I’ve always been uncomfortable around men. I am most comfortable with my husband, but there are only a handful of other men with whom I feel I can let my guard down. This isn’t an intentional distrust—it’s a psychological wall that has built up since childhood.
The first brick was laid by my father, who warned me about men from early on. He said men were pigs, that they only wanted “one thing.” According to my father, men saw women as nothing more than pieces of meat. The older I got, the more emphatic his warnings became. I think he was trying to protect me in his own way, that maybe he didn’t like the idea that a man would view me the way he viewed other women.
At the age of seven, I was molested by an older male cousin. A friend of my father’s would tickle me until I cried. I knew the tickling was an excuse to touch me. It seemed like every time I turned around, a man commented on my physical appearance—the lewd comments bled into the seemingly innocuous ones so that after a while they were all the same.
I didn’t have brothers or any close males to counter all this negative input. My friends with brothers often seemed more comfortable around men than I was, as if they possessed information that I didn’t, as if they’d been exposed to a secret, gentler side of boys, one that didn’t constantly angle for sexual gratification.
When I became interested in boys, they were a curiosity to me, and a potential answer to my question: Was I a desirable piece of meat or not?
In almost all of my relationships with boys and men, I honestly can’t say I ever empathized with one of them. I could feel vaguely sorry for a boyfriend who seemed distraught over something, but deep down, I doubted he was capable of experiencing emotion as acutely as I could—which is to say, as a woman could.
And even though I am more comfortable around my husband than I have ever been around any man, I felt this disconnect from him as well, albeit to a lesser degree, up until the last few years. He was always kind to me and loved me more fiercely than any man ever had, but he was still a man. How deep and true could his feelings be? I alternated between questioning his sincerity and marveling at it.
12 years ago, I gave birth to my first child—a boy. My heart still compresses with guilt as I remember how I had to work to muster enthusiasm when the ultrasound technician told me I was carrying a little boy.
How could I ever connect with a little boy? How could I love something I feared?
But then he was born, and of course I fell in love with him as mothers tend to do with their babies. I forgave him for his maleness. I loved him in spite of it.
When my son was a toddler, I bought him an empathy doll, one that sang songs about emotions, including a sad song about ice cream melting when it fell on the ground. Every time the doll sang the ice cream song, my sweet boy’s bottom lip would poke out and quiver. I was amazed by how much he felt that stupid song.
When he was seven or so, he tied a rubber band around the dog’s paw, just being silly. When the rubber band cut off the dog’s circulation, the paw swelled up. I showed my son what had happened to the dog’s paw, and his remorse was palpable. He still feels guilty about it even though it’s been years since it happened.
The first time my son performed for an audience, back when he still played violin, he got intensely quiet before going onstage. His posture was stiff and his eyes were glassy and serious. This wild little boy with ADHD had been tamed by performance nerves. When he finished his performance, you could see his little body wilt with relief, and he smiled with such pride that it broke my heart.
When my son was around 8, he started reading the Harry Potter books. When he got to the part where Dumbledore dies, he came running into my room, crying hysterically. It was an absolute revelation to me that boys cried over books.
Last year, during the ride home on the last day of fifth grade, my son told me there was a girl at school that he liked as more than a friend. I had always imagined this moment as being filled with trepidation. Women are nothing but pieces of meat. Once my son became interested in girls, would he be lost to me? Would he become what I had feared for so long?
But the look on his face as he told me about his friend was so tender and innocent. We had his friend over for a play date, and I got to know her a little. I don’t think I consciously expected my son to like a girl only because she was pretty, and yet for some reason I was still surprised, or maybe proud or impressed, that it was obvious my son liked this girl for so much more than how she looked. She is a smart, creative, well-spoken little firecracker.
I won’t say more about my son’s relationship because it is not my story to tell, but I will say that witnessing my son’s pure affection for a girl has been healing for me. This and the many other accumulated instances of witnessing his gentle soul in action have begun the work of chipping away at that old wall of mistrust.
I listen to my husband now with a more open heart, whether it’s chit-chat about work or a heated argument. I see his desire to be good and do good more than I ever did before. I know there are still men out there who I should fear, but I also now realize that there are so many more with kind hearts and good intentions. I will probably always feel at least a little uncomfortable around men I don’t know very well, but thanks to my son, I am learning not to be so presumptuous.
I often think that my son came into my life to teach me a lesson in compassion—for boys and men, but also for myself. I know he won’t always be perfect, because no one is, but my son has given me a glimpse into the sweet, boyish virtue that resides at the core of every good man. And I am a better person for it.