There’s a mask that is forced upon our sons.
My son and I watched the trailer for "The Mask You Live In," a film by the producer of Miss Representation. Afterwards, he said, “Wow, I wear that mask everyday.”
Deep down, I knew the mask was there. I had known this for some time, in subtle hints … fewer kisses, less hugs, the pulling away in public. All mothers experience this with their sons, right?
When I first learned I would have a son, my first thought was, “Well, I don’t know what to do with a son!” I had come from a family of girls. I had babysat only girls. And I was a feminist.
I married the man who would cry in front of me. He was the one who understood why I didn’t want him to open the door for me or unlock my passenger car door first (Remember those days?). He was the cook, and I was the handywoman.
So, when my son was young, I began teaching him to be compassionate. I stressed the importance of his feelings and the feelings of others. He also had the best role model in his father.
In my feminist frenzy, I bought him dolls and dressed him in neutral-colored clothing. I endured comments like, “What a sweet, cute girl! How old is she?”
While I tried to instill in my son a love of all kinds of toys, I was awakened to find that he would still gravitate to toys with wheels. He discarded the doll, and his fancy turned to Thomas, the Tank Engine. This began to chip away at my original views of feminism.
His best playmate was a girl much like himself. They loved doing things together. Toddler role-play can tell you so much. When we visited her home, my son would cook up meals in her mini-kitchen … just like his daddy. But once the dolls and the stroller were found, he immediately tossed the doll and raced the stroller around the house.
I worried a bit about this when his sister was born, but he surprised me. He became my daughter’s big brother and a mini-daddy.
Last spring, I taught a pinhole photography workshop at my son’s middle school … the periods before and after lunch. The art room faced the school courtyard where the middle schoolers would gather after lunch. This became my fascination. I watched intently as my son and his classmates taught me an anthropological lesson.
My son would skirt the group of popular boys. He was happy but seemed slightly detached. Every now and then, he would mix with his friends and joke. Once the workshop was over, I talked to him about what I observed and my own middle school days.
I should preface this with my son’s rocky middle school experience. As a mixed race kid, he has taken some teasing and bullying.
It came to a climax when he attempted suicide in seventh grade. Our family has rallied around him, and some of his friends too, but school and its social and academic pressures still haunt him. He has a pathological fear of school.
“That’s what going to school does to you,” he said. “Going to school with all these kids makes you want to be cool.”
“What makes a ‘cool’ person?” I asked.
“Being muscular, big, sporty. Funny, sometimes. Having all the attention, but in a good way,” was his response.
“What kind of person would you be without the school pressure?” I asked.
“Which is … ” I prodded.
“Sympathetic, caring and loving,” he said.
“Would you be made fun of if you were that person?” I asked.
“No one thinks they are (bullying), but subtle things hurt your feelings,” my son admitted.
There he was … my boy, the one who buys food to hand out to the homeless man outside the shop, the one who asks for donations to the SmileTrain for his birthday, the one who comforts his sister when she is crying.
We have since built a support structure around my son with good friends, his family and mental healthcare. I see him growing more confident. He’s not afraid to kiss me in public or show me the affection that we all need.
Watching my feminism change from the idealistic, rigid structure of my youth to a more realistic portrayal of life, I began a feminist project this summer, shooting photographs of friends and others to define the word “feminist.” It began as a way to change the culture of women in politics for my daughter, who wants to be president someday. I wanted my daughter to see the women and the men who wanted the same for her and her generation.
But upon seeing this side of my son, I realized that there is an equally important goal in being a feminist … the support of our boys, not only to see strong women, but also to be emotionally strong men.
My son sees the “badass” side of me, but I also see the delicate dance he must execute to survive in school. It is time for a change. Thank goodness, a movie will take on this challenge in a way that can feed the masses.
Then, my son can remove his mask and be himself.
Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?