What does it mean to be a man?

June 24, 2021 1:42 PM

a crown icon and the words "rising voices award winner"
Photo of the author standing in front of a waterfall in a red rain jacket. Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo of the author standing in front of a waterfall in a red rain jacket. Photo courtesy of the author.

What does it mean to be a man? I had this question thrust upon me at a young age. I grew up in foster care with really no parents, but the few times I saw my father he’d tell me that a man is supposed to be strong, and crying has no business being in a real man’s life. So what was I supposed to be? Unfeeling? Disconnected and violent? Only time would tell.

It was a rainy day. The smell of wet dirt and damp leaves filled the air. The rain would drizzle and pour much like the tears that slipped down my face. I’d spent all of two days with my father after 2 years of not seeing him at all. Foster care had not been kind, and I wanted my father to stay. For him to tell me that all would be well. My father walked out the house and looked at me. Snot slid out my nose, and I quickly wiped it away. He handed me a McDonalds apple pie. I loved those pastries, if you could call it that. After I took my first bite he started to talk. “ I know you're sad, but a real man doesn’t cry. Push it down, and forget about it.” With those words he turned his back, hopped in a car, and drove away. I wouldn’t see him for another 12 years. 

Society tells me I gotta be strong and uncaring, but demonizes me when I’m just that. It’s harder to be in relationships because people expect you to spill your guts out and be kind, but relationships also don’t work because you're deemed a ‘nice guy’ or just ‘too nice’. I’m taught that it’s wrong to say ‘I love you’ first, and considered weak to show emotion, but you want me to break down my walls that society and I have built. You made me this. So what do you want? What am I supposed to be? What does it mean to be a man?

I asked myself these questions and the chaos they left behind hurt. Like scars, they left marks on my being. Why was I so angry and confused? My father always said...My father. This started with him. The cycle of toxic masculinity is always passed down from a father to his son. Sometimes it passes from a mother to her son. Why is this poison still being taught? You search up online and they’ll tell you that “ To be a man in today's society means being able to ask for assistance and not feeling like a failure if he does so. To be a man in today's society means not streamlining with societal norms and being able to think for yourself” (from Upstream by The Editors). When we do ask for help we’re still considered weak in the eyes of other men and women. So what is the point? I think about my father and the recent in person conversation with him.

The clouds were grey. The night before, rain had fallen from the sky. I felt my shoes sink into the mud as I looked at my father. “ You’ve gotten so big,” my father says to me. I reply with a simple “yeah”. Who was this man in front of me? Jail had changed him, and he looked smaller. Nothing like the titan I remember him being. Tears started to stream down his face. “I’m so sorry Mijo”. My eyes widen as I see the man in front of me. I felt disgust and shame as I too started to cry. I hadn’t cried in years. The same man who told me to push down my sadness broke apart in front of me. What was happening?

I forgave my father that day for the shit he put my sibling and I through. I grew up in foster care. I hardened and learned to take care of myself because I had no one else. My mothers had broken through my walls years ago, but this was the first time I answered my own questions. What does it mean to be a man? Being a man doesn’t mean you're the toughest dude out there. It means you're the realest and most authentic person out there. You're able to laugh and cry and love and not feel any shame cause F— society. And F— what other people think. They’re still learning to be more. Being a man means knowing I’ve got a long way to grow. I may never feel comfortable crying in front of people, but I do know that the cycle of toxic masculinity in my family WILL end with me. That’s my purpose and how I’ll give back the antidote, and heal what society has poisoned.   

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