The Weight of Masculinity, Toxic or Otherwise

In our house, emotions were embraced. I was never told that “boys don’t cry”; it […]

Ben Maddison / 5.14.18

In our house, emotions were embraced. I was never told that “boys don’t cry”; it was never implied that men hide their emotions. When your dad is a professional opera-singing pastor-psychologist, and your mother a high-powered hospital executive, you get different messages than most about gender norms. As if you needed proof: my parents let me dress in a bathrobe and red-heeled slippers and pretend to be Wendy from Peter Pan until I was four. If Peter Pan is a woman (the incredible Mary Martin), why can’t Wendy be a man?

That freedom was cut short. “Boys can’t play with Barbies.” (Not even Soccer Fun Ken.) “It’s time to get you into sports.” (Even if you just wanted to draw, and write, and sing.) “Toxic Masculinity” found its way in.

Lex semper accusat. The Law always accuses.

In my parents’ defense, they had no idea what they were doing. “Toxic Masculinity” wasn’t a thing; they were enforcing the cultural norms of their (every?) generation. They just wanted my life to be easy, and conformity was key. Following the Law isn’t about anyone in particular but about how we all fit into the world around us. “Being a man”—with all its rights and privileges up to and including dating prowess, sports excellence, financial success, and military service—is the only safe way to live: the only way to find cover from the barrage of questions and criticism.

Maybe, then, you will be less surprised that this message—this “masculinity”—became a part of me that I didn’t even know was there. From locker rooms to office parties, masculinity became a Law lying in wait for the perfect moment to demand its fulfillment. A Law that, even though I found my own way to be a man, my own idea of what “masculinity” really was, could still crush me under the weight of its demands.

I was equally horrified and surprised when its target was a natural human function that I had little-to-no control over, and a function that grows more elusive as the days drift by.

That function is reproduction.

 [Insert “Reproduction” musical scene from the abysmal Grease 2 here to lighten the mood.]

Forget playing sports, hiding your emotions, being sexually aggressive, or embodying the prototypical “alpha male.” The full weight of the masculinity Law comes crashing down on this one, beautiful, God-blessed thing. Since the dawn of time, what “makes a man” is his ability to reproduce. His ability to build a family. His ability to multiply.

Suddenly, not being able to do something that 16-year-olds stumble into on a regular basis upended whatever version of masculinity I had developed.

This Law of Masculinity—the fertility or virility standardliterally separates the men from the boys. Suddenly, the littlest things are a reminder of one’s insufficiency. An ad on Facebook that reads, “Real Men Make Twins” sends you into a shame spiral (even though we all know that’s not how it works). The challenge from friends and parishioners that “You can’t understand [insert whatever you want] until you have children.” The uncomfortable looks from friends whom you love deeply and who happily (and with seemingly little effort) fulfill the Law of Masculinity, without ever picking up a baby book. Fulfilling the natural Law of Masculinity like generations before, never giving it a second thought—blissfully unaware. (Can you tell I’m jealous?)

National Infertility Awareness Week was three weeks ago. If you didn’t know that, don’t worry; it probably means you are not a member of the worst little secret club around. I can tell you that people are being crushed by the weight of this Law on a regular basis (1 in 8 couples), being criticized and critiqued by their clergy, colleagues, or friends—being told that they are less-than because they cannot fulfill this one, seemingly simple expectation.

I wrote about this topic more than a year ago, but it’s been almost four years since the peine forte et dure of the Law of Masculinity started its slow crush. There have been moments of hope, and light, and laughter. There have been moments of pain, depression, and anguish. The likelihood that my wife and I will ever have biological children of our own—made in that old-fashioned (or even new-fashioned) way—seems all but impossible. And even though I know that’s the reality, it still kills me every time I think it, or write it, or say it out loud.

But that’s what the law does, right? The Law kills.

It seems fitting now that, during the height of this death, my wife—who doesn’t particularly like The Mountain Goats—would discover “No Children” from their album Tallahassee. Time and time again, we would turn to John Darnielle perfectly naming the experience of a Law-induced-death. It starts so perfectly with the lines: “I hope that our few remaining friends / Give up on trying to save us / I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot / To piss off the dumb few that forgave us.” Nothing was going to save us from our predicament, no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned the intervention. Darnielle continues in the bridge,

I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die
I hope we both die.

When faced with the crumbling facade of an unknown expectation, in our tears and in our pain, all we could muster was: “I hope we both die.” And, “Let’s see a shrink.”

As difficult as it is, as much as I wish I’d never have to deal with it, as much as I’d pay or the things I’d give up to make it all go away, I thank God (to my amazement) that The Story—including our story—doesn’t end in death.

Therefore, we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5)

All the things that give us our identity, all the Laws that we fulfill, all these standards we set for ourselves (conscious or unconscious, written, or unwritten) must die so something new can live.

As Christians, I think we take for granted the extent of the Law and our captivity to it. I think we also forget that some laws make us more comfortable than others. Toxic Masculinity, or maybe even just Fine Masculinity, doesn’t seem so bad when babies are being born, and churches are growing, and couples are enjoying sex. The effects of the Law of Masculinity go unchecked because we are comfortable with them: we prioritize male leadership in churches (“as the Apostles did”), look for complementarian themes in Scripture (“submission”), and encourage Holy Sex. We are emphasizing what God wants, we say, all the while forgetting that these laws oppress us.

Just because the handcuffs are comfortable, doesn’t mean you aren’t captive.

So, a part of me that I love (a desire to have my own children) dies. And a part of me that I didn’t know I hated (toxic masculinity) also begins to die. And an easy life of meeting cultural and religious norms and expectations passes away.

But in that death, there is the promise of resurrection.

And that resurrection—our resurrection—is already in motion. It may feel like we’re in day two of the tomb—or feel like we’re drowning and there’s no sign of land—but we’re really in the early morning of day three—two drowning people being rescued by a person walking on the water.

Because this is what I know: it doesn’t take a “real man” to produce children. Having children doesn’t “make you an adult.” And not being able to do one culturally prioritized act doesn’t stop you from having the family God wants you to have.

In everything, fulfilling the Law doesn’t make you any less in need of death and resurrection.

At this very moment, I know that the child God wants my wife and me to have may very well be out there already, waiting for us. That is a sign of resurrection—because even under the burden of the Law, a sign of grace and love awaits those broken by it.

I can’t wait for that love.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:9-13)