(This is part of a series of essays on the subject of manhood commissioned by Jason Brown at Men’s Health.)
A very small girl taught me about strength.
I don’t have a child of my own and probably never will, but for a long time my sister and her wife tried to fall pregnant. Treatments are expensive and weird and didn’t work for them so they decided to adopt, and I now have a seven-month-old niece. My sister brought her to me and held her out and said, “You should get to know her. She’s going to need a man in her life.”
When I first took her in my arms I felt the way men have always felt with something so small and vulnerable and trusting: like a South African cricketer under a high ball in a World Cup game. Shit, I thought. I’m going to drop her.
Then she looked up at me and stared at me without blinking and I experienced the second thing that men like me have always felt: the sense that she expects something from me, and the sure knowledge that whatever it is, I’m inadequate for the job. I handed her back and went to the kitchen to pour some drinks for everyone and had a little cry, and swore to myself that first thing tomorrow I’d start getting into shape.
I’m not a gym guy. I’m your standard flabby dude who wants to look better but doesn’t really have the motivation and so works out in isolated bursts maybe twice a year. I’ll laze around and eat ice-cream until one day I can’t button up my jeans and then I’ll panic and do kettlebells and squats and cycle for 45 minutes and be unable to walk the next day without wincing, and the cycle will start all over again. But my niece sent me back to gym for a different reason. I didn’t want to look good: I wanted to get strong.
This is a hell of a world for a little girl, especially a black little girl with two white moms. It’s not a kind world and it’s not a soft world, not for her. She’ll run into everything that other women run into, and more. She’ll run into bullies and bigots and abusers and bastards of every stripe, and I need to stand between her and them. I ran the numbers in my head: when she’s ten, I’ll be how old? And when she’s a teenager? And in her twenties? I’ll be … oh my god. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be a slope-shouldered, weak-armed old dude with skinny legs, unable to do a damn thing to help anyone.
I found a personal trainer and explained my mission. Her name was Famke and she was lean and taut and listened carefully. She poked me and prodded a little, and suggested a programme to improve my flexibility and strengthen my core. I was annoyed. She obviously hadn’t understood a word I’d said. Who cares about my core? I’m a man, not an apple. When you arrive at your date’s house to pick her up and her uncle’s there to meet you, you don’t think he’s scary because he seems to have a well-developed core. I told Famke no offence, but I think I’ll need to work with a man on this. I need someone who understands where I’m coming from: someone who can make me strong, not bendy.
I told my sister. “I don’t get it,” she said.
Of course she didn’t get it – she’s not the only man in a family of women. She and her wife and their friends may not see a need for a man in their life, but I still believe there’s some value in maleness. Some day they might just need someone to stand between them and a bear, or to hold up that falling boulder while they scramble to safety. They may need someone to pick up something heavy and carry it from one place to another, and that’s what men do – we’re the dumb, strong animals who carry things for our families until our backs break or our hearts explode. Maybe one day they’ll need a family member with strong shoulders, so I need my shoulders to be strong.
I found another trainer, a guy, a big guy who pressed protein shakes on me and recommended certain pills and promised I’d be benching something unlikely in just three months. Look, I’m not a fool – I realised what was happening here. My physical exertion was just a way to displace the fear and helplessness I felt about her. How can I protect her against everything that’s waiting for her in the world? How can I protect her against men like me, and the men far worse than me? I can’t, so I lifted some iron to stop thinking about it. At least I was doing something.
A couple of months later I went to meet my sister and her family for lunch. I sat at a table on the sidewalk where there’d be space for the pram. As they walked up I saw a black guy at another table glance at them, then inside the pram, then say something to his buddy. I tried to stare them down, but neither of them looked my way. When my sister and her wife joined me at the table I hardly greeted them, because I was too busy focused on those guys.
“What are you staring at?” said my sister.
“Nothing,” I replied.
I swiveled my eyes to prove I wasn’t staring at anyone, but then stopped at another table where a white couple were sitting. He said something to her and she looked over and she pulled a face and nodded in agreement.
Okay, this was more like it. Only a fool in South Africa starts a dispute with two black guys over something possibly race-inflected, especially when you’re not 100% sure what they said. That’s a good way to get yourself all over Twitter on Monday morning, and not in a good way. But some white guy?
I stood up and walked over and asked what he said about my niece.
He said he didn’t say anything.
“I think you did say something,” I said.
My sister tried to urge me back to my seat, but I shook her off. This was man’s business.
“Was there something you wanted to say?” I asked the guy again, but just as he was standing, my sister grabbed me with a surprisingly strong grip and hauled me back to my table.
Yikes, I thought. If my little sister can manhandle me so easily, I need to take those protein shakes more seriously.
I wasn’t expecting her to be delighted, necessarily, but I thought she might at least be impressed by my willingness to stand up for her daughter.
“What the hell,” she said, “do you think you’re doing?”
I explained my thinking, but that just seemed to make her more angry.
She wanted to know if I thought that as a gay woman she had never encountered whispers and stares before. She wanted to know if I thought that a gay couple adopting inter-racially weren’t expecting a certain amount of bullshit and social static? She wanted to know if I thought I was going to swagger around eyeballing every creep and bigot we encountered for the next thirty years?
I said that’s exactly what I intended doing.
“You know,” she said, “she’s going to need a strong male in her life.”
“And that means someone who’ll be there for her, who’ll love her and make her feel loved, no matter what they’re feeling. It means someone who thinks more about what she needs than his own ego.”
“This isn’t about ego …”
“There’ll be times when she’ll need to fight and she’ll need us to fight for her, but those times will find us – we don’t need to go looking for them. She needs a strong man and you are not being strong. If this what having a man in her life is going to be like, maybe that’s not what she needs.”
At first I was aggrieved. But next week at gym I stood watching Famke with a client. I watched them work on balance and inner strength and how to stretch and hold, and it dawned on me that maybe men need a different kind of strength now. There are times when it’s useful to pick up heavy things and put them down again, but there are far more times when we need to twist and hold but still keep our form, when we need to bend and rebound, when we need to know when to lift something and when to leave it lying where it is. I do need to be strong for my niece, for my family, for myself, but I’m only just realising that it might take a whole new kind of strong.
Men’s Health – 2016