Last month as Father’s Day approached, a story I heard on the radio came back to mind. The question had been posed: “What does it mean to be manly today?” A listener in California called the station to address it.
The caller was a Mexican American who had come to this country at the age of seven, and was now in his thirties. He told of a family gathering with several generations in attendance. After a few hours, his wife rose and called to him across the room, “Honey, it’s time to leave.”
He joined her, and they said their goodbyes.
The next day his father disdainfully confronted him for allowing his wife to tell him when to leave. It was the man’s place to make decisions, he reminded him, not to take orders from a woman.
In advance of the next family gathering, the caller asked his wife to silently signal him when she wished to go home. So on that occasion, as the evening waned, she glanced at him and arched her brows, and he announced that they must depart. His father smiled.
I love this story. The intimate complicity between husband and wife was just as it should be, preventing the inter-generational triangle from lessening the strength of their connection. For, even though the son was not willing to accept what was for him an outdated standard, he did not disparage his father’s allegiance to his own code of conduct. Secure in his own manliness, the younger man had no need to return to adolescent push-back.
Over time the concept of manliness in my family shifted. My father and my husband, though of different generations were similarly self-assured in their masculinity, gentle and respectful. They exercised no machismo, although both, when first married, assumed the traditional roles of their time.
At the time of my parents’ marriage in 1922, my father pridefully insisted that his wife would never go to work (meaning: for money). My mother, who laughed as she told this story, said she ignored this edict, already having been the sole support of her widowed mother for a number of years. And once the Depression hit, the point was moot, and my father ignored it as well.
Len and I, married even before our college graduation in 1951, were members of the post-war “silent generation.” He began graduate school, while I zealously embarked on my first career: motherhood. Our division of responsibility was unexamined and unremarkable, as he prepared to become the breadwinner and I the family caretaker. Then the tide turned, and in the 1960s I attended law school three nights a week for four years. On those evenings, Len would return from work at day’s end to feed and bathe our three young children and put them to bed.
Was he exhibiting his feminine side? Actually, that’s not how we thought of it. He was just helping out. We didn’t characterize these tasks as unmanly. Nor do most men today, and the constraints of sexual stereotypes continue to loosen.
In later life, Len was grateful for having been cast into the richness of the caretaker role, often commenting to friends, “The women’s movement was the best thing that ever happened to men.”