The trap of the Asshole/Wimp dichotomy

I was recently going through Facebook posts from a few years ago looking for speech-related milestones for Joanna. Back then, I posted something every night, just about, on my blog. That is astounding to me. Such a rate of posting is now impossible in my current life. But it was neat to see. I have to remember to print those all out at some point, as a record of my kids’ early years.

Having been reminded of the existence of my blog, however, I decided that I wanted to note some of my thoughts on a topic which has been occupying my brain (and heart) lately. And that is, our cultural definition of masculinity and how it emasculates men.

Obviously, these are my own thoughts, not based on research directly, but on my personal experience and on things I’ve read over the years.

One of the cultural vices society places on women is the Madonna/Whore complex, in which there are only two options for women: be sexually chaste (and ignorant) and thus maintain your virtue long enough to arrive safely at your wedding day; or claim and express your sexuality, and in doing so embody Eve’s sin, damage your value to any husband you might trick into marrying you, and reduce your chances of ever being truly happy to zero.

This post is not about that, but I mention it to demonstrate how it prevents women from experiencing or expressing their whole authentic selves, as well as setting them up for all kinds of pain in relationships. And the answer to the problems presented by the perpetuation of that belief system (given specific life by Freud, of course) is not to attempt to find a magic spot somewhere in the middle, but to walk away from the paradigm altogether.

Similarly, I think, men are presented with two options in our society, from the very beginning of their lives as male-sex-organ-possessing babies. I’ll call this the Asshole/Wimp complex for the purposes of this post. To be more accurate in the way guys who are perceived to fall into the second category are derided, I should really use the slang term for female genitalia, but will desist for the sake of politeness.

Many other people have written about this, of course. But it has recently struck me with force how the definition of strength for men is exactly the opposite of what strength actually is, in my opinion.

I think that two of the most important lessons human beings can/should learn are: a) how to take care of themselves, and b) how to ask for help from others. In our culture, however, asking for help is viewed as such a sign of weakness, that the messaging boys and men receive is that they should resist with all their might even being aware of what they need, let alone asking for those needs to be met. And in lieu of doing so, they become focused instead on what they want, and then those wants get redefined as needs, which leads to a destructive sense of entitlement that has sometimes terrible consequences for themselves and everyone around them.

Men don’t need to rape women. But they’re told that their desire for sex is so natural and so powerful that of course they can’t be expected to contain it in the face of the provocation of all the whores out there. (And yes, of course rape is about all sorts of things, but I think it originates with a sense of entitlement to take what the rapist wants, in an exercise of power.)

Human beings do need connection. We are social animals. But we elide our need for connection with the want of having that connection be made and maintained with a particular person in the way we want it. And we respond to that elision in different ways. Men who are socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes just take what they want because that is the tool they’ve been taught and the tool they’ve exercised. And that is the Asshole side of the equation.

And other men who have been socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes pretend everything is fine while burning with building resentment; or they entirely suppress their awareness of their own needs; or they attempt to redirect those needs into a channel that feels safe to them. And that is the Wimp side of the equation.

As I said above, I believe that the answer to the gender dichotomies presented by society in the polarized characterizations and expectations of men and women is not to try to find a place of balance in between the two extremes (which is truly impossible to do, and equally limiting). Instead, we have to walk away from that construction altogether. But doing so is incredibly difficult, and cannot ever be totally managed. Patriarchy is the air we breathe, after all.

I think it takes incredible emotional courage, strength of will, psychological fortitude, and consistently practiced self-awareness to reject these paradigms.

For me, self-reliance in men looks so different than it has been characterized: it can be seen in a man who can and will put in the effort to be self-aware using both mind and heart to gain that self-awareness; it can be seen in a man who can and does communicate what he needs and wants, accepting that no one person can meet all those needs and/or wants, or is obliged to do so; it can be seen in a man who will allow and encourage other men and boys to explore the full range of their humanity; it can be seen in a man who listens to hear and not to rebut the voices of women and girls; it is a man who will stand up for himself without knocking others down.

We need to be having conversations about what we need, what we want, and what will work in any given situation and relationship. And we have to honestly state those wants and needs before we can move to practical, fair, and balanced solutions to the inevitable conflicts we humans experience.

Men, please say what you need and want. And be prepared for the fact you may not get it. But it is SO MUCH EASIER to figure out what to do with all the relevant data on the table.

Thank you. This has been my personal PSA for the week.

Listening to anger

I get angry a lot. Sometimes the anger is apparent externally, and sometimes it is just simmering within me. Its arrival, regardless of its appearance, demands an instant response. And for me, most of the time that response shows up as criticism. Especially with my kids and my partners, people close to me.

Very, very often, shame follows on anger’s heels, and even mixes itself into my response, twisting it and shutting off the exits, making it hard for me to back down or change course. Because of the shame, part of me feels compelled to emotionally justify my feeling and my response to that feeling.

I get to where I feel pretty disgusted with myself. And then I wish for the impossible: if only I were a nicer person, a better person; if only I didn’t get angry, or I only got angry in a measured way in entirely morally justifiable circumstances.

But what if anger doesn’t truly demand instant action? What if anger is a messenger from within, a demand to pay attention not to the people in my external environment, but to myself? What if it is a clarion call for self-care? What if it takes anger to get my attention, because I’m so used to devaluing what I actually need in the moment?

Suppressed anger toxifies. Instead of flashing like lightning, it rises like gasses in a swamp, coalesces in the gut and drips down as a rain of bile.

I think of myself as an angry person, but I am coming to suspect that isn’t true: the anger speaks, over and over, attempting to get me to hear the message, but instead I react and then choke it (and myself) with shame.

So often the advice given about anger is to stop, count to ten, and then continue talking in a more calm way. This misses the effing point by about a mile. The stopping should be a chance to communicate with oneself, NOT to suppress one’s feelings.

Here is my goal for the month: a) notice when anger shows up; b) stop and ask anger what its message is, telling my kids that’s what I’m doing: “Hang on a minute, I have to listen to myself”; c) determine my self-care steps; d) ask for (or say) what I want (if that’s part of the self-care steps) and/or let my kids know what I need to do.

And in that communication with my kids, remember to give them the reason first and the request second. They respond (as do I) so much better when things are presented in that order.

I don’t want that acid to burn me, or my kids. Anger is necessary. But weaponized anger really hurts people. So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening.

Recovering from parental and partner mistakes

So, Ted and I have had an evolving but pretty consistent media plan since Hazel was born. We had originally decided no TV or movies for her until she turned 7, but we moved that back to 1st grade, which started when she was 6.5. When she was home sick over the past few years she was allowed to watch, “Microcosmos”, an almost entirely speech-free French documentary about bugs, which is actually pretty fascinating and beautiful. Even that was a lot of input for her: when she first started watching it she wanted us to be with her. When she was 3.5 and we were visiting friends she was introduced to “Pingu”, a cute Claymation series about a penguin kid and his family. We started letting her watch those this year, and then quickly decided they were fine for her twin sisters too. And she’s been allowed to play 10 -15 minutes of games on a phone/tablet/other device since she was 4 or so (drawing games, connect-the-dots, “Fruit Ninja”, and “Plants VS Zombies”).

Ted and talked about what to do once we had the twins, and we made a plan; that was, that this year we’d start Hazel watching movies, and the twins would be allowed to watch Pingu, but that we’d stick with the 6.5-year-old start for them for movies. We were comfortable with that plan.

This morning I made a partner/parent mistake, and brought up the possibility of watching, “Frozen”, about which all of our kids are nuts despite never having seen it, IN FRONT OF THE KIDS. Had Ted done that, I would have likely been pretty pissed off at him. Of course the kids exploded with glee, and even though we both were reluctant (I was already regretting my mistake), we felt locked into watching. So. We agreed on a 30 minute limit, and we sat down to watch it, pausing it once in a while to talk about what was going on. At 30 minutes we were in the middle of a tense scene, and decided to continue until a more peaceful moment. We did.

The twins clearly could not track, could not follow, could not understand. And Emily got scared to tears when Anna had snow fall on her head and then when she fell into a pond.

I felt like shit. *sigh*

So, we stopped at about the 40 minute mark, promising that we’d watch again in a week. The kids protested, quite vigorously. We followed through on our plan to get outside, which prompted more vigorous protestations.

On our walk around the block a few minutes later I apologized to Ted.

After more thought and a good couple of conversations, tonight Ted and I came up with another plan. Instead of just cutting them off at the pass entirely, or on the other side of the spectrum letting them watch the whole thing while regretting it intensely and risking really freaking them out (which happened to me when I was a kid, and I had nightmares from one Art Museum art horror series of shorts until after I’d graduated from college), we are going to let the twins watch a few selected songs, and continue watching the whole movie with Hazel only, when we have Mommy/Daddy/Hazel time (once a week). We’ll tell the twins the truth, that we made a mistake and realized that the whole movie is for kids older than they are, but that they can see the songs they love, and they’ll be able to watch the whole movie when they’re 6.5, like Hazel is now. And then we’ll work our way through the tears and shouts and recriminations which are likely to occur.

And I will use this as an object lesson to remind me of the critical importance of talking to my parenting partner about significant parenting choices. It is the right thing to do, the most respectful thing to do, and also the way that the kids get the best and most thorough parenting.

I told Hazel in a recent conversation that I am learning as I parent, just as much as she’s learning as she grows. She didn’t believe me. I told her that yes, I have learned a lot from her and will continue to do so. She immediately challenged me to give her an example. I reminded her of the sock example, that she had taught me that it’s ok to wear not just colorful socks, but UNMATCHING colorful socks, which I now do with glee. This, though a seemingly small thing, was a major victory for me, and I credit her example and inspiration. She was very pleased by that idea.

So that’s my plan, to continue to learn, and to be open to learning, as long as I am alive.

And I thank Ted for his understanding.

Being hard on myself, telling the full story

My dear friend M gave me an enormous gift today. We were on the phone, and I was crying about how hard parenting is, and how much worse at it I am than I thought I would be: specifically, the difference in how I usually interact with people (I am fairly good at being warm, loving, generous, thoughtful, communicative) and how I interact with Hazel (I feel I am mean, demanding, autocratic, insensitive, etc.) In fact, I feel two things: one, that being a mother is like being a teenager again, in that black fog of drama and difficulty; and two, that I too often find myself behaving like a toddler myself.

The other night when I was doing the bedtime routine with the kids I found a marble in the toothbrush bin and was sure that Hazel had just put it there (perhaps yes, perhaps no; it’s immaterial.) I reacted, picked it up, and threw it into the dining room. I wasn’t even actively feeling that mad, just reactive. Hazel, of course, got really upset, and demanded that I apologize. I refused, still in a reactive state. See? Toddler behavior. Ugh. I did apologize the next day, and told her I’d overreacted and it was not right for me to throw the marble. Of course, that afternoon Emily threw one in play, and so I had to say, “Emily, we don’t throw marbles in this house. Mommy did last night, but that was a mistake. Mommy didn’t make a good choice. But we don’t throw marbles.” She smiled.

So, I was relaying this to M, and she pointed out (as has been pointed out before) that I was being hard on myself. Yes, true. I’m good at that. But I still do it, because of course there is part of me that believes that I deserve it; I can stop being hard on myself when I stop making awful mistakes and only commit the small, easily forgivable offences. While we were talking about this I was getting the twins dressed and ready to go pick Hazel up. While I was putting Emily’s shoes on, I looked up to find that Joanna had brought me her coat from the hooks in the dining room. I said, “Yay, Joanna! Did you bring me your coat?” She nodded yes. I said, ” Thank you, that’s so great!” She grinned. Emily then went and got her coat to bring it to me. I was happy, and so were they. (That is, until I had to put pants on Emily. She hates that. But still, the transition to outside in the stroller went quite well overall.)

M pointed out that I had noticed the good things that the twins had just done, and told me that I need to do that with myself, too. I need to notice when I do good things, take note, and give myself credit. This is brilliant. It doesn’t mean that I’m attempting to praise myself into a better place or trying to cancel out the bad with the good: it means noticing the full picture, the whole story. It means, not focusing purely on the difficult things or wrong choices, but focusing on everything. It is being honest.

So, here are some truths: I don’t handle some stresses well, but I handle others just fine; I have good days and bad days; parenting is bloody hard work; as I learn it will benefit my children; and, I need to love myself and love my daughters, and we will figure out this family thing together.

Oh, and thank goodness for friends. They make the world go around.

Compassion and convictions; toddlers learning new things; food and communication

Last night’s thought: “Life is a dance in relationship between the comfort and clarity of adherence to one’s convictions, and the spiritual challenge in one’s surrender to compassion.”

Convictions and compassion are necessary partners. If you focus on convictions absent the lens of your heart, you can fall into the trap of becoming rigid to the point that being right is more important than being human. If you allow your compassion to slide into sympathy that then becomes an over-identification with someone else, you can lose your perspective and connection with boundaries and principles, and then you’re not helpful to yourself or to anyone else.

—–

This afternoon, Emily started running back and forth between the living room and dining room. She began to happily yell, “Go, go, go!” as she did so, in enthusiastic self-exhortation. That was infectious, so Joanna joined her for a while. Joanna is clearly feeling better. She’s still a bit croaky and wheezy, and still coughs, but she has her energy and smiles back.

Joanna has started to add the “k” on the end of the word, “book”. She’s also expanding her word repertoire. I can’t think of examples right now, but she’s naming more things when we read books, and I just notice her verbalizing more.

This afternoon Emily did something new, too: she got the play orange hard hat out of the dress-up bins, carefully placed it on the floor, stepped up onto it, and then jumped off. She’s been able to jump up with both feet for a couple of weeks now, but this was the first time I’d seen her jump off of something. She then followed that up by stepping/jumping/falling down onto me from the back of the couch. I’m glad she’s not yet 30 pounds.

—–

Food. We are learning. Slowly. I had the idea of having proteins around that Hazel likes so that if she doesn’t like the entrees we cook in any given week there are other options, either in the pantry, the fridge, or the freezer. So this week we’re going to cook an extra batch of the turkey pesto meatballs she loves and freeze them. We’ll get some pesto tilapia and freeze that too. We’ll get cans of tuna and salmon.

Of course, in the conversation I had with Hazel about it, I became irritated that she didn’t perceive or appreciate how we were working to meet her halfway, and instead greeted my suggestions with words like, “yucky”. And then I got started down the guilt-tripping path before I was able to pull back.

I am learning these ways of communication slowly, partly because I have internal resistance to making the changes I know are necessary, because my inner child just wants my kids to do what I say, dammit.

And this is where I need to be aware of adding compassion to my convictions, and continue to forgive myself for messing up. One step at a time…

balancing relationship and family needs; meditation class, punctuality, rehearsal

Today Ted and I tried to combine family time with conversation between the two of us. I am not sure how successful we were. The conversation was so interrupted it became very long and drawn out, and thus the kids felt they weren’t getting enough attention, and interrupted us, ad infinitum. It’s an issue partly because I work in the evening and he works during the day, and there is often a miniscule amount of time when we have the opportunity for conversation of whatever nature. I think that what we might need to do is tell the kids, “Ok, we’re going into the other room. Here is the timer. We’re going to come back in 15 minutes, when the timer goes off.” And then talk fast and be as efficient as possible. And then stick to the timer so the kids know they can trust it and us.

We had a mediation class tonight that went considerably over, and from which I really didn’t feel it was possible to depart in any way that was respectful to the group. But I had a rehearsal after it, and we had to get back for our babysitter, so both Ted and I experienced a fair amount of stress in the latter part of the class, worrying that we weren’t going to make it back on time (we didn’t). Even at that moment, I was, on some level, internally amused by the contrast between the worry I was experiencing personally about being late for my rehearsal with the peace and centering that was being cultivated in the class. I was about 15 minutes late in the end, but am usually punctual, so in balance it’s fine. But ironically, I was late for our last rehearsal, too, because I had been left off an email regarding a change of venue for that rehearsal. Next time, come hell or high water, I hope fervently to be on time!

Rehearsal was good.

Practicing cello, x-rays, conversations with various people, the nature of top-down heirarchy

I am gradually becoming more disciplined, I think as a result of getting more sleep and getting my daily balance/routine working better. So yesterday morning when my student was late rather than pulling out my phone and playing Scrabble or surfing the web, I got my cello out to work on the last movement of the Beethoven quarter, which goes pretty wickedly fast, and so is amenable to being worked on in small chunks. I only got about ten minutes in, but it was productive.

After that lesson I called up the bike shop and made our down payment for all the work we’re going to have done on the Madsen. That was an enjoyable conversation, including a discussion of lighting on the bike, and what sort of basket we can get on the front.

Then I took Joanna to get her hips x-rayed. Apparently babies born breach can sometimes have their hips out of whack, and so it’s something we just wanted to check out in the category of crossing t’s and dotting i’s. She didn’t enjoy the x-ray at all, but liked the fishy decorations at the place. I loved spending that time just with Joanna, with no other kid to jump in. She gestures a lot more than she talks, and having a chance to communicate with her in her way and at her speed helped me to feel closer to her. It confirmed something I’ve been feeling for a while, which is that I need and want to make individual time for the twins in my weekly routine. Joanna has a sweetness that brings tears to my eyes, and I want to experience the gift of that interaction now, not just when they’re in pre-school and I can send them different days.

After that I talked to my friend R who’s in jail. We’d been missing each other for about three weeks, as I can’t call him and he can only try to guess the right time for calling me. We talked about how the fancies and fears that people can develop in prison are like those that sometimes occur in the middle of the night, when you find yourself creating entire frightening narratives about something that might be happening, which are then dissipated by light of day. In jail, there is, in some sense, never any light of day, and it’s possible to get totally out of balance, having lost your perspective entirely. It was very good to talk, one of the best conversations we’ve had. I was glad to be able to make the time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how hierarchy is a structure in which a certain amount of distrust, anger, and a sense of betrayal is developed, and how antithetical it is to the family life I want to cultivate. I’ve been thinking about my OB’s reaction to my desire to give birth at home, and that she said I had betrayed her by not talking to her about it. She was unable to see beyond her mental box. And I think that has to do with the top-down approach so often found in the world of medicine. I view my health-care practitioners as members of my health-care team, but I am the person whose choice and agency ultimately matters most. It is a collaboration, or should be. That’s one of the things I love about naturpathic care: in that world it’s more likely that you’ll find partners in such a process.

I want each member of my family to learn how to think about each person’s needs, and the need to balance those needs. Ultimately, of course, Ted and I are responsible for our kids’ well-being, and that requires establishing boundaries and making some rules. But I think we’ve been working too hard, doing too much, and that we need to cede some of the work and responsibility to Hazel, include her in conversations in which we’re figuring out what to do for the day, for example, and in deciding how much work everyone’s going to do in the maintenance of the house.

Otherwise, we merely make her wait, telling her to be quiet as we figure out what’s going to happen. That doesn’t really work for her or for us.

Obviously, not every family decision is up for discussion by committee. But I think more of them are than we’ve been allowing.

Then, last night after I taught I went to get my hair cut and colored. The building in which the studio rents space was purchased last year by people who then attempted to kick out all the residents with 20 days notice, some of whom had been living there for decades. It’s all about money. They were prevented from carrying out that maneuver, but they’ve still won, making everyone leave so they can fancy up the building and charge triple or quadruple what was being charged before. I think it’s unethical. A longer but more humane process would have been to gradually renovate and increase prices after tenants had left. I also think that every building owner should be required to include 25% of the apartments or condos as low-income. Our societal segregation is one of the things that leads to lack of understanding and compassion, as well as to extreme injustice.

Despite the heavy conversation, it was nice to have my hair done, to sit in a chair and relax, to be responsible for no one but myself for an hour and a half.

Then when I got home Ted and I continued our ongoing conversation about how things are going in our family, and what we want to try next. I think I want to put up a sign in the kitchen as a reminder to me that, “Not Every Moment Should Be A Teachable Moment.” Not everything has to be fixed right then and there. In fact, not everything has to be fixed.

Hard to remember in the heat of the moment as Hazel assiduously sabotages what feels like every parenting move I try to make with the twins. Hard to remember, but important to remember.