To feel like it’s OK.
OK to what, you probably just asked. Well, OK to be what we want to be. OK to fail. OK to have desires. Men of my age (or perhaps just me, maybe I’m projecting) have been raised with well-defined roles. Provide for our families. Protect our families. Be tough, strong, unbending. And when your testosterone levels are super-high and you have little experience in controlling them, that all seems, well … OK.
But what happens when you want something different? Something more? I’m 1000% positive that this question also comes out of the collective mouths of women, but we men feel it too. Very intensely. We just have no clue what to do with it. The manual we were handed as boys … the one titled ‘How To Be A Man’ … didn’t cover this subject. The book was pretty narrowly scoped.
Let me put out a real world example. Other men’s specifics will be different, but the underlying intent is probably the same. I want to take a gap decade. (Or two, maybe three). Society believes that once an adult is on the path of adulthood, that they must stay on that path. Raise a family and remain in the same place so that family can come back and visit. Find a partner and limit your life to whatever common level exists between you. Ease into your final decades, because you did a great job so now just take it easy.
And if you want to refute that, it sounds selfish as hell. Or like you’re having some sort of crisis. (And why don’t women ever get accused of having a “mid-life”?). If a man is supposed to provide for his family, then why would he seek to move on from the place that once held that family? Why would he want for things and experiences that his partner may no longer want, or isn’t interested in? Not to give up on our spouses and family, but to add to our personal tapestry. Why can’t we experience everything that life has to offer without (self) shame?
Not having said all that, there are quite a few men who are completely satisfied with their assigned roles. With the status quo. But I also think that late at night when they can’t sleep, they might remember a dream they once had … and just can’t fathom ever seeking again. For these men, dreams are dead and not something to actively believe possible. Which is even sadder than the dilemma I’m writing about. But I am not that kind of man. I can see just past the walls that hold that life together. So I could never go back into that level of sleep.
Men tend to score their lives based on what they think other men and what culture expects of them. Generally speaking, we’re pretty much slaves to the rule of role. For instance, to say that you’ve successfully completed a career and want to move on to other challenges is acceptable. To say that you’ve successfully completed the career of raising children into adults and now want to move on to other challenges is heresy. Or at least, it feels that way.
In my first marriage, I was miserable from day one. But the rulebook I was given said that men don’t get divorced. To do so would be to break a promise to provide. I remember all too well the way people said the word ‘divorce’ as I was growing up. It was almost whispered, with a conspiratorial look around. “You know Bob, right? (And in a softer voice) … He’s divorced, you know”. That was me. It took me to my absolute limit to seek that divorce because of the failure I was going to be seen as. (Spoiler alert: the shame I was expecting didn’t show up from others). But the expectation of that shame did drive my decisions. And my delay. And the subsequent guilt I felt as those delayed decisions took their impact on those around me.
This, I think, is the essence of being a man. Of feeling like we must be stronger than what even may be possible. Especially in the world of feelings. But believe me, somewhere under all of our back hair and gruff demeanor, we do feel. A lot. We just didn’t have a chapter on how to deal with it. We were supposed to keep those things in a deep hole, covered up.
I know I still to this day fall back on that behavior. Without even realizing it. And then, when I do, I start to regret. And resent. And sometime well after, I realize that I did it all to myself. Allowing oneself to want, even at the expense of “providing”, is something that always has to be a conscious effort. It may never come naturally to those of us raised in the 50s and 60s. It was not how we saw our fathers. So when we want something for ourselves that might take away from our families, from our spouses, we simply cannot do it. Not without fear. Perhaps not ever.
I want to believe that there is this magic place where one can experience the joys of togetherness with a partner. Doing together things. Being a part of a large and loving family. And also being able to be truly independent all at the same time. I know some men have done it. I’ve seen them. Thought bad things about them because they didn’t follow the rulebook. Envied them for the same reason. Tried to figure out how to be like them, without the guilt. And to date, I haven’t quite made the jump.
I believe that for many men, this is not an uncommon thing. And it’s not just the “what”, but the “how”. Perhaps if we could just envision the way to “have it all”, we would be more comfortable in making our own playbooks. I know that every time I decide to do something that my partner or family doesn’t want to do, I feel like I’m abandoning them when I go forth and do it. Could I take a two-week trip without my wife? Could I move far away from my grown children without the guilt of always providing them the safety net of their childhood home? I’ve done both, and hated myself for it. Even when I was enjoying the part where I was taking care of myself.
We are all products of nature. Of society and expectations. Some people are stronger or more creative than others in challenging those limitations. And gender lines really have no place in the battle, I suppose. Women don’t limit men. We limit ourselves. I know that I limit myself.
But … and this is a huge BUT … I will personally find the path. I’ve tried running, hiding, beating walls with sticks, resentfulness, cursing, and denial. Especially denial. And none have worked. But I know that happy place exists. I’ve seen strong and no-so-strong men alike living there. I just need to shed the skin that was imprinted upon me and allow myself to be just as human as anyone else. And I think most men, if they would allow themselves to admit it, would agree.
Ladies Ask Me Anything
Men are supposed to be cool, suave, collected, and strong. And sometimes we are. But usually … not so much. Yet the one thing we do reliably is keep things bottled inside. Well, I’m breaking the code of silence. Parting with the old boys network and answering your questions. Maybe I can’t speak for all men over a certain age, but I can speak based on what I know and what I’ve experienced. Let the games begin.