Son, wait, let's put the patriarch's baggage aside...

Taylor and I just had a serious conversation about technology before he fell asleep. I gifted him an iPad and YouTube videos that demonstrate toys/games (parents know) is all he's interested in.

***

I said I was tired (I've had a terrible headache - I think due to staring at my work computer for a million hours a week) and out of nowhere he said, "tomorrow I'm not using any technology." .

We started talking about addiction (had to define it, talked about sugar, cigarettes, technology, etc.) then I brought up the example of parents at the park with their kids but completely ignoring them and being on their phones. He said I'm the only person who doesn't do that and it's strange that that is the case. I let him know it's not easy and I still think I can be better with giving him my full attention and not letting the phone get in the way of our interactions.

Anyways, to make a long reflection longer, we agreed that we'd hold each other accountable to stay off of our screens and be more engaged with each other. So we went back and forth with ideas and we have some picture drawing, bookmark making, card writing, etc. in place and I can't wait! He said something like, "you know what I realized? There's more things to do without technology than to do with technology!"

He went on to say, "Oh, I'm going to tell you to get off your phone when I see you."

And I thanked him for it.

***

In reflecting, I'm very much interested in the ways that fathers are taught to act as if they are king of the family, without help or plain old input from others in the family.

It seems pretty colonial - patriarchal - in that it centers the man solely due to his position and gender identity, without regard for the value that other folks bring. The idea that ideas are not welcomed is a very strong tool to control people and within the domestic space, we see it's toxicity by disempowered family members who have great insight and are living frustrated lives due to the patriarch's insecurities.

This is an instance where I just put my own baggage aside for a second to let something else happen. Now to see what comes of it!

On modeling healthy romance

As I engage in this work - anti-patriarchal masculine performance - more deeply and with more intention, I am constantly challenging the deeply-rooted notions of what it means to be a 'good man,' and even more: what does modeling that entail?

As my son creates space for me to come along while he grapples with his personal life, I find myself sharing examples of similar situations from my childhood that seem to resonate well - a lot of shit goes on in elementary school. He also remembers a relationship of mine that lasted half of his life and asks questions about that relationship, rightfully so. Since ending that relationship over a year ago, I've been mulling over how to bring other people into his life: is that fair to him? Is it right for me as a parent to have him see me in relationships that aren't with his mom? Is it best to remain single until he's living on his own? A few questions keep coming back to the forefront.

How can I protect his heart? Can I protect his heart?

Do I have control over what happens or how he engages with people I bring around him? I feel like I can at least control who comes around him and be explicit with them about the expectations I have for their interactions. I've done that before and it can get messy because people do what they want, both kids and adults.

When I'm hurt, he will be hurt. Whether or not he know about my pain, he still feels my energy and knows he won't be able to engage with this person who treated him well - let's just assume. Kids know and feel and love us parents so we can only protect so much.

Do I have to wait until I find the one before making the introduction?

I've been spending all year committing to making friends with people I'm attracted to rather than pursuing eating their face, etc. This has given me an opportunity to re-imagine this notion of having to be in a serious relationship before introducing someone to my son.

What I'm thinking about is how awesome it may be for a child to see his parent navigating the complexities of romantic relationships - not in such a way that it is over-informing the child of the parent's personal life but such that it allows for some great examples for a child - around coping with heartache and longing and still maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

While befriending really attractive people this year, I've also sought out examples of real life love that is healthy and not manufactured by Disney. I've had no luck. If we had that somewhere, I don't know how I'd feel about modeling this necessarily but we are here and now and it is possible that there is power in me doing it either way.

How nice would it be for my son to see me healing from difficult relationships and moving into new relationships?

My son is bound to face a bunch of crap from people he is attracted to and in those moments, what resources will he be able to pull from? I wonder a lot about men who I interface with - and myself even - who are just over being vulnerable with people they are attracted to. This could be why I'm just on this whole friend kick.

"It is too risky, it isn't worth the heartache, it isn't worth it."

I think this narrative could come from just not knowing what to do. Feeling stunted by the trauma. It is too risky, it isn't worth the heartache, it isn't worth it. I can't be mad at that reaction but I do wonder what it would be like if we had examples of processing these emotions and working through them to come out the other side healthy and whole and open to loving again in even stronger and more visceral ways.

What is the potential impact that seeing his dad perform healthy romantic love can have on my son?

He comes to me with questions about relationships. I know that my actions are much more important to him. Since he was an infant he has done things that I do before doing things that I say I do before doing things that I say he should do.

I don't smoke because I don't [like smoking and don't] want him to like smoking.

Same with alcohol.

Same with fast food.

Same with soda.

Same with violent video games [in front of him, (I'll save this for another post)].

Isn't first grade too soon in his life to be thinking about this?!

Absolutely not. 

If I can model all of these really important behaviors that have a significant impact on his physical and mental health, then what am I doing for his emotional health as it relates to relationships with people that he is attracted to? (Note: I believe mental, physical, emotional health are all one but I don't have language to talk about this just yet in this context.)

It would be naive for me to say that at his age he isn't attracted to people. It would be naive to say that he is too young to be attracted to people. It is probably fair to say that my life is more complicated than his so the relationships I enter are a bit more complex but it doesn't remove the overbearing importance that these things have on him and the people (other 6/7 year olds) within his various social communities.

I think we fear our children being individuals and want to own them more than set them up to make their own decisions and have agency in their worlds. I want that. I want him to be able to tell me he feels something and for me to not tell him he is too young to feel that thing. Especially when I remember becoming aware of emotions in my life and being confused by feeling like I was too young. We aren't doing that.

Superheroes love, too.

Why can we see images of superheroes fighting and be excited but we can't see them kiss?

Taylor and I have things. We learn from people around us and we begin to copy them and then before you know it, we add that thing to the list of mindless habits that we enjoy having together.

He is now 6 and a half (the half is important, parents know) and out of nowhere he has begun fake vomiting when people are kissing on television. I didn't skip a beat in joining him in that. I completely agreed that kissing on television is something that children shouldn't be seeing and shouldn't be enjoying for a while. It didn't take more than a few times laughing this off for me to step back and begin questioning, of course.

There are some fundamental questions here around hyper-sexualized cartoons. I have no idea why cartoons are kissing. I remember Bugs Bunny kissing but we are talking about a different type of kissing now. There are comical kisses and romantic kisses. Kids know the difference very early on and they react - as the images are constructed to elicit real responses from people. No surprises here.

I think mainstream America thinks about this in a pretty simplified way and that is: romantic kissing is bad for kids to see but we want them to see it because we want all of our kids to be heterosexual. Spongebob and Patrick can't even hold hands. Talk about masculinity. Back to the question above, which is, why can we see superheroes fighting and be excited but we can't see them kiss? This became abundantly clear when I began reflecting on how my son and I engaged with Spider-Man movies/shows/games.

In one sitting, we will watch Spidey defeat all of the villains and save the city and we would cheer him on and be excited and pay full attention but as soon as he goes to kiss Mary Jane, we would cover our eyes, fake getting sick to our stomach, turn away and cringe, etc. What is that about?! 

My thinking is that there are a few things happening here but I think the most important one is that I'm participating in helping my son construct this idea that men should be aggressive and fight and kill but they should not be emotionally attached, vulnerable, loving, caring and affectionate. That said, it does beg the question: is kissing then a good thing to have on television? Is it not a helpful tool to work against the extreme violence we see on TV? Does it add to the problem by just adding sex to the already violent screen? Either way, I cannot get rid of it. I cannot control what he does when I am not around, what his elementary school friends tell him, what he sees when he walks into a restaurant or a store where televisions are on.

So I just told him. Yup, I said I wasn't going to participate in that and he asked me why, naturally. I told him that I don't think we should cheer on people who are fighting and get disgusted when they kiss because kissing is a part of showing someone love and affection. He wasn't buying it. I then reminded him that we kiss each other, even though it isn't on the lips, it is a way that we show each other love and we want to ensure that we don't forget that men do that and it is actually a beautiful thing to show someone you love them but we aren't going to do that just because it is on TV, the same way that we aren't going to run around drop-kicking people at random.

He bought it...I think. I've learned that whatever I say, he will follow. A great power, that comes with great responsibility.

Will a punching bag really help my son?

Somehow I ended up in the toy aisle this evening and I found a punching bag toy for kids. Really it was for boys, there were no girls on the box, it was all blue, Spider-man and Iron Man, man, man, man. Boys.

At first, I was really excited because I have been trying to figure out some nifty ways to give Taylor an outlet for his frustration, anger, anxiety. He knows I don't like any physical games outside of hugging and cuddling, so he ends up trying to encourage me to beat him senseless with pillows or throw him across the room onto the bed, both of which I have consistently declined for his entire life so I don't really know why he tries. Come to think of it, it probably has something to do with all of the social pressures around him having to define himself as a real boy through these types of activities. Anyways...

Aren't punching bags a really great way for a child to let off steam? Kids have all sorts of pent up frustration that comes out in all sorts of physical ways and doesn't it feel good to just hit something sometimes? Isn't this a great option when they can't go outside and because they can't hit people anyways? Won't this teach them that lesson to keep your hands to yourself while not being so restrictive?

Then I realized something. What about the girls? I had been thinking about kids the entire time but defaulted to boys and not even once thought about the how the girls in my son's class deal with just as much frustration, anger, depression, as he does. I highly doubt that purchasing the punching bags - that are marketed so directly to boys - would ever cross the minds of most parents of kindergarten girls.

So what are girls taught to do? What do girls do at a young age to de-stress and (a) is it helpful or should they start beating punching bags and/or (b) would it be advantageous for boys to learn from how girls cope with stress and frustration?

I am going to take a stab at it. Girls are generally allowed to feel emotion. They are often given the option to be consoled more through physical touch (i.e. cuddling and smothering). Girls are often given squishy fuzzy toys to hold and treat as their own little babies. That's all I got. Boys, on the other hand, are given these things but with side comments about how they're so strong and they don't cry and plush toys aren't boy toys - perhaps compared to the punching bag or boxing gloves.

I'm sure that I'm missing a bunch here but my sense is that I'm onto something and I'm less convinced that I should buy that punching bag for him and more convinced that there may be a better way to explore his frustration, like maybe through visual art or improvisational theatre - we can create angry character monologues or something, I don't know.

My hesitation boils down to this: if I teach him that it is okay to create time throughout his routine and/or resort immediately to physical action, although it is with an inanimate object, would this condition him to do things like punch walls, slam doors, throw remotes chairs, out of frustration? My sense is yes and I don't want that. That is dangerous. That is called domestic violence. We have a lot of people who have lost their lives due to these types of situations, whether it is the perpetrator of violence ending up in prison or the victim of this type of domestic violence, ending up traumatized or on-the-run to stay alive and save the family from the perpetrator. We have off-the-grid locations for women who are dealing with domestic abuse because the men in their lives cannot figure out how to cope with their frustration to the point that they have to literally hide from the world. We all know people in these situations and we all want them safe and this is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my son using a punching bag. 

My final question is this: Is the best way to cope with frustration or anger through the use of physical activity and if so, then does it have to be through actually punching or kicking something like a punching bag with a life-sized picture of a character on it?

So after all, I guess Taylor and I need to seriously practice meditation (and a few other really cool, completely googleable activities) together...

Visitation Fatigue: A reflection on how persistence, reframing, and pure love got us here.

Taylor was having a conversation today with a bunny of his - one of the many stuffed animals that he fathers - and the bunny was expressing its angst for having to leave him for the week and yearning to come back on Friday (obviously the best day of the week for me and Taylor). The line that most stuck out to me came with a shoulder shrug of visitation fatigue, "Well, that's life. We can't do anything about it. That's life."

The tone of defeat in his assertation must have made me visibly sad because he asked me what was wrong. I told him that his relationship with the bunny reminds me of my relationship with him - of course - and he shared with me the most brilliant response I couldn't have ever imagined:

"Papi, don't worry. We get to see each other three days out of the week." He said, raising three fingers. "AND we get to see each other every single morning now before school! Isn't that amazing?"

What was I to do? Had all of my hard work of reframing our separation during his tantrums just paid off? Is it bad that our separate living situation is being normalized or is it just that our current situation is so much better that even he can articulate it? Is he just mimicking my motivational crap and are we invalidating each other's feelings when we do this? What is the correct way to engage with our separation?

Part of the way I've always understood our relationship is through the seed planting metaphor. I was lucky to be able to spend time with him as an infant even though our living situation wasn't ideal and always understood it as planting important seeds for our future. I'm in a period of unemployment as I share this story and it has been fantastic in that we have been able to attend to our garden, clean up shop, and plant new seeds. And today, while planting new seeds, I saw a beautiful leaf rising up from the soil. A leaf from a seed that has been under our care for the past 6 years of his life. One that was waiting for us to have a better schedule. We cared for it through our scattered visitation schedule that was never enough but out of both of our control and it lived. We cared for it through an extremely hectic retail schedule, where I worked three jobs and studied as a full-time undergraduate. We cared for it through all of my relationships (personal, familial, professional, and intimate) that bid for our time and it lived. We cared for it when I went away to Philadelphia for an accelerated master's program and were lucky enough to not miss one weekend together. It lived through all of that and today, we both saw it rise up from the ground and remind us that our hard work and dedication to loving each other - especially through the most difficult of times when we had to figure out how to articulate our frustrations, be vulnerable, cry together and spend more time apart than anyone should - is for something bigger than we may ever understand.

That's love.

"Keep Your Hands to Yourself but Kiss Me When I Say So."

Keep your hands to yourself & your private parts are yours - no one else's - but kiss me when I say so, hug whoever I say you should hug, and don't ask any questions.

 

What is going on?

I cringe every time my son is forced to share his body through hugs or kisses. Why? Because it goes against all of the lessons of respecting the consent and privacy (of girls and women especially), that I am trying to teach him by sending him mixed signals. It is often presented as an issue for little girls but I see particular importance in relation to boys. I hate the binary, too. I am by no means the first or thousandth person to write about this, hence the brevity. 

Hugs turn into little scuffles, small wrestling matches due to his resistance. That becomes normalized. You see where I'm going here?

If he is forced into being hugged and to give kisses or be kissed repeatedly, he will likely feel like he can do that to someone he wants to show affection to. Why not? Maybe he will be accused of not understanding a classmate's privacy or he may find himself confused about someone refusing an embrace from him and force himself onto them out of frustration. Especially if he is used to that type of interaction.

People grab him! I don't know why they are fascinated with his private areas, but they are. They explicitly talk about the size of his penis, which scares me in general but he just turned 6, y'all. Six! The consistent attention to his private areas does him no justice. I don't even know why it is. It seems rather pedophelic but I guess that doesn't count when it is a penis?We wouldn't walk around talking about little vaginas in the ways we talk about little penises (I googled the plural form). I can't talk about little bodies anymore. It's too much.

Why does this matter?

This heightened attention to his sexuality could lead to hypersexual behavior in the same way that being exposed to the exploitation of his own body for his family's pleasure could lead to hyperaggressive behavior. He just turned 6. He's been dealing with it his whole life. It ain't nothin' new to him. It is normal. That is scary.

If people are going crazy about his body parts, he will learn they are super important and that people, especially women, give him attention because of them. He will expect attention and when he doesn't get it, something will be wrong in his mind and he will try to attract attention to his body parts.

It is likely that he will force himself onto people unless someone does the work to unpack these foundational experiences with him so that he can contextualize the craziness. So let me go do that...

Fairies & Boyness: Actively Resisting Heteronormativity to Build Confidence

Taylor - my 6-year-old self-identified son - and I, often play with all types of plastic characters. You call them dolls for girls and action figures for boys but I'm going to call them characters or what they actually are, because we had a nice mix of female fairies and male superheroes going.

One day, he finally decided he wasn't going to hesitate to play with this really cool fairy and said it was because it doesn't matter if people think that the toy is for girls. This is something that has taken a lot of coaching on my end. Coaching to literally undo this small peice of gender socialization that I see suppressing his will to play with some really nifty toys that are marketed to the parents of girls - because you know the kids don't really care, it is us. You know that. I know you do.

The logic that I've been attempting to share with him is quite simple: Taylor, just because you play with toys that people say are for girls, doesn't make you any less than a boy. I play with all types of toys and whenever he wants to be the male characters, I get stuck with the fluffy female characters with high pitched voices - because that's how I roll. I tell him that. Then his eyes get really big, his smile gets even bigger, and then he says, "Ohhh yeaahhh! You're still a boy!" It is crazy what we teach and what we can be teaching. What I am teaching him instead of fear to play with girl toys, is to be confident in himself. To not be broken by people who walk by him playing with the fairy and question his boyness. This is real shit, y'all. He has been battling this battle for years, it is nothing new, and he turned 6 yesterday! 

He is constantly on guard trying to make sure he is reaffirming his boyness in everything he does. How much easier will his life be if he can learn that he doesn't have to do that work? Maybe his little kindergarten self won't have to feel like he has to show me his muscles anymore. Maybe he will confidently explore what nurturing feels like as a boy/man. Maybe he won't feel the need to pick up pillows and throw them across the room demonstrating his strength. Maybe he won't think of himself as better or stronger than girls. Maybe he won't have to growl, squink his eyes, or twist his eyebrows before our embrace. Maybe. Just maybe.

So he is over there enjoying the toy finally, and I'm in my head thinking all of this stuff. I'm also thinking, "am I making him gay?" Isn't that just an absurd thought? It is real though - even for the guy who runs the site called New Masculinities. This is the [man]ifestation of ingrained teachings and biases that I have to constantly check and let go of as I raise my son. It is: my subconscious homophobia (not just me, nearly everyone has some strain of this) telling me that not heterosexual is wrong; my religious socialization telling me that he will end up in some corner of hell for not only liking women; my understanding of the stigmas attached to people who are not straight and how much harder his life could be; my colonial mindset, imagining that I have an affect on his sexuality and can enforce/force these innate characteristics onto him; my cognitive dissonance with my sense that sexuality is a spectrum and our belief as a society that sexuality is as simple and rigid as straight, gay, and bi; and probably a whole bunch of other things I've yet to unpack.

After my selfish zoning out session is over - I have to remind myself that Taylor is his own person, with his own thoughts, and his own feelings. He will love who he loves and it has absolutely nothing to do with the toys he has, or the clothes he wears, or the TV he watches, or whatever I teach him because he already feels butterflies when he gets near the people he likes. He tells me about it all the time. It is super complicated - I may write about it soon - Kindergarten Love Kronicles. What I can do is teach him how to be confident within himself and not be too harshly affected by the people who will constantly try to police his expression of his identities - in Kindergarten and beyond. If I work to understand myself, it will create space for me to be sensitive to his realities, respect his interests, values, choices and most importantly, allow me to be open to his true feelings. With all of that, he will be so much more confident/secure in his sexuality, gender expression, and hopefully a masculinity that he can call his own.

How to not reinforce toxic masculinities when giving advice to young boys about interacting with young girls.

I was invited to join my son to his mother's friend's (far outside of my friend group) holiday gathering a few hours ago, yesterday technically, and while I was a bit reluctant, once I told my son I was invited, he said it was the best Christmas ever and spoke about how excited he was. I had to go.

Taylor is turning 6 next week. He was joined by a 5-year-old (self-identified?) girl who's birthday is three days from his. They are the same age.

What do you do when a girl repeatedly slaps your son's ass, pushes his head into the couch, tugs him to play with her, fake punches and kicks him, and more? What do you do?

Here's what I did. When it first started, I redirected the 'play' to things that were less physical like drawing and video games - we ended up watching a movie. It went something like this: "Excuse me, we don't play like that, okay? Because someone will get hurt and start crying so let's find something else to do. Shall we?"

Then it continued after the movie (obviously) so I tried the more firm intervention approach. "Hello? Thank you. Would it be alright if we stopped playing this way? He seems very uncomfortable." And continued with, "Taylor, you have to tell her to stop hitting you and that you don't like that. She will continue unless you let her know."

You get the point. Basically, we tried all civil routes and she just kept pestering my child. Let's do some unraveling of this situation. For one, this little girl is a girl. She knows she is a girl. The same way that Taylor knows he is a boy. Soon they will know it's all socially constructed, but until then, this is their reality. They both understand the ways that their gender identities grant them certain privileges and holds them by certain standards - whether they choose to follow that is another thing, but they know, especially at this age. Trust me.

You don't believe me? I have an example. Taylor nearly started crying because she was inviting him to play with her dollhouse. He ran to me and told me that he cannot play with girl toys because he isn't a girl. I reminded him that she played a Batman video game with him and it didn't make her any less of a girl so playing with her toys won't make him any less of a boy and that toys are not gender exclusive (sometimes I have to just insert some jargon in there for good measure). That's not all though. They know that boys cannot hit girls. They know that boys aren't supposed to be affected by bullying, especially bullying from a girl! They know that adults are watching and although I'm [always] the only one paying attention, they know the adults in the room will notice if any of their actions disrupt gender norms because they've tried it or seen people try it and watched them get policed back into the binary. They know, they know, they know.

I saw my son struggle with not being able to defend himself physically. I saw my son struggle with outpouring his frustration with her to people in the apartment. I saw him attempt to avoid her. I saw him run from her around the apartment. I saw him ask me for help. And this is where I want to know if I've failed him. When he asked me for help, I simply addressed the girl one of my very passive questions in hopes that she'd cut it out.

In a debrief with my son this evening after we got home, we spoke about this and he explained that even after I told her to stop, she just did it when they were in places that I couldn't see them and even when he told her, she didn't stop. That was when I became extremely vulnerable. After telling him that I was so proud of him for not hitting her back because hitting doesn't solve problems, it just starts and ends fights, I went into uncharted territory by telling him that I realize I should have told the girl's mom that she was acting up and I feel really bad for making that mistake. This may seem like an obvious thing for you reading this account but remember, this was a friend group that I didn't know and I was merely an invited guest - maybe even invited because my son complained about me not being at the last get-together, so I was very conscious of that with every move, including this one. So I explained that next time he could even talk to a child's mom and so we rehearsed what that conversation would look like between him and someone's mom. He did well. We hugged and continued to talk about integrity and how important these types of debriefing conversations are because we can learn and plan for next time to work as a more effective team and even when we are alone.

It was ridiculously hard for me not to talk about everything that I felt. I truly feel like this girl had a crush on Taylor because he was trying to avoid her so much and she kept coming to him annoying him, purposely. Is this true or is this my conditioning? Is this my patriarchal hope that my son is so irresistible that evil little girls just gravitate with love and show it with evil little girl gestures like tugging across a room and ass-slapping? How dangerous would it have been if I would have said, "Taylor, don't worry about it! She was just being mean because she likes you and that's what girls do when they like boys." I think that's a very common approach and I was very close to saying that but thought about how that could do a few hurtful things to my son's brain:

1. It could invalidate the stress he was feeling by being exposed to violence by a girl.
2. It could show him that physical violence between him and someone else (maybe even a domestic partner?) is completely acceptable and maybe even something to seek in a potential partner.
3. It could show that physical violence is a cue for love and a form of affection from girls/women or 'people who like you.'
4. It could make him think that girls who do nice things to him don't like him and that the mean girls do like him. When in fact it could be the complete opposite, it could be they both like him, it could be neither group likes him.
5. It could strip the power of women away from them by showing his little kindergarten self that they have limited emotional intelligence and cannot distinguish the difference between hurting and hugging.

I can go on and on but the reality is that comments like these are always shared with our sons and I am working against that, every single day, to show him that people will be able to love him in authentically healthy ways, without physical, emotional, or verbal abuse attached. This is also an effort to show him that he does not have to assert his masculinity in every instance and that it is okay to feel frustrated and/or accept invitations to play with pink toys.

The road to anti-patriarchal masculinities is long, vulnerable, and scary but intergenerational dialogues, especially within the family, are the headlights on the vehicle trying to avoid as many potholes as possible. We definitely hit a few bumps today but we didn't hit any potholes! I'm so grateful to have such an awesome co-navigator.

-------------------EDIT--------------------

I received an incredibly important comment a few months ago when this article was originally posted regarding my use of the term evil little girl. It took me a long time to process the use of the phrase and I have a lot of different ways I can begin to defend that use and I'm still not sure I should remove it or not. I did want to point out that their comment was very important and it was somehow removed so I felt the need to create the space for myself to be called out. I am debating on whether to remove it or not, I think I lean on it being a teachable moment for myself and a discussion to have about public writing.