Raising a Nontoxic Man

When my wife was pregnant with our first baby, we decided not to find out the gender and told people we would be thrilled either way. But we both quietly hoped it would be a girl.

For my wife, it was a matter of familiarity, having grown up with two sisters. My preference was both sociological — boys have more problems in school, are more susceptible to video game addiction and other tech-assisted antisocial tendencies, have an endless supply of abhorrent public role models — and personal.

If we had a girl, I figured, there was a good chance that my wife would wind up handling most of her gender-inflected issues, and I could be spared from the most painful and awkward phases; the word “puberty” is one I generally prefer not to think about. Raising a boy, however, would force me to re-experience, by proxy, my own adolescence — not always the happiest time of my life — while ushering me into the primary role of teaching him how to be a man.

I don’t mean “how to be a man” in the traditional sense of cleaning a rifle, closing a deal, or winning a bar fight. I confess to relative cluelessness when it comes to any of those things. But while I wouldn’t want my son to be versed in the behavioral skill set lately (and sometimes lazily) categorized as features of toxic masculinity, I also don’t want him to be a pushover. The ostensibly proper balance — confident and strong but not arrogant and aggressive, sensitive without being a crybaby — is subjective and murky.

If he gets hurt, physically or emotionally, what amount of crying is appropriate? If someone relentlessly bullies him, is he ever justified in fighting back? How vulnerably nontoxic should he make himself in a world that preys on the undefended — but whose opposite is the grotesque alpha-male caricature?

After four decades, I’m not so sure I know the answers. As a fiction writer living in a liberal enclave of Brooklyn, one would think I satisfy every condition of a modern man unafraid of his most naked emotions, but that’s not completely true. While I consider myself attuned to my inner life, my expressions of it tend to be a little guarded and reserved. I suspect that has a lot to do with the strictures of my gender, the cultural code mandating how emotionally performative men should be. Sometimes, I wonder how much I’ve internalized my even-keeled outward demeanor and numbed myself from authentic feeling.

And yet my behavior still strikes me as practical, the only way to ensure that, in life’s arena, no chink in the armor will be exposed to another gladiator’s spear. It’s facile to blame our current political climate for this dog-eat-dog mind-set. In fact it afflicts many men, and always has, no matter their station. Consider, for instance, how uncommon a sight a man weeping in public is for anything short of grief (or victory or defeat in athletics, whose warlike physical toll rationalizes catharsis). Edmund Muskie’s 1972 campaign for president was famously derailed after he appeared to cry in a speech defending the honor of his wife. (He later said his face was wet from melting snow, but the damage was done.) Just a few years ago when President Obama teared up while talking about the slain first graders of Sandy Hook, a number of conservatives mocked him.

To be sure, things are better now than when I was young. For all the talk of toxic masculinity, boys and young men today are permitted a far broader range of behavior and identity. It may be that my generational position, somewhere between the Gary Cooper and Timothée Chalamet paradigms of manhood, is the source of my anxiety; I haven’t fully sloughed off the antique value system I grew up with and have a hard time understanding how a son of mine would.

Our baby turned out to be a boy. My immediate apprehensions over his gender were displaced by the excitement of his birth, then the exigencies of diaper changing and 3 a.m. feedings.

But what helped more was his temperament. Our son, Angus, is an exceedingly happy and social baby, eager to interact with his parents and strangers alike. As the months passed and his tools for engagement with the world sharpened, so did his indiscriminate enthusiasm for people. He smiled at everyone we passed, at the curmudgeonly men on the bench on the corner, at the intimidating-looking guy on the subway blasting music on his phone — who, to my shock, smiled back. Once he could stand, he would Houdini out of the shoulder restraints in his stroller and stand, arms flung out like Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic, reaching out to pedestrians, embracing the world.

Last July 4, I took him to the neighborhood playground. Angus had recently learned to walk, so instead of squeezing him into a swing, I let him scamper around the jungle gym. My habit at the playground is to keep mostly to myself, mumbling small talk with the other dads only when not speaking at all would be more awkward. At 13 months old, my son had none of my reticence.

He toddled up to a few older boys, his eight teeth beaming, hoping they would play with him. They ignored him — few 6-year-old boys want to hang out with a baby — but he kept following them around, either too ignorant to understand he was being spurned or too resiliently good-natured to let it sink him.

He certainly won’t be able to maintain that degree of vulnerability his entire life. The cultural pressures of masculinity, the scar tissue of inevitable failures, the demonstrations of what happens to men who reveal weakness will make him more clenched, tensed, numbly severed from himself. In the meantime, though, I nurture his softer side, showering him with affection, encouraging him to hug and kiss, praising him more for his sweetness than his strength.

As Angus chased the boys around, I imagined giving a sentimental wedding toast for him a few decades hence in which I observed that, typically, the child sees the parent as a role model, but how on the playground that day, I thought of Angus as the one for me to emulate, an example of how to embrace with open arms a world that is often indifferent and sometimes cruel.

All my feelings for my infant son — and the inexorability of time’s passage, of life coming full circle — swirled together through this hypothetical speech, and I felt myself starting to well up, simultaneously watching my 1-year-old on a jungle gym while wondering who he would be as an adult. In my hazy projection, he had figured out how to be a man with a certainty that has thus far eluded his father.

The other dads were still nearby, and so, with my usual hackles raised, I didn’t let myself cry. But I almost did.

Teddy Wayne is the author, most recently, of “Apartment.”

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