“Man up,” they said. Man up and stop acting like a girl. Man up and hide those embarrassing feelings of yours. I wish I’d been a smarter mother. I wish I’d recognized the harm those two stupid, accusatory words would inflict on my sons. Man up. What the hell does that mean, anyway?
I allowed those words to slide, to permeate their fragile senses of self, and through osmosis, become a fixture in my children’s psyches.
My sons used to cry. They used to allow their eyes to dampen and their cheeks to flush. They would come to me and I would hold them until the pain they felt had passed. They used to smile in their photos. They would part their lips, bare their teeth and squish their gorgeous brown eyes together at the mere suggestion of saying “cheese.”
In so many little and big ways, the boys my sons used to be were replaced with stoic, serious, unbreakable beings who never had those supposedly weak, effeminate behaviors and feelings. By never saying otherwise, I let those gentle, honest boys die.
Why didn’t I understand that reproaching a boy for being himself, that criminalizing and assigning gender to their emotions and actions was as harmful as telling a girl she can’t do something because she’s a girl?
I knew it was wrong to tell a girl she had to be a housewife and a mother because of her genitalia, and I knew that demanding a girl to “act like a lady” was a shitty maneuver meant to shame a girl into performing a socially constructed idea of femininity. Yet, for boys and men, I failed to recognize how language, specifically the battle cry to “man up,” was equally restrictive and damaging.
It started when they were young. It was my husband, a military man who himself had been trained to see feelings as weaknesses, who modeled a brainwashed version of hypermasculinity. It was the elderly neighbor who scolded my son for crying when he fell while riding his bike. It was the Cub Scout leader, no doubt wrangled into the position by his wife, who was fed up with a den of vocal, unhappy Bear Scouts. It was their friends, their classmates, a testosterone-pumped coach and (of course) television and movies.
Like a house of mirrors, everywhere my sons looked, they were faced with a 2-D image of manhood that said “expressing pain or joy, being sad or being silly is what girls do. Man up!”
By fourth grade, the school pictures all mimicked mugshots. No more smiles. No more laughter in their eyes. By sixth grade, they couldn’t remember the last time they’d cried. By high school, they laughed at the boys who were less manly then they were.
When their grandfather suddenly died last year, they were hurt and confused. Because they no longer knew how to cry, they didn’t. Instead, they spent their nights awake, terrified of sudden death, confused about life. When I went to them they feigned their emotional strength, pretended, clumsily, that it was something else bothering them.
I stayed up with them. When I was away, I listened to them on the phone, talking them through the whirlwind of sorrow they undoubtedly felt, and letting them know, again and again — it was OK to grieve.
But these boys, they are young men now. One is off to college next month and the other is three months shy of turning 17. Their clay has been molded, their foundations have been laid, and their hearts, those once spongy, thudding masses of emotion, have been engraved with iron bars.
If I could do it again, I would cast out the evil spells that tricked my sons into believing that in order to be men, they could no longer hurt or express uninhibited joy. If I could do it all over — I would never let anyone tell my sons to man up, or any variation of that sentiment. I would never let their feelings be held captive by someone else’s ignorance.
But I failed them. So now all I can ask is that you, the moms and dads reading this woeful confession, please don’t fail your sons by allowing them believe that to be men, they can’t show the world how they really feel.
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