I am the mother of two young boys. I feel a great responsibility in helping them to grow into open hearted men. Luca, at eight years old, is just exiting the amorphous stage of early childhood, and is fully exploring what it means to be a boy. Some of this has required surrender on my part, allowing him to have toy guns and more recently, to even have video games, as a way of recognizing the culture he lives in and the reality of how, collectively, boys play.
I have begun to see the very beginning of the split between the masculine and the feminine taking shape in his mind. He identifies strongly with the typical male attributes of society. He is interested in money and in war. He is stoic and occasionally prone to anger, especially when he feels injustice. More recently, he has begun to tell me that he is “not spiritual”, and when I remind him that I, myself, am very spiritual, he tries to tell me that I am not.
What does spiritual mean to Luca, and why does he feel the need to reject the qualities he thinks it represents?
One of the aspects that has begun to fascinate me most in my inquiry around sexual identity is male vulnerability. I believe we are phobic as a culture around deep male vulnerability. Many of my female friends want more emotional intimacy in their partnerships. They want their men to access their feelings more deeply, to express more tenderness, to be more emotionally honest and raw. Yet those same friends still want their men to be “manly”.
What does “manly” mean? We expect our men to be strong. We want them to be confident, to work, to provide, to protect, be sexually capable (“good in bed”). One of the most interesting taboos that I have seen in the dating world is that we still, somehow, and for some reason, expect men to always pay the check. Why?
It is amazing to me how prevalent this taboo still is in the heterosexual dating world. Why do we hold onto the idea that a “real man” pays the bill at dinner? This act, which happens at the very onset of meeting, sets a dynamic at play that I believe we do not realize has long tentacles into the eventual relationship between a woman and a man. It sets the stage for the entire male/female polarity, one in which the male protects and provides, and the female pleases and nurtures. It can set the stage for the dynamic that often shows up in bed, where the male is the primary driver of sex and the woman responds. We are incredibly conditioned as women to respond to the outer signs of male “strength”. Why do you think that the wealthier a man is, the less important it is that he be handsome or even young to find a beautiful woman who will surrender her life to his?
And yet, if we fast forward past the stage of romance, the stage in which it perhaps feels amazing to be taken care of, and look into the long term stage of relationship- many women end up feeling “unmet” and emotionally lonely. So I have begun to ask myself what it means to unravel those expectations at the very onset of love. Am I myself ready to let go of my conditioning, of needing a man to appear “manly”, capable, care taking, providing, wealthy, strong, etc? Am I myself ready to meet male vulnerability?
Look, I am not here to provide social commentary on the whole Bruce/Caitlin Jenner phenomena, but I do believe that he is a marker of a shift that is ripe in our culture to unfold. In that shift, we will begin to see masculine and feminine as a spectrum, a continuum in which we all naturally gravitate into differing degrees of identification. Some men fall into the feminine, some women fall closer to the masculine, some women love men, some men love men, some love both, and onward. It’s a fine and infinite spectrum. I think that one day, when we are describing a man who is comfortable with vulnerability and tenderness, we will no longer accuse him of being “gay” but will instead call him brave.
That shift starts with us. If, at the onset of love, we expect men to take on these ancient roles, how can we also expect them to drop those roles when we want more emotional intimacy? It hardly seems fair. Do we not hold the key to unlocking the door to intimacy in those very first days that we meet? If we are willing to drop the projections and see the man as he is, what is possible then?
As a mother, I have serious motivation to figure this stuff out. I pray that Luca be able to grow into a man who is comfortable with his vulnerability and emotional honesty, because that, after all, is what spirituality truly is. He can play with the male archetypes as freely as his heart desires and I will not stand in his way- he can try on all the faces of the masculine in his play….. including guns and video games and all the rest- as long as he continues to know deep down inside that none of those aspects of the masculine are the totality or essence of who he is.
The key is in our hands. We can’t ask men to step into deep emotional intimacy without also allowing them to step away from the archetypal roles they are burdened with. If we unlock that burden, if we drop our expectations, if we stop asking them to be “men”, I think that the doorway will open more deeply to the heart. It is, at the very least, an experiment I am willing to try.