A New Man for a New Year

When you become a dad, you have this idea that you’re going to get to be a man. I say ‘get to be’ because manliness and masculinity are somewhat vilified these days. We’re meant to be in touch with our feminine side, have opinions about soft furnishings, sculpt our eyebrows, wax our nut-sacks, and take longer than a supermodel to get ready for a night out. It’s rather telling that the male sex symbols of yesteryear had chiselled jaws, gravelly voices and rugged good looks, while those of today are pubescent boys who can sing like girls and are incapable of growing body hair. There’s no way I can compete with that.

So it’s nice to have an excuse to release the savage beast.

I’m not talking about boorish lad culture – booze, boobs, birds and balls. I’m talking about what were considered the traditional manly virtues of strength, courage and inventiveness. After all, men built the wheel, crossed oceans on ships made of iron, and tamed the very landscape with the sweat of their brows. In a family, the man used to be the provider, the protector, the lawgiver and the master of all he surveyed. Who wouldn’t want that?

I pictured myself hunting mammoths, fighting off packs of saber-toothed tigers, and decorating my cave with the skulls of my enemies as I bathed in the tears of their women. I am masculinity incarnate, red in tooth and claw. See my chest hair and hear me roar for I am MAN!

When I’m a dad, I thought, I’m going to be a cross between Alan Quartermain and Rambo.

The reality of being a house-husband to two little girls is somewhat different.

I spent most of Christmas sitting cross-legged on the floor sipping pretend tea from a flowery tin tea set, and saying things like, ‘Mmm, lovely,’ and, ‘Thank you, yes, I will have another pink plastic macaroon.’ That’s when I wasn’t watching child-friendly crap like Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s my Donkey? and Frozen, and resisting my daughter’s entreaties to shave off my beard as it’ll make me look ‘very pretty’. Let it go, honey, let it go.

I cooed over little tinkles in the potty, gave her high-fives for eating her crusts, and hugged her through the night as she woke up with bad dreams. I changed nappies in three separate female toilets because despite it being 2018 already, many eating and drinking establishments haven’t yet realised that a man might be the primary carer. And I started to perfect my hair-plaiting skills, which is pretty far from the strong hunter-gatherer I thought I would be.

And then a couple of days back, I found myself sitting very still while my two-year-old got out her toy makeup kit and pretended to do my makeup – lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher, eye-liner and mascara. She even tried to fix a shiny plastic princess tiara in my hair, but failed as I have no hair.

Eventually she sat back to admire her work, nodded, pleased, and said, ‘Willy bustle.’

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

Now, as somebody obsessed with words and their meanings, I rapidly extrapolated the following:

willy – n., British, inf., the male member; penis; symbol of masculinity.

bustle – n. a wooden frame worn under a skirt to puff it out at the back.

And so:

willy bustle – n. a cage beneath a woman’s skirts where she keeps her man’s masculinity imprisoned.

My God, I suddenly realised. She’s absolutely right. I’ve been completely emasculated. Since becoming a stay-at-home dad, my manhood has slowly and surely been removed until I no longer have anything down there. I am a Ken doll – an empty, de-sexualised piece of plastic that other people dress up and play with for their own amusement. I have no power whatsoever.

I don’t get to decide when I get up in the morning or what time I go to bed. I don’t get to decide when I eat, or whether my food will be warm or left to go cold. I don’t get to decide when I make myself a drink or when I go to the toilet. Oftentimes, I don’t even get to decide what clothes I wear – I throw on yesterday’s as I hurry downstairs so as not to disturb my wife’s beauty sleep. My life is a parade of doing things for other people. As a parent, so far, so normal.

But my powerlessness extends far beyond mere parenting: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, I’m clearly no Englishman. My wife and her father bought a house together, and a few years later, I moved in with her, so despite it being our house, it is still seen as hers. I have no say over what comes into the house or what goes out; who comes and when and for how long; where things go; how it’s decorated; what pets we have. I don’t decide where we go for holidays, what activities we partake in, or what car we drive. As my wife is a spendaholic and hoarder, I don’t decide what toys or clothes my kids get, or which ones are given away, no matter how horribly spoiled they’re becoming. I’m not allowed to say what I really think to her family members when they belittle my parenting abilities in my own home. And since my wife doesn’t want to be ‘controlled by a man’, she makes arrangements and goes out without considering me, leaving me at home alone with the baby.

She keeps my manhood locked up in a cage beneath her skirt.

Why don’t you put your foot down? I hear you ask. Simple. If ever I resist, I’m told that it’s her house and I know where the door is, and if I go, she’ll get custody of the kids because ‘the courts are always on the side of the mother.’ So even though we have established that I no longer have a penis, my sex will still be held against me. And that’s just not right.

As a man, I need my power, my respect and my dignity. As a human being, we all need that, but as a man, I need it especially. It doesn’t matter whether you believe gender difference is a social construct or something innate, or as I do somewhere in-between, it is an important part of a person’s identity, psychology and means of understanding their place in the world. It might be unpopular to say it, but I’m going to:

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

I am sick of being told that masculinity is something bad. I’m sick of how it’s totally okay to judge somebody simply because they’re a man. I’m sick of having to hide or suppress my totally normal masculinity because we are creating a society in which you’re meant to be ashamed of being male.

Things are changing. I felt so utterly powerless last week that I shaved my head in protest. And I am growing my beard long so there’s no mistaking that I am no longer going to be anybody’s bitch.

I’ve spent nine years making sacrifices to keep other people happy. I’ve spent nine years pussy-footing around, compromising on my needs, burying my instincts for fear of coming across as old-fashioned and chauvinistic. And where has it got me? Am I respected for being a martyr? Am I appreciated for going without while those around me take, take, take?

No. I’m a new man for a New Year, and I’m not going to take shit from anybody.

Wow, that got dark pretty quickly. So to lighten the mood, back to my willy bustle.

‘Honey,’ I called to my wife, with my pretend mascara and eye-shadow and blusher. ‘Izzie keeps saying willy bustle.’

‘She’s saying “really special”,’ my wife replied.

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

‘Daddy’s not special,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s manly and dangerous and he has a beard. And I’m in charge.’

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

‘It’s my way or the highway, kiddo,’ I said.

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.

A Father’s Role

 

In the olden days – like, the really, really, really olden days – a father’s role was simple: catch food, drive your enemies before you, hear the lamentations of their women. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly simple, especially when all you have is a wooden club, but cavemen knew what it was to be men.

Years later it was decided that, while the father still had to provide for their children, they should also guide them towards successful adulthood by administering discipline, principally using ‘the rod’, ‘the birch’, ‘the staff’, or ‘the belt’, depending on their particular inclination.

Then we had this pesky thing called the sexual revolution, in which women decided they no longer wanted to sit around raising babies, baking cakes and waiting for their husbands to give them their pocket money, and instead go out and earn money for themselves. No bad thing in itself, but it upset thousands of years of a clear gender split in parenting roles.

The father is no longer the provider, because the mother can do that too. He’s also equally expected to help out with the night feeds, change nappies, give baths, nurture, cuddle, sing songs, mollycoddle, encourage and entertain. And discipline is hardly an exclusively masculine preserve. As a result, many men have lost their way, with nothing they can cling onto as an exclusively XY domain, unlike women, who have a sacrosanct arena of XX dominance: no matter how much I might want to, I shall never be able to give birth, breastfeed, or discuss pelvic floor exercises with my girlfriends – at least, not without embarrassment.

The thing is, we men are full of testosterone, ready to contend with nature red in tooth and claw, but there’s little call for that on the way to the chemist to get more baby wipes or when choosing between pink paint or floral wallpaper. So modern man channels all his brutish, preternatural manliness into the one thing we can make our own, and in this find fulfilment and transcendence: personal safety.

You mothers can wander about with the baby, smell the flowers, watch the sunshine; we fathers will protect you. That’s something we can do. That’s something you have to let us do so we feel like men. While you play in the play park, we’ll stand sentry, intercepting any and all potential dangers and inconveniences. We are a cross between Secret Service agents, bodyguards and ninjas. We stand ready to do violence upon those who would harm us and ours. We are men. Hear us roar! Miaow!

Trouble is, since I became a dad, I’ve realised that the world seems to have become an incredibly dangerous place, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Every hitherto friendly dog I pass in the street is now a potential child-killer, just waiting for me to drop my guard so it can maul my baby to death. I’m not just talking about Alsatians and Rottweilers – the village is full of prissy little Lhasa Apsos, fluffy, self-important, ten inches tall, all of whom will turn into Cujo if I’m not watching them. That’s without mentioning the cats, the size of tigers, that prowl between parked cars, sharpening their claws as they lust after toddler blood. It’s a freaking jungle out there, people.

And people too. The postman has morphed from a friendly chap who delivers the mail into a blood-thirsty psychopath who wants to take my baby away with him in his post bag. Elderly neighbours ask us if we have any plans for the day: why do you want to know that, are you planning on ambushing us and stealing our baby? You would not believe just how many kidnappers lurk around our village, ready to steal my nearest and dearest if I look away for even a second. Man with walking stick = man with offensive weapon, best avoided. Every bush, every tree, could be hiding the human equivalent of Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s my job to keep these bastards at bay.

Then there are the drivers. One mile an hour over the speed limit is one mile an hour too much: ‘Slow down, Lewis Hamilton, you’re not in Monaco now!’ The car park at the supermarket has changed from a place to dump my vehicle in order to purchase goods into a nightmare murderfest organised by the prison guards in Death Race 2000, filled with elderly people who reverse without warning and ignore the one-way traffic-flow system, yes, ignore it! And by the end of each car journey these days my eyes are bloodshot from glaring at every person along the way who has the potential to cause an accident which might harm my daughter – which, to be frank, is all of them.

Nature is just as violent. I see dog poo and wonder what diseases it might be able to pass on; I look at the sky and ponder whether or not little Izzie will make it home alive if the weather changes suddenly; I question if the trees I have walked under a thousand times will choose this day, this moment, to come crashing down upon us. Are those cows going to stampede? Can that bull get out of the field? Is the slurry pit giving out noxious gases? What if? What if? What if?

And that’s just outside the house. Inside, I’m increasingly suspicious that the TV might mean my daughter harm, or the dishwasher, or the tumble-dryer. Radiators are steam-filled pipe bombs, the boiler wants to kill her with carbon monoxide, the toilet is full of water to drown her in, the bedding can suffocate her, the plug sockets might arc electricity across the room, the carpet might cause burns, the food might poison her, the picture frame might brain her as she walks past and there’s the ever-present threat of the sofa swallowing her whole. I lie awake at night wondering if I’m doing enough to keep meteors from crashing through the roof or foxes from scaling the walls and sneaking inside through the air vents.

My parents asked me what I want for my birthday.

‘A fire extinguisher,’ I said.

All in all, I’m coping really well with my paranoia. But this, you see, is a modern father’s principal role: keeping our children safe. It’s what makes us men. It’s all we’ve got. Don’t take it away from us. Because you’ll need us when the zombies come.

Provided we haven’t worried ourselves to death first!