The poison of masculinity is often the way we men treat ourselves. Long before a branch we can plot on our family tree, many of our male traditions were a matter of survival. Being a father meant unrelenting sacrifice for the good of his family, spending every bit of energy in pursuit of food, protection, and warmth. It meant being strong and stoic; not showing a single crack in resolve…as any sign of weakness could be an invitation for danger. Fathers had to be self-sufficient, able to solely accomplish all that was needed in order to keep competition and threats at arms length.
The times have changed but the responsibilities have not. And so the self-inflicted expectations persist. Whether by nature or nurture, the hard-working, unemotional, isolated male archetype lives on.
Many families will never see their father leave for work. He’s up and off while they sleep, making widgets, shuffling paperwork, or otherwise laboring for others. He’ll rarely experience the pride of placing his day’s labor directly on the table for his family to eat. He’ll often feel insignificant, wondering whether he’s making any impact at all. If he’s really “successful,” he’ll work longer and harder, watching work from a device in his pocket. He’ll keep chasing the ghost of comfort; a bar that changes each time his family adjusts to a new lifestyle. His can feel like a Chuck-E-Cheese life, where he cashes in his valuable time for meaningless tokens and trinkets…but he loves his family and has been taught to sacrifice for them, so he exchanges freedom for comfort and meaning for money.
Despite this growing access to work, a father can feel like he never checks the box. He’ll pull into the driveway with a longer list of things to fix, bills to pay, emails to read, behaviors to remedy, practices to attend, decisions to make, and problems to solve. He won’t let how he feels become the priority, because he feels a responsibility to be the steady calm in the storm. He’ll jump head first into the screaming cycle, losing track of days and feeling as if the perfect man he’s supposed to be…the one he remembers seeing in his father, is pulling ever further away from his grasp. He’ll take a day off to recoup. Something for himself. Time to get away, only to fill it with guilt for not working hard enough or being selfish. His can feel like a failure-ridden life, wherein each of his problems is inflicted by his own flaws…but he loves his family, so he clings to the granite-clad facade and lets the waters rage behind.
A father doesn’t ask for directions, even when he knows he’s lost. A friend in “father-ese” means a fishing trip, woodwork, or football…shared interests that won’t dig uncomfortably deep. He withdraws from real conversations with anyone, even his wife. The truth is that he wants her respect even more than he wants her love…and he’s afraid talking about his flaws would cause her to lose both. His raised chalice of success belies the cracks in the dam, and so he will forever hold his conversations on the emotional porch…because when a man lives in isolation, his house is almost always a mess.
It’s easy to laugh at the simple, compartmentalized, male mind. It’s fun to joke about our quirky and superficially predictable nature. The truth is that, in a rare moment of public reflection…usually as they near the end of their journey, you’ll find a father has a much greater depth of complexity than he ever lets on. He finally accepts it was wrong to hide, but it’s not his fault; it was the way we’re all taught. We’re taught to love you enough to keep our insecurities from you, so that you feel safe in our superhero grasp. We’re taught to fight our battles alone, so you can’t be hurt in the crossfire. We’re taught that boys live and men sacrifice.
Chances are, your father sacrificed far more than you ever knew. Thank him for it, today.
Happy Father’s Day.