A Dad’s Stupid Quest for Masculinity by Mike McCormick
Recently, my 14-year-old son and I were riding ATVs in the Rocky Mountains on a father-son bonding weekend. At one point, we encountered a particularly treacherous incline. It had snowed that morning, and the layer of snow and ice covering the rock in front of us caused me to pause for an extra moment.
I quickly harkened back to the rental guy telling us that the vehicles weren’t made for snow, and not to push it. I also remembered the long list of fees and fines that I would be charged if I somehow damaged the vehicle or got it stuck in a precarious situation. My son looked at me and asked what we should do. I responded with a little bravado: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and we plowed forward up the mountain. Probably not the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but certainly one of the most exhilarating.
Before you get the impression that this is a chest-pounding macho rant about pushing the limits on adventure, it’s important to note that I am pretty much a coward. Growing up, I resisted any and all attempts my dad made to teach me “manly” things. I never wanted to ride a motorcycle, shoot a gun, scuba, white water raft, rock climb, etc. If you could possibly get hurt from an activity, then I wanted nothing to do with it. I’ve played it safe for most of my life and as a result have struggled with feelings of masculine inadequacy.
I recently read a book from Time Magazine writer Joel Stein called Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. In the book, a 40-year-old journalist who never felt manly enough goes on a journey to find his dormant masculinity by pushing himself into new and uncomfortable places like marine basic training, working with firefighters, sparring with a mixed martial arts fighter, trading stocks on Wall Street, camping, hunting, and so on. He hoped some “real man” experience might rub off on him so he could someday pass that “manhood” onto his newborn son.
As dads, it’s natural to want to pass on some masculine wisdom to our sons, but often we don’t know where to start or even what to say. For most of us, we don’t have a compelling definition to share and are clueless on how to explain the secrets of manhood to our boys. So we say nothing, and our young men enter manhood with all of the same false masculine messages we were force-fed in our youth.
For most of my life, I always thought that the best compliment a guy could ever receive was to be called a “man’s man.” A “man’s man” can saunter into any establishment in any land, pony up to the bar and attract a host of new found friends and admirers. He buys drinks for guys he doesn’t know and keeps them captivated with saucy jokes and tales of his world-wide adventures. He is well-versed on all subjects from sports to politics to literature. He’s a hard drinker and a tough fighter. The party starts when he arrives and it only ends when he leaves with the most beautiful woman on his arm. His money never runs out and his admirers never fade.
If I’m honest, this has been my deep-seated masculine idealization for as long as I can remember. I never felt like I had the stuff to be that guy, but subconsciously that was what I was aiming for. And over the years I’ve done a lot of silly things to live out the false stereotype in my head. Like Joel Stein, I’ve come to realize that many things I’ve done have also been just part of a “stupid quest for masculinity.”
If we’re going to give our sons what most of us never received from our own dads, then it has to start with us. We need to have it ourselves before we can give it away. When you break it all down, there are really only two things a man needs in his life to help him to unlock his masculine potential:
1. A Blueprint to Follow
We all know that men don’t do very well without a road map, GPS or compass. If we’re just winging it, we tend to head off course pretty easily and travel down some rather treacherous roads. Life tends to work best for guys when we have a greater purpose and the end in mind, especially when it comes to our manhood. If we don’t have a stated masculine code, the culture will define what we believe about masculinity. And before you know it, like me, you end up believing that the Dos Equis guy really is “the most interesting man in the world.”
A great exercise for every man is to sit down and write out his own masculine code of conduct. What’s your definition of a man? Feel free to use my book Man Quest: Leading Teenage Boys into Manhood as a guide to helping you shape your own paradigm.
2. Authentic Male Friendships
Men need other men to confirm their masculinity. I know this sounds strange, but there’s nothing more uplifting to the male soul than having another guy validate that you have what it takes as a man. I would argue that the words of affirmation from another man are even more powerful than a wife, mother or girlfriend. I’m not sure why.
In today’s world, men are starved for authentic relationships with other guys. While we act like we have it altogether and don’t need anybody, what the male soul most longs to hear is another man openly affirming his manliness or his masculine potential. I absolutely need close friends to confirm my path and tell me I am doing it well or to challenge me when I’m way off base. While I act like I want to chart my own course and do my own thing, deep down I really need other guys to walk through life with.
I’m not talking about golfing, hunting, fishing or car buddies to yuck it up and party with. Good male friends are hard to come by, but they are absolutely essential to the masculine experience. We need to break the cycle of male loneliness and teach our sons what it means to have healthy, authentic male friendships. We all need at least one guy in our life with whom we can be totally honest.
I’m happy to say that finally, at mid-life, the teenage boy that lives in me has learned the ways of manhood and is slowly but surely putting the stupid quest for masculinity behind me. This has allowed me to rest more comfortably in my own masculine skin and then, in turn, pass it on to my boys.
Mike McCormick is the author of ManQuest: Leading Teenage Boys into Manhood, a guidebook designed for fathers to have intentional conversations and engage in activities that help boys become men. Mike is married with two teenage sons and a daughter and lives in Birmingham, Michigan.