Despite modern, progressive viewpoints regarding the construct of masculinity here in America; society at large is sometimes guilty of perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes that it seemingly discourages. It is an interesting bit of hypocrisy. I found it particularly amusing when popular men’s magazines – looking at you GQ – had the temerity to lecture men about the perceived current disrepair of manhood while completely ignoring their culpability and literary sins regarding the topic. It wasn’t long ago that men’s fashion didn’t fawn over the wildly popular show Mad Men and its resident alpha male Don Draper. Mad Men – toxic masculinity personified but stylishly portrayed with critical acclaim. From the appearance of the latest GQ offerings, I surmise that it isn’t trendy anymore. Oh, how soon they forget. Now, I won’t pretend there aren’t bad actors out there that don’t represent the best of the male population. They are great in number. Yet those men have become the archetype for all things toxic, negative, and dysfunctional about men as a whole. Lost in the shuffle of a culture war (waged across social media, television, publications, etc.) revolving around gender roles and expectations; we are ignorant of a sect of regular gentlemen that is perhaps more indicative of manhood than what is portrayed in the mainstream – invisible to the general public.
Regarding the everyday activities of life, more specifically fatherhood, I am rather matter of fact with my observations and narratives. I am always open and honest about fatherhood with respect to its profound impact over the last 5 years. My role and responsibilities are painfully simple: do what is right and do what is necessary. Sometimes, I am able to experience success, and other times, unfortunately, I fail. Nevertheless, I am frank about my fatherly adventures when queried. During one of these conversations, a work colleague remarked that I was a “different” type of man. At least different from the men from her generation. You understand, as a woman of a certain age, men from her generation did not carry out the parental duties that I routinely performed. Or at least that is what I was told. I always wanted to be a father actively involved in the growth and development of his children, so duties as a devoted dad didn’t seem all too odd.
Now, those parental duties include, but are not limited to: ironing school clothes, laying the kids down for sleep, packing school lunches, taking the kids to school, etc. These are not the occasional chores I discover myself immersed in, rather, these responsibilities are integral components of my daily life – normal life. Sure, balancing work and parental responsibilities is an exhaustive exercise that strains a gentleman’s resolve both mentally and physically. Nevertheless, one does what is right and what is necessary. That is what I had convinced myself to believe. Now, in some respects, I never devoted too much time & thought to gender roles of old within the family unit. That being the man is the provider and protector. Meanwhile, the woman takes care of home and the children. Nonetheless, I am not wholly immune to the societal conditioning that subconsciously molds one’s psyche and behavior regarding the subject matter in a negative.
As my coworker observed, I did not behave like the typical man. I cleaned. I cooked. I changed diapers. I ironed onesies. I gave baths. Truthfully, our society definitely has an opinion – offered by both men and women – about how a man should conduct himself as a man. And generally, those opinions lean heavily on the view that the male should – by the sweat upon his brow – toil the Earth as a sole provider. For women, a man is a man if he lives to a standard of XYZ. For men, a man is the man if he lives to the standard of XYX. We are reduced to a little more than a workhorse; with judgement rendered upon performance in the boardroom & bedroom. And whether implicitly or explicitly, people’s personal views are always on display. I remember my wife and I attended a sleep training class for Ava when she was a newborn. The instructor advocated that we lay our daughter down to sleep by at least 7:30 p.m. Given my late work schedule, I would not arrive home to around that time. That left me virtually no time to spend with my newborn daughter. I asked if it was feasible to extend bedtime later into the evening so I could spend more time with Ava. The instructor’s response: I did not work the weekend, so I could make up time with Ava Saturday & Sunday. In that moment, I felt totally dismissed, as if my time with my daughter was not valuable. Was I that inconsequential? Side-note: I didn’t follow the instructors guidelines. I sleep trained both my children and they are doing just fine.
Allow me to offer another example. My schedule starts late, so I am on a.m. duty with the kids. As in this case, sometimes differing parental schedules produce varying duties. One particular morning I stopped in our cafeteria for breakfast; the cashier observed I was not rushing through the cafe as I can only assume is my normal routine. I noted that I may look to be in a rush constantly, but that is because my typical morning routine almost demands it. Casually, I told her about a typical morning: making sure the kids use the toilet or in the case of Miles – clean up his soiled pull-up, get them showered & dressed, get breakfast on the table, pack their lunch, and drop them off at school. And somewhere in the mix, I get myself together with a shower and clean clothes because arriving at cubicle smelling funky is not an option. I then drive as fast as I can – without getting a ticket – to work. Puzzled, she asked if I was a single father. I assured her I was not a single father – just an involved one.
These were not isolated incidents, and over time, it started to become tiresome. More often than not, I discovered myself an outlier to the prototypical male. I did not fit the standard definition of the “alpha male”. I looked around me, and some of my peers were not putting in the work as a father that I was performing on a daily basis. I would take notice of men and their antiquated worldviews regarding gender roles. Conversely, I would hear women and their relationship horror stories regarding my contemporaries behaving badly. It didn’t seem fair. And I wish I could assert that it did not bother me, but it frustrated me beyond words. I never let it affect how I fathered my children; my duties as a father was non-negotiable. Nevertheless, I began to struggle with my confidence and self-esteem. As a man, I felt weak. I felt like a sucker. I had stopped working out. I had stopped writing. I had stopped mentoring. I cannot categorically claim that I was depressed, but I wasn’t the best me I could offer outside of being a father. What was the best me? First, allow me to offer some personal history for perspective.
For much of my early schooling and better part of college, I did not have an identity. I was a soft-spoken, overweight, slew-footed gentleman that walked with a gait similar to a penguin. I began to form an identity when I joined an organization in college – The Society of African-American Men. Making men out of boys was one of our battle cries. These men became my brothers from another mother. I learned a great deal through our shared organizational kinship. In the end, I didn’t earn my degree, but I departed Michigan Technological University with a wealth of knowledge for life. I had began to formulate an image, an identity. A non-athlete, I found solace in the gym with heavy weights that satiated the more primal side of soft-spoken Glen. I found a voice through this blog, as I found total strangers actually interested in my musings. I became active in the community to the under-served and marginalized, more specifically young black men. I had discovered my purpose.
Fatherhood changed everything and I was ill-equipped to cope. I was sleep-deprived and stressed from work; becoming a father was draining my virility as a man. I would look at the children’s outfits I sorted and ironed, thinking to myself – why? I would wonder if other fathers were out there changing cloth diapers, shoveling Michigan snow, and still putting in a 40+ hour week. I felt less-than and inadequate with no outlet to express what was going on inside me. Because, as years of programing had subconsciously taught me, showing emotion and vulnerability wasn’t something a man did. Any day of the week I could feel angry, despondent, or defeated. I was struggling emotionally and mentally within my own solitude, but I pressed forward.
I don’t have any vices to retreat to; I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. So most times I was just devoid of emotion. People would say happy Friday and become so elated about the impending weekend. Inside, I burned with irritation and disdain. There weren’t any days off in my world. And when Sunday arrived, I was angry about the forthcoming Monday. Sure, my kids brought me joy, but a majority of my days were consumed with work in some form or another. I never spoke about my feelings and I never let people see me break down. Some colleagues on my team nicknamed me Eeyore. They decorated my cubicle with stuffed animals and balloons with happy faces to try and make me smile. It didn’t work.
“But they don’t know about your stress filled day, baby on the way, mad bills to pay”, rapped the late Biggie Smalls. Everyday Struggle has always been one of my favorite Biggie songs; albeit my life did not mirror his early drug dealer escapades, I could relate to the pain of the everyday grind and hustle. I remember when Stephanie told me she was pregnant with our second child Miles. While I was surely excited inside, my face told a different story. Immediately, my mind began to calculate the cost of another child on my salary. As a man, it was ultimately my responsibility to ensure we were fine. I’ve always been a hard worker, and I had steadily moved up within my company. Nevertheless, with a second child, I had to make a big move.
A position in a department I had been eyeing opened up. I prepped for the interview for about a month. I performed well in the interview and was considered an excellent candidate, but I came up short. I received my rejection notification via e-mail (I can’t make this up) on my birthday while I was on vacation. I sat on my couch and cried. I felt absolutely hopeless. Like a scene from Soul Food, Stephanie tried to give support, but I felt like a failure nonetheless. I simply did not know what was going to happen next. A few days later, I was back on the grind. Miles Jackson Palmer was on the way, and tears don’t move bill collectors. By His grace, I secured a management position months later. My supervisor had convinced me to apply even though I had severe reservations about my chances.
Still, in the present day, my work-life balance was challenging to say the least. Sure, I was able to secure some stability on the financial front, but emotionally and mentally I was struggling. And with two children, the stress roared down like an avalanche. I was trying to fulfill my duties as a professional at work while also going above and beyond as a father. I was cracking. I had long stopped attending church. Truthfully and selfishly, I tried to use the weekends to recharge – I didn’t want to go anywhere! However, at the behest of my wife, I attended a men’s group that met 1 Saturday per month as an exercise of fellowship and ministering to one another. During a group conversation – I cannot be ashamed to admit – I broke down into tears. I shared my testimony with the group. My feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, fear, and frustration. And then an older gentleman told me something that flipped my thinking on its head: Never let someone make you feel ashamed for being a father to your children.
Damn. It was that simple, but the surrounding noise in my life made me susceptible to self-destructive thinking. I was trying to live up to a misguided image that society conditioned me to be, and not what my children needed me to be. I was depreciating my self-worth because I was conditioned to think responsibilities aligned with the matriarch secondary to those of the patriarch. That is foolishness, as both are equally important to promote a strong, healthy household. The church elder told me I was uniquely equipped with both paternal and maternal instincts. And I should not feel less than a man because of it. Those words, as straightforward as they were, struck deep inside my core. That day began to change everything for me.
Recently, Ava had a minor accident when she fell off her scooter. My daughter tends to be emotional and has a flair for the dramatic – that’s just her personality. A couple of family members attempted to console her, but the tears were flowing with no stoppage in sight. So, I intervened, scooped all 3+ feet of her lanky frame into my arms, whispered into her ear to relax and promised I’d sit next to her at bedtime while we listened to Kenny G. One minute later, no more tears, and all was good. Do not be mistaken, children are very observant. So, I have to believe all those nights I spent training her to sleep through the night as a baby (even keeping a log), administering her daily breathing treatments, getting her washed and clothed in the morning for school before dashing her off to school, and everything else that arrives with fatherhood – it created that father/daughter bond that is magical. And I never stopped being her protector; I still honor requests to sleep on the floor beside Ava’s bed until a thunderstorm passes. Or pop up at 2:32 a.m. to sooth Miles because he is having a bad dream. Never let someone make you feel ashamed for being a father to your children. And never let yourself feel ashamed for being a father to your children. The other day, Ava wrapped her arms around me and said, “I love you Daddy.” The sound of her voice was so genuine, innocent and pure – I wanted to cry.
Back in the recesses of my mind, the concept of being masculine; fatherhood has torn down all that nonsense and reinforced what being a man should be. It is okay to feel sad. It is okay to feel vulnerable and express emotion. It is okay to cry. Far too often, men hold on to hurt, fear, and anger until it erupts in a negative fashion. We’re human and these feelings are natural. There isn’t any shame in that. If you are in the struggle, seek out other men that share, have shared, or have knowledge regarding your struggle – sharing your testimony can be seriously therapeutic. I also meditate to alleviate stress. Sometimes, I just disconnect from the world, sit in the dark, and listen to raindrops playing on my Google Mini. A work in progress, I am reintroducing the constructive activities that I love to do – writing this story is one of them. A man doesn’t necessarily possess the attributes of a father, but a father undoubtedly needs to be a man. Because whether a man is changing a diaper, helping with homework, or reading a bedtime story; a man does so without hesitation to facilitate the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual strength required for his children to succeed in a world when he is no longer here. And there is no shame in that.