per week (50 hours compared to 24.4) engaged in child care activities as did men. When children are sick, the school calls because of an emergency and kids need to be chauffeured to activities during the workday, it is mothers who perform most of those responsibilities, even when they have to lose paid time from work.

Don’t “act like a man”

A recent Harper’s Bazaar article notes:

“For generations, men have been taught to reject traits like gentleness and sensitivity . . . from a young age, American men – with their puffed up chests, fist bumps, and awkward side hugs – grow up believing that they should  . . . behave like stoic robots in front of other men . ..  Men are taught that feelings are a female thing.”

Tony Porter, founder of A Call to Men, which works to educate men on healthy, respectful manhood, wants to change that. His program, aimed at ending violence against women and girls, encourages boys and men to move away from stereotypical gendered roles; to stop “acting like men.”

When boys are encouraged to understand masculinity differently and to become different kinds of men than their grandfathers, Porter says, they win as much as girls and women do.

Rachel Giese writes about this in “Boys: what it means to become a man:”

“This book isn’t an argument against masculinity. It’s a case for how we might rethink and reimagine the meaning of manhood for all our sakes, men and women, boys and girls. . . . When qualities associated with femaleness and femininity, such as tenderness and vulnerability, are denigrated, not only are women and girls devalued, but men and boys are discouraged from claiming those quality as theirs, too. . . .The liberation of girls and women from limiting, damaging gender stereotypes is inextricably tied to the liberation of boys and men from their own set of limiting, damaging gender stereotypes.”

Trans artist Viveka Shraya approaches it a bit differently in her book “I’m Afraid of Men:”

“Out of this [her experience as a trans woman] . . . comes a desire not only to reimagine masculinity but to blur gendered boundaries altogether and celebrate gender creativity. It’s not enough to let go of the misplaced hope for a good or a better man. It’s not enough to honour femininity. “

Celebrating fathers

Fathers’ Day, like Mothers’ Day, has a meandering history. It did not move out of its original Middle Ages Catholic realm until the 1900s when, in the United States, a movement developed to create a day to honour fathers. In 1908, after a mining explosion in West Virginia killed 326 men, 250 of them fathers, the daughter of one of the men who died urged her parish priest to hold a ceremony to honour the dead fathers. In 1910, the daughter of a man who had raised six children as a single parent attempted to start a movement to celebrate fathers. Neither of these attempts garnered much support or attention.

In 1938, the Father’s Day Council of the New York Association of Men’s Wear Retailers realized what a windfall celebrating dads could be and began to promote the idea of a national day for dads, but it was still decades before the public became interested. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson designated the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day in a presidential proclamation, and in 1972, President Nixon signed it into law.

Thus, by the mid-1980s, the Father’s Day Council was able to crow:

“Father’s Day has become a Second Christmas for all the men’s gift-oriented industries.”

And they were right. While people don’t spend as much on Father’s Day as they do on Mother’s Day, it is nonetheless a $311 million dollar event in the Canada.

Boys should cry

The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) is a global organization started in Canada to promote healthy masculinity with the goal of ending violence against women as well as creating happier, healthier men.

Among its many projects is a video called Boys Don’t Cry, which:

“draws attention to the impact of rigid gender stereotypes on boys throughout the life cycle. To create healthier masculinities, we need to encourage boys and men to express a full range of emotions and understand the positive difference they can make when they do. Efforts to eradicate gender inequality and all forms of gender-based violence require that we rethink harmful aspects of masculinity to promote healthier, peaceful and inclusive alternatives.”

The organizations also offers 10 tips for promoting that healthier masculinity to help both boys and men rethink how they want to be in the world.

My brother, his family and I will be taking our father and his wife out for brunch on Sunday. Later in the day, I will be joining my partner, his son and our two youngest grandsons where, no doubt, we will celebrate two generations of fathers and sons.

It may be too late for my father to re-conceive his masculinity, but I want to hope that the other men and boys I know can learn new ideas about what it means to be a man.

It will make the world a happier place for everyone.

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