A few weeks ago, I came across this Achewood comic strip via the No Context Achewood Twitter account, in which Ray (the cat in the chain and glasses) asks Roast Beef (the other cat) if he ever wants kids. “Seriously!” says Ray, “You ever picture a little one on your knee, same face as you?”
To which Roast Beef replies: “I see you been readin’ my nightmare journal.”
Last week my partner and I found out the gender our gestating child is going to be assigned at birth, and ever since the ultrasound technician turned to us and said: “I can tell you that this little person is going to be a little male person,” I've not been able to stop thinking about that strip.
Before Edie got pregnant, I always assumed that if I did have a child, I’d want a girl. I’ve been told boys have a tendency to pee directly into your face when you're changing their diapers, so it seemed like with a girl, at least you'd be starting out learning how to change a baby on Easy Mode; plus there's a broader range of cute clothes in which it’s generally considered socially acceptable to dress baby girls up.
In a recent essay, I noted how, according to Simone de Beauvoir, masculinity is forged, at least initially, through little boys being denied a certain measure of affection by their parents, with the aim of somehow “toughening them up.” While that’s not something I’d repeat unreflectingly when it comes to my own children, it’s hard to escape the different ways one assumes one ought to treat male and female infants — stuff that operates unconsciously, right up until it doesn’t. Would I demure from giving a baby boy kisses on his little forehead? Would I start lecturing him on the extra responsibilities he’s going to have to take on ‘as a man,’ even as I whoosh him in the air like an airplane? I don’t find it easy to either express or receive affection at the best of times; what if I’d be a horribly cold and distant father to a son? Overall, having a little girl seemed like it would be a lot more fun.
But since Edie's been pregnant, I’ve (quite understandably) not been able to stop envisioning what fatherhood will be like. And I have to admit that whenever I’ve pictured myself with a child who is my child, I’ve pictured that child being a boy. A little one on my knee, same face as mine (I’m probably just getting ahead of myself because ultrasounds are at best vague, but I swear that I can look at it and tell that he really will have a very similar face to me).
And in a way, that’s the dream, isn’t it? This is what parenthood appears to promise us all. I realize this is highly unlikely to be how parenthood actually works, but having a boy feels like an excuse to relive my own childhood, only make it good this time — to encourage him in everything I wanted to do, but never dared to; to understand him on a level that, I always felt growing up, my own parents never could understand me. A second self, that I can form into being a far more happier and more successful person than I, personally, have ever been capable of being.
But having a son can also, as Roast Beef realizes, seem like something out of a nightmare. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but men in this society are... often really not very good people. We’ve had a really hard time deciding on a name for a boy, because for the most part, whenever we've found one we actually like, we've realized that it's also the name of some notable asshole. Oh not this name, that was the name of a teacher who was really patronizing to me; oh, no that one — that’s the same name as a close friend’s terrible ex-boyfriend. Names tend to pick up a history, and when it comes to men’s names, that history is typically highly ignominious.
If you’re not careful, masculinity can turn what could once have been a perfectly viable human being into a selfish, violent repository of infantile neediness and poorly repressed emotions.
It’s a bit of a complicated issue because obviously I am a man, and I’m generally very happy being one; I think there are lots of good things about being a man and masculinity in general. If nothing else, most people born male are pretty lucky to have been so — accident of birth provides us with a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the world that we might otherwise lack. As Homer Simpson once put this point before reaching into the kitchen cupboard for his “Nuts and Gum” (slogan: “Together At Last!”): “I’m a white male, aged 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are!”
But then, if you’re not careful, masculinity can turn what could once have been a perfectly viable human being into a selfish, violent repository of infantile neediness and poorly repressed emotions, whose shoddy personal hygiene is a clue to the contempt in which they hold everyone else around them. “Toxic” can seem overused as an adjective with which to accompany “masculinity,” but this is perhaps just because of how extremely appropriate it is: too often, masculinity can present itself as a sort of seething poison, a noxious stench which insinuates itself everywhere; a malignant parasite that tries to make everything beholden to it. Even the express intention, by those who bear it, to escape the worst aspects of masculinity seems all too often to repeat its excesses — every “not all men” man is trying to seek an exemption for themselves; every self-described “male feminist” is probably just trying to get laid. The “nice guy” will storm out of the room and make you follow him if you fail to acknowledge how nice he is being . For men, failing to be good often seems like the easiest choice at every step.
Obviously there’s a caveat here because who knows, maybe as soon as my child is able to talk they’ll tell us we’ve got everything wrong, and they’re actually a girl. That would present its own set of parenting challenges. But assuming he sticks with the gender the ultrasound technician told us he’s going to be given: How can I stop my son from growing up to be a total prick?
When I asked this question, only half-jokingly, to people on the internet, the serious answers tended to coalesce along the lines of: “make sure he knows that emotions are valid,” or “being kind is more important than being smart.” This seems like good advice: but the question, of course, is how to foster it. Masculinity, after all, appears to be pretty much defined by the deliberate stunting of a child’s emotional development, just as a bonsai tree is cultivated by stunting its growth.
As a father, there will be some things I can do to challenge this, like being a positive male role model who, even if he does (I admit) tend to express himself emotionally by writing more than he does by voicing his feelings, will at least always help look after the other people in our house. I can provide a range of playful activities — cooking and cleaning, as well as fighting and trains — and encourage him to make friends with little girls. By doing this, perhaps I can help my son embody a form of masculinity that doesn’t also stink up everyone else’s lives around him. But even as the boy’s father, there's only so much I can do. There is a whole world out there, beyond his future family home, that will — just because my son is a little boy — reward him for some behaviors and punish him for others. Over time, who knows what the effect of this might be?
In his essay “Education After Auschwitz,” first given as a radio address in April 1966, Theodor Adorno identifies the inability to express our emotions as one of the key problems facing modern Western societies. The reason for this is that we have an education system that fosters a certain ideal of “hardness,” which encourages children (especially male children) to repress their emotions, and to unthinkingly “play by the rules.” With this repression comes a lack of compassion for others: “Whoever is hard with himself earns the right to be hard with others as well and avenges himself for the pain whose manifestations he was not allowed to show,” Adorno writes. And so, people for the most part are rendered utterly cold: “Deep within themselves they must deny the possibility of love, must withdraw their love from other people initially, before it can even unfold.” They think only rigidly, fetishize technology (and the possibility of technological, as opposed to political, solutions to their problems), and pursue their own interests at the expense of everyone else's.
For Adorno, such “coldness” and “hardness” are very serious matters indeed: because their prevalence is what made it possible for “normal” German people — many of whom had by the time Adorno wrote his essay been assimilated back into the mainstream of German society — to help, whether actively or through sins of blindness and omission, to perpetrate the worst genocide of the 20th century. And their continued existence, not only in Germany but in other similar societies, could in time lead to atrocities just as bad or, if such a thing is not too crass to imagine, worse.
Against this, Adorno claims that “the single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is Mündigkeit by which he means a sort of intellectual maturity (the term is sometimes translated as “majority,” in the sense of no longer being a minor in age), or “the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” In other words, Adorno thinks our children need to be educated not to repress their emotions and follow the rules, but to be their own people, to think for themselves.
I’m engaged in a project far less consequential than Adorno was (helping West Germany adjust to democracy and prevent another genocide). But I still think, on however small and individual a level, his essay can constitute good parenting advice.
In order to be a good person, my son will need to be in touch with his emotions — as well as those of others. He will need to grow up into a sensitive and kind sort of man. But in order to escape the various impositions of the bad world in which we live, this is not all my son will need. He will also need to be able to think for himself. That way, he will be insured against becoming who everyone else wants or assumes him to be. My son will need to grow up to be his own man. He will need a healthy contempt for authority's expectations; he will need to be at least somewhat uninterested in following the rules.
In other words, if I want to escape the nightmare possibility of my son growing up to be The Wrong Sort Of Man, I’m going to need to both encourage and allow him to be his own person. And so, I suppose, I need to forget about that little one sitting on my knee with the same face as me. I need to let my son grow a face of his own. I love you so much already, wee lad. I can't wait to find out who you are.