The bench

7 02 2014

This picture came up on Facebook this week, posted by a friend who (like me) lost her husband a few years ago, at a similarly young age.  Like me, she misses her husband with all of her heart.  And I knew when she posted this exactly who she wanted on that bench with her.

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The comments were both expected and surprising.  All the women named people they had loved, often mothers or grandmothers.  We spoke of our lost husbands.   One woman said she wanted to be with her autistic son – who is still with her, but she values his outlook and viewpoint so much that she would still spend her hour on the bench with him.   

The men all named people from history: John Lennon.  Ghandi.  Martin Luther King.  I know.  This is Facebook, not a statistical sampling.  And I hate gender stereotyping with a fiery passion.  It was still indicative to me of the kinds of attachments and relationships that society decrees acceptable for men.  It still isn’t safe for many men to say out loud how much someone in their own life means to them.  So they default to historical heroes that nearly everyone can admire.  And that’s safe.

Women are viscerally aware of wanting to be safe.  We live in a world where we often aren’t, and too many of us have terrible stories of abuse and assault, the very reasons that we will never feel fully safe again.  We live in a world of patriarchy and misogyny.

What isn’t mentioned nearly as often is that men also live in that patriarchal world.  Which sounds, superficially, like the Best of All Possible Worlds to be a man in.  The truth is that patriarchy confines men as well, by promoting rigid and limited ideas of what a Real Man is.

He is strong.
He is extraverted.
He is cisgendered.
He is heterosexual, has a high sex drive, and has sex a LOT.
He has friends, but he has no emotional need for them.  Patriarchy says that men don’t need to have emotional intelligence and therefore shouldn’t have it, because women are “better at that” anyway and they’ll do the heavy lifting.

The list could go on forever.  The gender stereotypes posited by patriarchy define limiting roles for women, and in doing so also limit what men are allowed to do and be.  If women are the ones who are emotionally aware, then any man who shows signs of emotional sensitivity is suspect; he must couch what he feels in nearly clinical terms in order for it to be acceptable.   If women are the ones who are naturally better with babies and children, then men aren’t allowed to connect with those same babies and children at the same profound level.

It isn’t that men don’t love and care and feel.  They do.  But think of what is so often presented in movies, advertising, television.  It is patriarchy that gives us the inarticulate sitcom heroes like the grunting Tim Taylor, or the emotionally incompetent Ray Barone.  These characters would be personally impossible to live with, but in the world of television they have loving and long-suffering wives, healthy children, and all the trappings of personal success.

This is what patriarchy prescribes.  Patriarchy says that in order to be successful at life, at being a Real Man, you need to fit inside these lines.  Step outside them and you will be wounded.  Your Real Man credentials will be questioned.  Your sexuality will be questioned.  Your gender identity will be suspect.  You might even be accused of actually being a woman, which in the patriarchy is the worst of all conditions.

I was not as aware of the patriarchy when I was younger.  I didn’t realize during the time I was married just how much my husband defied those patriarchal boundaries.   He had his own natural tendencies, and I encouraged them – he was an outstanding parent, probably much more natural at it than I was.  (So much for that “mothers are better” idea.)  And he loved more openly than any man I have ever known, which I also encouraged.  He had connections to friends  that I wanted him to nurture, and I pushed him out the door to spend time with them.

Our son saw those things, and I’ve seen him make them a part of his own life.  Changing the patriarchy is grindingly slow, the work of generations.  But I believe it has been happening and will continue.

I know that if my husband were still alive, his person-on-the-bench would have been his mother.  And he would have said so for all the world to see.

And my person-on-the-bench is him.

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