Man up: A father’s journey in identity

  • Brennan Barnard carries his son, Sam, on his shoulders years ago. Courtesy of Brennan Barnard

  • Brennan Barnard stands with his two children this spring. —Courtesy of Brennan Barnard

For the Monitor
Saturday, June 17, 2017

Covered in pee at 3 a.m., all I had the energy for is laughter. I stood alone with an infant wriggling and wailing, his mother desperately stealing a moment of sleep in the next room. Something called a “Diaper Genie” taunted me nearby as I searched in vain for the hypoallergenic wipes. Half-naked myself and delirious with exhaustion, as the crying reached a crescendo, I chuckled at this scene, the first in a series of emasculation milestones.

So, this is what it means to be a father.

Everything I believed about my role as a provider, protector, instructor, coach and disciplinarian was reduced to this – a failed attempt to change a diaper in the wee (pun intended) hours of the morning.

Last week, my “little boy” became a teenager, and it has caused me to reflect on the transition to manhood, the way we define masculinity and the experience of becoming a father.

I felt like I had hit the lottery when my wife and I decided that I would take time off to raise our children. I was going to train for the ironman triathlon, learn to play guitar and read a stack of books – all while competing for “father of the year.”

If you are a parent, you know how this story ends.

To this day I can only play one chord on the guitar. I have maybe read two of the books. “Tinman” better describes my triathlon career.

I was  “all in” as a father, though naïve in my anticipation of what full-time parenting entailed. I was generally unprepared, but most significantly for the loss of identity I experienced and the ways fatherhood challenged my understanding of masculinity. In a culture that tells males to “man up,” I was down on the field.

In the U.S., male culturalization dictates that men who deviate from the narrowly defined code of behavior risk being diminished. Labels such as “pussy,” “fairy,” “Sally” and “pansy” mean one’s manliness is to be questioned. We avoid throwing “like a girl” and hide our tears at risk of being mocked. These cultural norms are highlighted powerfully in the documentary The Mask You Live In, a film that captures the “crisis” boys face as they become men.

I was a joyful and emotional young man, in a culture where sensitivity and gentleness in boys can be considered weakness – completely unaware of how ingrained masculine stereotypes were in my identity. The conversations among my male friends revolved around girls, sports, conquest and “being a man.” As I grew older, my greatest concern was to protect my masculinity, so I hit the gym, joined the rugby team and pledged a fraternity – just a few examples of the instinctive ways I staked a claim to my manhood.

Then, I became a full-time father. After years of schooling and professional advancement, I transitioned out of the workforce to care for this tiny life force.

It was wonderful, joyful and inspiring, while simultaneously exhausting, confusing, and isolating. I spent hours laying on the floor with an infant on my chest reveling in the connection. I enjoyed his giggles and weathered his cries. I listened as he said his first word and watched as he took his first step. Many of my male friends missed these milestones, and I was grateful.

Meanwhile, I had no peer group – attempts to attend “mommy and me” gatherings were met with puzzled looks and awkward conversations (when a mother joked about castrating her husband, I knew I was a fish out of water).

My male cohort responded with silence, not sure how to relate to my experience and seeming to discount my role as a man. I was not playing catch, watching football or building fires. I was changing diapers, folding laundry and preparing meals.

Nothing had primed me for this reality or the buried guilt and shame that I felt for not providing for my family in traditional ways, failing to meet the expectations of assumed manliness. It is a phenomena that professor and researcher, Dr. Michael Addis describes in his book Invisible Men as he unpacks the culture of silence and the impact on men’s well-being.

How could I be a man when most of my daily existence ran counter to established norms of maleness? We live in a society that is designed to perpetuate gender roles. To deviate and challenge these norms is to be emasculated as a man doing “women’s work” or stripped of femininity as a woman showing up in a “man’s world.” How was I to confront the isolation and tendency to quietly withdraw from expectations as a father searching for identity?

For the first time in three decades, it forced me to explore just what identity means. Years later, one of my students said it best, “identity is not a statement, it is a negotiation.” I had to move beyond the cultural facade and reframe masculinity – it can be as much about nurturing and encouragement as protecting and discipline.

We constantly negotiate between our values and the socialization of becoming a men. Emotion, collaboration and intuition are so often considered feminine traits and to embrace these qualities seems to jeopardize our very stature and confidence as a men. But this is who I am, a man who believes that masculinity does not have to be limited to earning and competition – it can also be about learning and recognition. It can mean crying with my son or asking for help. It can mean the deep connection that I searched for as a stay-at-home father.

As a high school counselor, I see these conflicts in the young men I work with as they plan for college. So much of their identity is wrapped up in a potential career, athleticism or their status as a man – after all, it is safe and externally focused.

Sadly my son and other boys are living in a society where the news headlines reinforce a rhetoric of toughness and aggression. A culture of unchecked masculinity tells young men that they must “man-up,” build walls and ignore their Mother Nature. Implicitly and overtly they learn that men don’t admit mistakes, ask for help, back down or rely on a woman. They are stuck in the “man box,” confined by these embedded rules of maleness. It is a reality that we must constantly challenge, embracing vulnerability and openly negotiating our identity personally, interpersonally and culturally.

My three years as a stay-at-home father was the most difficult – and rewarding – job I have had. For me, Fathers Day is much more than an opportunity to be gifted a new tie or have my kids mow the lawn for me. It is a celebration of a renewed understanding of what it means to be a man and a day to be hopeful that my son and daughter come of age in a culture that is less linear in gender roles and expectations.

Years from now, karma is likely to find my son in his first days as a rookie father, fumbling in the darkness with a diaper. Ideally, he will have the same opportunity to be a full-time father and perhaps it will be more normalized and admired. I hope that the idea of being a man continues to evolve and that he looks at his own father as having played a part in moving the needle ever so slightly.