Et tu, American Psychological Association? If anyone was going to hold the line on masculinity’s being a psychologically healthy phenomenon, this descendant of social workers would have hoped it would be mental health professionals. Instead, the APA released guidelines for treating the traditionally masculine, those recognizable by their “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence,” as problems to be fixed.
Flipping through this report was eye-opening, as well as hair-raising. In those pages, male behavior reads like a social pathology. That’s certainly one way to view half the world’s population. In the past, I might have noted it’s not a particularly constructive way. However, given recent trends related to American men and boys, destructive might be a better descriptor.
The first three times I was pregnant, strangers — overwhelmingly men — expressed sympathy when they heard I was carrying girls. To a man, they sounded convinced I was about to take on the harder, unenviable job of having to raise and protect a daughter in 21st-century America.
I wasn’t fazed by that prospect. Hailing from a family tree full of sisters, I felt fully prepared to raise strong daughters. It wasn’t until last spring, when I learned that baby number four would be a boy, that I experienced my own very real fear.
Mothering a Boy
While I could have mothered a fourth daughter in my sleep, I realized I had no idea what to do with a little boy. Sure, I had observed boys at preschool and their penchant for dirt, trucks, and running around, but that felt inadequate. How did those boys eventually become admirable men?
I want to raise a righteous and courageous man, who stands up for what he believes and protects those who are weaker. However, getting from point A to point B isn’t exactly obvious — at least, not to me — and while I anticipate asking my husband plenty in the coming decades, I’d admittedly have felt more comfortable if I’d had a prior base of knowledge.
Friends advised me that my son would let me know what he needs, and I have no doubt that’s true. My girls always have. But I’m also acutely aware that he’ll face different life challenges than will his three feisty and independent big sisters.
While it may be true that raising a son was historically easier, I doubt that’s true today. This is the Era of Girl Power. My daughters are constantly told they can do and be anything they like, and not just by my husband and me. Our culture applauds them, especially when they express interest in traditionally male-dominated activities like math and sports. I’m happy to let my girls follow their interests wherever they may lead.
For my son, though, I worry. Campus rhetoric and the media are filled with talk of “male privilege” and “toxic masculinity.” Those are heavy charges to lob at a boy the size of a doll. But I fear that, like guided missiles, they are headed his way.
Regardless of what my son does or how he acts — and I intend to raise a man who loves and respects women — I fully expect he’ll attract blame from certain quarters for the sin of existing while male. Consider that some women consider it justifiable to abort simply because they’re carrying boys. Or that it has become acceptable to suggest castrating and feeding white men’s corpses to pigs, to blame all men for the bad behavior of a few, or to write about dressing down your (presumably kind) husband after deciding you “hate all men and wish all men were dead.” Even corporate giant Gillette is now marketing men’s razors with a short film inspired by the notion that most men are pigs.
I would be incredibly uncomfortable with such battle cries being aimed at any demographic group, let alone one that accounts for half of humanity. I’d call it sloppy thinking, but it’s worse than that. It’s more like guilt by association on a global scale, and to have the American Psychological Association pathologizing “traditional masculinity” foreshadows bad things about psychology’s increasingly politicized and less healing-oriented future.
The APA Shouldn’t Tell Me My Son Is Inherently Damaged
I don’t want APA members or anyone else telling boys they are inherently damaged. I don’t want my son and his future friends shouldering blame for centuries of the patriarchy’s perceived crimes –– things they weren’t alive to witness, let alone perpetrate. I certainly don’t want them being asked to leave a public playground because another mother wants to host a girls-only playtime to compensate for decades- or centuries-old injustices.
Must every situation be treated as a zero-sum game? This isn’t how it should be. There has to be a way for American society to properly support girls and women without overcorrecting and shaming, excluding, or promoting disdain for boys and men. Every person has unique strengths and weaknesses and an individual history. We must remember that as we teach the next generation how to treat peers and what to expect from interpersonal interactions.
As a society, we need to do better. For the sake of my son and his whole generation, I hope we can.