Throughout my teenage years, even my twenties, there was never a moment when I felt like a man. Finishing high school, graduating from university, losing my virginity (I was a late bloomer too), getting my first full-time professional job, voting in an election. Sure, each of these milestones were amazing in their own way, but I didn’t think it made me a man.
Why was I so uncertain of my place inside manhood? Two big reasons. Firstly, no one ever sat me down and talked to me about what being a man meant. Not my dad, uncle, or a teacher or coach. I didn’t know whether it was a moment you magically arrived at, or a longer journey of development. I didn’t know the signals I was looking for, the changes I would grapple with, or the positive values I was to embody. Like millions of Aussie boys, I simply stumbled and meandered from one life milestone to another, hoping I’d work it out for myself.
Secondly, because no one gave me the 4-1-1 on manhood, I absorbed ‘the real man’ trope. At my school (a very fancy, privileged, all-male private school older than Federation) and in my community (well-heeled, conservative lower north shore), every little boy was meant to grow up to be a real man. It meant you were confident and in control – of yourself, and others. You were assertive. You were convinced about the correctness of your own opinions and beliefs and no one could tell you otherwise. You were physically strong and mentally tough. You were adored by swooning ladies which also of course meant you weren’t gay. You could handle whatever situation you were thrown in. You had a clear plan for your life. You got married and became a breadwinner. You didn’t care for your kids, you provided for them. You shrugged off being hurt or sick. You didn’t care if someone was offended by the clearly hilarious joke you told at their expense. You never had doubt, insecurities or anxieties. You weren’t sentimental or sensitive. And of course, you never ever cried. Emotions were only acceptable during sporting victories or tragedies.
For me, the real man was like a granite statue on a marble plinth, standing proud against the horizon.
Even listing those traits, I relive the angst and penetrating self-doubt from my adolescence. For me, the real man was like a granite statue on a marble plinth, standing proud against the horizon. I can feel myself gazing up at it, a weak, whimpish little boy, anxious whether I could meet that prototype. In my own mind, I was a failed experiment in manhood. That must explain why I listened to Mariah Carey instead of Nine Inch Nails.
No young boy should have to grow up doubting whether he has what it takes to be a man. It’s not healthy for them, and as tragic events in the community remind us all too often, it’s destructive for the rest of us. Boys are born sweet, vulnerable, loving and beautiful. It’s as they grow up that these traits get pushed aside. Boys must be loved and nurtured for who they truly are, and in turn love themselves. Fathers have a massive role to play in this. Fathers are the first gateway to manhood for our boys. They must be shown that masculinity is not about being ‘a real man’, but a good and decent man, confident in who he is, imperfections and all, with no need to prove it to others.
In 2020, I see a chance to topple that bloody statue. Everywhere I look, I see people liberating masculinity. When my daughter, Aila, turned three, the two boys next door came over, and gave her a glittery nail painting set. When she opened it excitedly, they sat and painted their nails with her. Aila was so thrilled. They showed such care and thoughtfulness. I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of male colleagues as they recount the joy of seeing their baby born. I’ve heard the excitement in their voice as they describe caring for their bubs and joining the local mums group. I’ve also seen the bags under their eyes from being up all night settling and feeding them. I’ve glowed watching Scandinavian dad, Ørjan Burøe, on Youtube dancing to Let It Go in an Elsa Dress like his son. I’ve admired the former students of St Kevin’s College in Melbourne speaking out against the school’s toxic culture.
These are all meaningful acts shaping the attitudes and wellbeing of young boys. They show that masculinity at its finest is inclusive, open, compassionate, respectful and accepting. The more men that dare to act differently and question the manhood we inherited, the greater the ripple effect across our community. And we’ve only just begun. This is a movement whose best days lie ahead.
Rob Sturrock is a working father and an author. He has written widely about his experiences of being a working dad and juggling the responsibilities of home and work.
Man Raises Boy by Rob Sturrock, Allen & Unwin, RRP: $29.99, available now.