Man Up

#InternationalMensDay has been the rightful target of ridicule. A firmly established, if wobbling, patriarchy makes the notion of a day specifically for men an utter irrelevance. Isn’t every day is International Mens Day?

But whilst Yes, All Men is the cry, some people have taken this hashtag to point out that the very idea of masculinity still needs to be challenged, to make the very valid statement that many men still feel trapped by the notions of what it is to be ‘a man’ that are pushed at us day after day after day.

Man up
Sit down
Chin up
Pipe down
Socks up
Don’t cry
Drink up
Just lie
Grow some balls, he said
Grow some balls.
~ Samaritans by Idles

I have only ever been in one fight.

I say fight, it was more a push-fest until I got punched in the stomach and got winded. It was primary seven, I was being bullied and it all came to a head.

Picture the scene, a patch of grass just outside the school gates so we didn’t get into trouble for fighting in school, a few kids at the periphery shouting and cajoling two young boys. A few pushes, one punch, and I couldn’t breathe properly and doubled up, crying for mercy. It wasn’t a fight fuelled by anger, all I can recall was feeling a bit scared and annoyed at being made to do something I didn’t want to do – peer pressure sucks – and then embarrassed as everyone walked away laughing and mocking me, whilst I was left kneeling on the grass, sucking for air.

Later in my teenage years puberty brought with it a simmering anger that would, occasionally, peak and explode but I didn’t resort to violence against others. Instead punching bus stops became a wonderfully emo trait, but even that was mostly to show off and prove that I was a man because violence was something MEN did and I was a MAN. Right? It was also a good way to get attention focused on me. I was massively selfish as I grew up and it was years later before I figured out why and dealt with it (short version: I have a long standing need to feel loved and appreciated, and back then if it wasn’t obvious and evident, I didn’t recognise the love that people had for me so I acted out to get the attention that I craved).

And then there was the day I pushed my best mate off a stool.

I didn’t know it at the time, and boy oh boy would this double the guilt I felt later on, but he was struggling with coming out at the time. He’d been acting oddly, long walks home from the pub, that kind of thing, and that night I’d just had enough of what I perceived as attention seeking (seriously, I was a self-centred ass when I was younger). I’m not sure exactly what sparked my anger, if he said something, or someone else made a comment but the switch was flipped and next thing I know I’m shoving him to the floor.

I still feel the horror and guilt flooding back as I think back on that night. Today I’m very lucky to be able to say he is my best friend, that I love him dearly and I was so so proud to be his best man when he got married. Yet the legacy of my young male angst and anger is hard to brush away. What I still don’t fully understand is where it came from in the first place.

My own father is about the kindest hearted man I’ve ever known, I don’t recall him ever raising his hand to me as a child, let alone his voice. My sister was spanked once, one single smack, and it remains so notable that it’s become a family story. That one time that Dad spanked one of us!

I know I was so very lucky to have such tolerant parents, and as a role model my father is and continues to be the kind of man I aspire to become. That’s not to say I don’t get my quick emotional outbursts from the wind (shall I tell the story about getting a full glass of water thrown in my face? maybe another time…). Regardless, I know my childhood was blessed more with love than admonishment, and that on whole our family home was a peaceful one with lots of laughter and love.

Yet against the backdrop of my upbringing is the portrayal of how “men” should be that was/is played out in TV shows, movies, adverts, and newspapers. In those worlds men are tough, those men act, those men take control and dominate whatever activity is happening. There is a clear divide in the world between the things a man should do (if he chooses), and those a woman must do (because society has deemed it thus). Patriarchy to the max, especially in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up.

As a young man, unsure of himself, unsure of his place in the world, you do your best to try and fit in. You adhere to the rules that seem obvious as they are the ones propagated around you, you act a certain way, you adapt to your surroundings and pretty soon you aren’t sure who you are, or where you fit, or if there is even a place for you at all, it’s confusing and much easier to lash out at others than look inward. And so it was that bus stops became the enemy.

I read something about cliches the other day, about how the older you get the more you realise that they are cliches for a reason, that they hold more truth than your younger, world-challenging, sceptical self was willing to admit. It is all tied up in time and the realisation that YOU aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things, so the only and best thing you can do is look after yourself. After that, be nice to others if you can, and after that it’s all gravy.

The times they are a-changin’, sang Bob. And those words feel like they are, finally, starting to hold true (I bet every generation says this). The definition of being a man has been increasingly challenged over the past couple of decades, from the metrosexuals to the millenials, there is room to be a man that isn’t a boorish thug.

So what is it to be a man?

Man up, Sit down, Chin up, Pipe down, Socks up, Don’t cry, Drink up, Just lie, Grow some balls? I don’t think so. The notion of just getting on and coping with things, not communicating, dealing with everything all on your own, never telling anyone how you really feel, and never EVER crying, is so far removed from the man I am that I struggle with those who show these traits. The alpha males, the bragging, chest thrusting egos, they are not me.

I am a man. I have a beard and tattoos. I am fragile. I am full of bravado. I am a phony. I have a soft heart. I am 186cm tall (6’1″ for those at the back). I am a complete asshole at times. I love my sister. I still catch myself mansplaining (thank you to friends for pointing it out when I miss it, I really am trying!). I love my niece more and more everyday. I am a feminist. I am strong. I love my best friends and have told them so. I cry, happily, at old movies and at all the injustice in the world. I love openly. I talk about my thoughts and feelings.

I am more than my father’s son. Which is as it should be, as I am the product of both my upbringing. Call me a snowflake and I’ll show you an avalanche*.

There are so many choices we make as we grow. From the bullied child to the (overly) angst-ridden teenager, through my younger formative adult years, to the man I am today, I’ve made a lot of choices. Not all of them good, some of them have caused pain to others and I’ll never fully forgive myself for that. But I am proud of the man I have become, and the man I’ve yet to realise. I am happy and content with my masculinity.

My sister is getting married next year. I will cry the happiest of tears.

I am a man.