I’ve always been a softy. My mom loves sharing stories about me going to sleepovers as a kid. Despite being excited to go over to someone’s house, as bedtime approached I would start losing my shit.
Everything was great leading up to it, but inevitably as bedtime came up, I’d start to get a bit nervous. To this day I’m not sure what it was, but the issue of falling asleep at friend’s houses persisted for years later.
The routine was eerily similar. I’d get to bed, pretend to fall asleep, get lost in my thoughts, check the clock in the room, and repeat for hours. It would take until 2-3 am when I had enough and had to call in backup: my mom, who was usually at least a 30-minute drive away from me.
Remember it was 2 am. And also remember, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me other than the fact I couldn’t fall asleep. Although, time and time again my mom would pick up the phone and soothe me.
She’d tell me it’s okay. Things will be fine. To count sheep, to hide the clock, and to try to fall asleep again. I would eventually end up asleep. I think it was only because I knew my mom knew I was struggling. I had shared how I was feeling, in this case, a bit too much, but I sensed a level of connection with her, as many mothers and sons do.
This connection was not the same feeling I would have with my father. A similar situation years later, with the same issues, with the same problems, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to him about this.
This mentality persists even today. Rarely will I go to my dad for emotional advice – if anything, it will be more practical such as taxes, business, etc. More “dad” topics.
For everything else, it will always be my mom. I would have to consciously tell myself “okay Jay, go talk to Papa about this” but rarely is it my first consideration. This brought up an important question for me.
Why do I not feel comfortable sharing my feelings with the man who is meant to be the closest to me in my life?
It’s not because my dad didn’t love me. On the contrary. He’s sacrificed so much of his life to provide for his family. He’s sacrificed his own happiness for ours. He’s lived the classic immigrant life; live a hard life yourself to create an easy life for your kids.
The language of vulnerability
I didn’t go to my dad for these issues because I knew he didn’t know how to talk about it. He didn’t have the tools to be vulnerable; to express emotions and feelings, which in turn, would help me do the same.
Men, especially immigrants, can have generations of trauma built in them. It goes back to our grandfathers, and their fathers. It goes back to the history of men being providers. The hunters. The breadwinners. The “men of the house”. We should provide empathy to our fathers and the older generation of men in our lives because they may not have had the tools to open up.
My father has never been one to check in with me, ask me how I’m doing, nor express appreciation for my achievements – at least to my face. As I’ve grown up I’ve recognized that much of my motivation and insecurity is derived by the need to please my father. To make him say he’s proud of me. To express his love for me. But, how could I expect him to share his love for me if he never was taught what love was?
This is when I got curious. If I am being impacted by my father, how was he impacted by his? And even further, how was his father impacted by the men in his life?
Over a couple of drinks
One evening I asked my dad to share more about his dad. We called him Dada. Dada has since passed away, leaving us in the summer of 2020 at the age of 91.
Dada was an angry man. I heard stories of him beating my father almost every day growing up. Papa once told me that after fooling around in school and showing up late one day, his father hit him in the head with the heel of a shoe. A scar that sticks with him today. Dada also left a mess for the rest of his kids. Many of them, when you meet them today, seem spent and tired, spending much of their lives trying to take care of this man.
This same evening, my dad and I had smoked a joint and had a few drinks. These are the times when the walls come down for Papa. I asked if Dada ever told him he loved him. Papa laughed, “how could he tell me he loved me if he never knew what love was himself?”.
I asked about Dada’s family. How was he raised?
“When Dada was one his mother passed away. When he was nine his father passed away. He grew up with family members, bouncing around from house to house. I doubt anyone ever told Dada they loved him.” – Papa
No one ever spoke to Dada about his feelings. If no one told him the words, the language, and the expression of love and emotional connections, how could he provide it to others?
These are “tools” that men are only learning now in our generation today. A generation that doesn’t have to worry about existential threats like surviving, not getting beat, or putting food on the table. That generation is where I find myself in.
Leisure and vocabulary
Rob Henderson does a wonderful job highlighting a similar problem in a different context. He proposed in this article titled “The Theory of the Leisure Class” that folks who have a higher level of education are more likely to enhance their vocabulary.
“Your typical middle-class American could not tell you what “heteronormative” or “cisgender” means. But if you visit Harvard, you’ll find plenty of rich 19-year-olds who will eagerly explain them to you. When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is “I was educated at a top college.”
Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.”
Only the affluent can afford to learn a strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.”
This is by no means an excuse as to why men cannot and should not be more in touch with their feelings. It’s more of a way for me to feel more compassion for the lack of emotional connection that I, and I know a lot of others, have with their family members.
Many men, especially those who had to hustle and work their asses off for their family, didn’t have the time nor the energy to spend time with these ideas. They were too busy, and society didn’t value it. Only in college did I myself learn the importance of opening up and sharing my feelings.
Most men do not know the language of vulnerability. It’s hard to tell someone who doesn’t speak French to be French and to communicate in French. Men must learn the language first. Having role models to educate them on this language is really important.
This is why vulnerability is hard. It’s only now that men are coming around to this concept. There are a lot of barriers and stigmas surrounding men’s vulnerability. But if you’re open with your emotions there’s a wonderful place you can get to. One where you’ve developed a deeper connection with yourself. One where you’ve developed a deeper connection with others. And one where society is better off because of your appreciation and understanding your own and others emotions.
We’re making progress
I think this all works kind of like a funnel. For every generation of men, we’re slowly chiselling away to make them better men. Ideally, in each new generation, we have the ability to live into our own new version of “being a man”.
Dada had to survive and he did. Papa had to provide for his family in a new country and he did. Now if I have a son, I can take this mentality and make them even more “of a man”.
Thanks for reading along friends,