This past Sunday I spent a lazy afternoon moseying around a kitschy neighborhood in Brooklyn, popping in and out of quaint shops, looking for a gift for a friend. As I was perusing some organic, eco-friendly greeting cards in a sweet little stationary shop, I came across this rather unassuming greeting card. It read on the front:
“Dad, I love you... but we don't have to talk about it.”
At first glance it seemed innocent enough, silly even. The assumption, meant to be funny, reinforces an age-old gender norm that fathers (men) don't want to talk about their children's feelings, and they certainly don't want to talk about their own. Maybe it was my dad's recent illness and subsequent hospitalization that has left me grappling with how to love my dad in a more present way, but something about the card didn't feel good or sit right with me. I couldn't help but think that about how this card would never have been written for a mother. How we take this as a normal and acceptable message about how fathers and in general, men, navigate the world. More than what it implies about male experience, the card made me think about what I do, as a woman, that reinforces such a limited view of masculinity.
See, as a social worker and a sexual violence preventionist, I like to think I have it all figured out- that I'm doing my part in changing the systems of oppression that perpetuate sexual violence in our communities. But then I see cards like this and I am transported to moments, not so long ago moments, when my father, the head of our family, cried and grieved deeply as he watched his wife (my step-mother) go through chemo and radiation. I remember how seeing him cry scared me, how it always has. Because he was my dad and because he was supposed to keep it together. That's what dads do and that's what men do. And it would sometimes take every ounce of my being to swallow that fear and sit with him while he cried instead of trying to make it better or make it go away.
Why was it so hard for me to allow a space for my dad to just be human, to be a person responding to the excruciating experience of watching someone they love suffer with cancer? The social worker in me told me I needed to dig a little deeper.
Before my parents' divorce, emotions and vulnerability were a gendered thing in my home. My mother, the daughter of a heavy-handed alcoholic, couldn't understand my gentle-natured and sensitive father. She could not understand a world in which a man could express his feelings in any way other than violence, and not be perceived as weak. The cruelty with which she responded to my father whenever he expressed himself sent a clear message to me as a little girl about shame and about the dynamics of power and control. Having internalized the very social norms that perpetuated the horrific violence she survived as a child, my mother had passed these messages down to me. After years of doing this work, I still have to check myself. I have to be vigilant of when I am slipping back into old myths, old ways of being that deny the people in my life, men and women, the opportunity to be their fullest selves.
And I know I'm not alone. Maybe you didn't grow up with an abusive parent, maybe it wasn't as direct as that. But I know that many of us have heard similar messages in childhood that stick with us. The story of the greeting card is not meant to point fingers. I bring this card to you as a part of my own accounting, my own acknowledgment of the moments in which I have contributed to a culture that says that men and women can only experience the world a certain way based on their genitalia.
No matter how many rallies I attend, how many survivors I work with, how many petitions I sign, my journey as a preventionist must always start with an examination of my own internalized social and gender norms. It must always start with the smaller moments, the ones when no one is watching and I have a choice. Its the moment when I can choose to not listen to the messages I inherited and instead open myself up to a world that allows the men in my life to express themselves whole-heartedly, that allows them to be vulnerable. I want the message I give my children about how men and women experience the world to be more about the bravery it takes to share your feelings and your spirit and less about who is allowed to experience that and how. This is how we change social norms, this is how we form the foundation of safe communities. This is how we begin to create a world that is safe from sexual violence.
Find your small moment, take a chance and think about the ways you can challenge gender norms and social norms in your own life. One small moment becomes two becomes three...