It Happened to Me, So I'm Told...
Mystery shrouds the male contributor to my genetics. At least so far as I’m concerned. He was out of my life before I could have reliably picked him out of a line-up of two. Abusive, my mother informed me, when I was old enough to wonder about it. My mother’s track record for veracity being what it was, I had no reason to doubt her. I’ve gone back and forth throughout life over whether and how much this particular factoid matters — when I thought about it.
My mother went on to remarry twice after leaving my biological father. Her second husband (I’ll call him Howard) was a WW II veteran, hewing to the generally accepted hyper-masculine notion of what a man should be. He also believed children should be seen and not heard. My hyperactivity and communicativeness awakened his propensity for violence early and often. I was thirteen when my mother finally had enough and cordially invited him to leave and not return. The scars — physical and otherwise — have faded with time.
I did not see my mother’s third husband coming. I’ll call him Ben. I was fourteen at the time. So, if you’re doing the math then, yeah. Ben crossed my radar — unexpectedly — less than a year after Howard left with the contents of a single suitcase. My mother and Ben married after the briefest of introductions to Ben’s family of five children. On Friday, I had one sister by adoption. By Sunday night, I had four sisters and two brothers. Let’s call it an adjustment — one I handled, I confess, with less than perfect grace.
Fast forward a lot of years and I find myself occasionally wondering how things might have been different if I’d had a consistent, present, and positive male role model. Would I have emerged better…or worse? Is it self-serving rationalization that most days, I tend to give my mother more than the benefit of the doubt? I tend to give her high marks for her strength and the perceptiveness to know what I needed most of the time and to be able to provide it.
Parenting and Gender in the 21st Century
Unless you’re still hunkered down at home, post-pandemic, you’re painfully aware of the runaway change and multiple tectonic shifts in life as we’ve come to know it. It’s actually been going on for a long time, but it’s getting hard to ignore, isn’t it? One of those shifts is the level of opprobrium hurled at men, these days — often though not exclusively by women. Is a lot of it deserved? My own experiences with “father-figures” suggest some perhaps most of it is.
At the same time, I know a long-term neighbor (a single father) who is raising his daughter sans mother. I won’t go into the “whys.” Exception rather than the rule? Unquestionably. But for most of the same reasons women adjust and cope in the absence of a father figure, my neighbor seems to be coping in the absence of a mother figure. His daughter is a communicative sprite, well-spoken and well-adjusted. Perhaps parental competence and the importance of gender role models is less a matter of inherent strengths and more a function of desire, in the face of necessity.
Lately, I’ve been wondering how many other tribal myths embedded in western society have gone unquestioned for too long. Hallowed by tradition, perhaps they masquerade as “wisdom,” whose validities have traditionally fallen under the heading of “needless to say,” but maybe aren’t, anymore. I have a list and perhaps you do, too.
In times of profound change, traditions whose validity has been accepted as true become truly open to re-examination, if we but dared ask the right questions. This is at once an opportunity for growth and for error. How much self-serving rationalization has most of us stuck in paradigms that don’t match our times? It’s a rhetorical question applicable not only to gender appropriate roles, but our lives in general. I leave you to answer those questions for yourselves.