What does it mean to be a man? I’m not sure that I even know what it means to be a woman. I know that we all struggle to understand who we are, and then even more difficult is how to live that out. I sat on the phone with a close friend, both of us distraught with the question of how do we help our men? She has three black sons and a husband, I have one white son and a broken heart from a close friend who grew up in Mexico and has a completely different experience of what being a man means. Some gang violence in our neighborhood, one of our other young men who was approached by some gangs to join, having to call all of our black men to not come in the night of the shooting because the police were looking for four young black men and we didn’t want any mistakes, a close friend jokingly telling me he’ll find me a man if I tell him what I think a “good man” is, a young man that’s struggling through a difficult time confiding in me, another one that won’t open his mouth to save his life but is clearly determined to make it through his own struggles, an uncle who’s a father figure to one of our athletes who died suddenly and questionably, a single father looking for a gym for his daughter….all of these things and as a single white female, I’m confided in and asked what is healthy masculinity and what do they each do next? And this is one week of being a boxing coach.
While I’m extremely grateful and feel beyond blessed to have so many people who trust me and are willing to talk to me about things that they don’t share with anyone else, when it comes to “manhood” I sometimes feel very unprepared. Then I sit back and think, am I? really? If they went somewhere else, which clearly they did not decide to do, what would the advice be given? Father’s day is fast approaching and I buy my very conservative father a mug that says “Thanks for teaching me how to be a man even though I’m your daughter”. Another close friend confides in me about decisions regarding fatherhood and husbandly duties and the balance of also being a separate human. I never wanted to have to learn how to be the man of the home, but I sure am glad that I was blessed with men around me that taught me about it. No. I will never understand growing up male any more than any of my male friends will understand growing up female. We can only experience what we can experience, and learn and empathize with the rest. But what happens when so many single females are raising sons? If we’re a cis, straight female, shouldn’t we know something about what being a healthy male looks like if we’re supposed to choose a partner?
So here is what I have found so far: Being a healthy male does not really look that different, at it’s core, than being a healthy female. We have different pressures, and we have different ways that we tend to express or fulfill needs, but those needs are the same really. They may come in different quantities, but they do between “same” gendered people as well. I am far more physical than most other females that I know, and honestly, most of the men I know are actually more emotional than most of the females that I know (even if they don’t always recognize that).
To be a female living in a hyper masculine world of boxing is an interesting situation. It comes with loads of pain in many different forms. Some of the pain is physical and emotional pain as men have forced themselves on me to assert control and dominance. Sometimes that’s truly physically forcing themselves on me in the form of physical violence (completely outside of the ring) or threats of it, sometimes with rape or attempted rape. Some have stalked me. Some have just harassed me. These all come with their ideas of what “masculinity” is—especially when you’re talking about the times that I have said the unspeakable word to them: “No.” But there’s a very different pain that I feel a whole lot more often.
The pain that comes with all that our boys and men go through every single day. As much as has been put onto my shoulders with being a single mother business owner that’s always had to physically, legally, and emotionally protect my kids from sometimes violent fathers and other men surrounding them in other capacities, I was always “allowed” to break down. I was always allowed to have feelings, and allowed to have relationships that would support and talk me through those feelings and breakdowns. Imagine a world where you are supposed to be superman literally every minute of every day. In fact, the one person that you are supposed to be partnered to and bound to, your spouse, most likely even chose you in part because you were superman to her. You were her provider, protector, decision maker, leader. So you can’t go there to cry or let go when you’re feeling overwhelmed, burning with rage at injustice, or have no idea what step to take next. But to have male to male friendships—that’s dicey man. I mean, if we’re going to talk about feelings I need to be vague and also doing something masculine like fixing things or hitting something or at the very least lifting something really heavy if I’m going to bring it up. But to have female friends—especially if you’re married or with someone—steps into it’s own set of issues, especially when you’ll have emotional intimacy with the friend and not your spouse that you’re trying to be superman for. Essentially, you’re trapped. Trapped inside of yourself and never allowed to crack no matter how hard the blows start coming.
What we ask women to go through in our world is so wrong. But it’s time that we start talking about all that we put on the men around us without giving them any way to cope with it all. Suicide rates in men is 3.45 times higher than in women (https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/). It’s also been regularly talked about in the media recently that most mass shootings have happened by males. Most people who rape are men. Most people who are homeless are men (https://www.culturalweekly.com/homeless-men-women/) . And when it comes to drug involvement, we’re again looking at predominately male weather that’s selling or using. Clearly our men are crying out for help, and we’re replying with “real men don’t cry”. So they stop. They stop their crying in a violent way, or they simply attempt to silently suffer through what we call life by sedating the pain or just silently disappearing on the streets.
We all have different issues that we have to deal with in life. And yes, we have PLENTY as women that need solving. But do you honestly believe that these can be dealt with separately? How can we advocate for women’s rights and deny the pain that our men are in? Our worlds, fate, mental health: they’re all wrapped up together. From our sons raised by single mothers and our single mothers that are now single from a man cracking under the pressure—or maybe never being taught what was “expected” of him in the first place. Some of the most pressing issues in women’s worlds such as domestic violence and sexual assault are exactly wrapped up in to our men’s mental health and what we’re yelling at them that they have to suck it up and be without ever coming unglued. …but eventually we all crack under the stress and pressure. So what comes out, and who it’s directed towards, when we do finally crack under the pressure is exactly the problems that we, as women, keep begging for change about.
Father’s day is always a difficult day for us in our home because it’s very hard for me to not get angry that I have to be both parents. That my dad had to teach me how to be a man. It’s always hard for my kids that they have G-pa, who they share with cousins, and that’s about it. My son tells people that his dad is dead because of the pain and anger that at 7 he is already doing his best to cope with while not cracking. Despite what I’ve tried to give him as a safe place to express emotion and open up, he still lives in the real world of school now more often than he is here with me at home. So he has learned, at such a young age, that cold anger is okay for him to express but not sadness, grief, confusion, even just to say “I don’t know how I feel or what to do next about it.”.
Our mission at Lions Den is to create a safe place for those who aren’t safe in other gyms. Especially with being a female coach, a lot of that effort is directed towards the females that would not have been able to box somewhere else. But it does not--and cannot--stop there. We have to work together: male and female, to understand each other’s struggles and how they are so tangled up together that without helping one, we can’t help the other. If you are a female that has not stopped to think about all that we ask of our men (and even young boys) every single day, and what you can do to make that change, I am begging you that they’ve been crying out for help for a very long time. Are you hearing them? Or are you telling them that real men don’t cry?