Wissot: Mothers pick up where fathers leave off
My father died 35 years ago this month. I was 41 at the time. He’s been dead for 45% of my life.
It’s weird for me to realize that I am almost seven years older than he was when he died. I understand now what he might have been thinking and feeling as he passed through the various stages of his life because I have passed through them myself.
Wordsworth wrote that “the child is father to to the man” meaning that the character we form as children stays with us into our adult life. The character traits I developed as a child were due to the influence of my father, first, and then my mother.
I put my father first because fathers were then the exclusive keepers of the male code. They taught their sons what was expected of them as they grew into manhood. The male code changes from generation to generation, and boys today are not taught the same rules I was taught 60 years ago.
My father taught me about the expectations for manhood as he understood them based on the societal norms of the time. It would have been impossible for him to do otherwise. He couldn’t possibly have known that 60 years later, boys would be raised to be caretakers for their children, domestic helpers, secondary bread winners, and communicators of their feelings.
Nor could he have known that these new roles would be a result of more and more boys being raised by their mothers without the help of absentee fathers. These are the sons who were separated from their fathers because of divorce and the breakup of the nuclear family. That would happen decades later.
Boys in the 1950s were raised to be rigidly masculine in appearance and tight-lipped about their feelings. Movie stars like Gary Cooper and John Wayne were our role models for manliness.
George Wissot was a member of what Tom Brokaw coined the “Greatest Generation,” the one that weathered the Great Depression followed by entrance into a world war. I think the term “Silent Generation” would also have described the persona of men like my father. He never spoke to me about his wartime experiences. After his death, I learned from his diary that his medical unit arrived at Dachau three days after the camp was liberated on April 29,1945.
My father raised me to project a tough, strong, resilient demeanor. Crying was for crybabies. Expressing your feelings was a luxury for boys on the path to becoming men. Suck up your inner pain, never complain, and truck on as best you can, was the message given to me.
I don’t blame him for raising me the way he did. It was the only way he knew. He wanted me to have a strong enough constitution to survive and thrive in a highly competitive, cruelly capable, world. I bless him for doing what he thought best for me.
The problem was that I was filled with doubts and fear. I hurt easily, and didn’t handle rejection well. I was scared and dying to escape from the circumscribed male code that didn’t fit my temperament or personality. I couldn’t express this to my father because I didn’t want him to see me as a failure, a loser, a boy who didn’t live up to the expectations of the most important man in his life.
That’s where my mother took over. Her approach to me was different. She let me talk about my fears and didn’t censure my tears. She understood my father was just following the blueprint he was given for raising a son. But she saw beyond the gender norms society had set for boys. I suspect she had an inkling that the world I would be living in when I reached adulthood might be different from the one that was in place then.
Much has changed since my childhood. The boundaries of masculinity have expanded to embrace both alpha leaders and beta followers like me. It’s not shameful to be a needy nerd the way I was.
Billionaire nerds like Bill Gates are sexy in a nerdy way. Role expectations incorporate a greater acceptance of appearance and apparel. The male dress code that once made a taboo of any outfit that looked even remotely feminine now allows baseball players to wear pink shoes and swing pink bats on Mother’s Day. David Beckham, a world class stud soccer player, popularized the metrosexual look for men. Sarong anyone?
This expanded definition for masculinity suits me well as a 76-year-old man; it wasn’t available when I was a 14-year-old adolescent.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to my dad in preparing me for the worst of what life might throw my way and my mom for encouraging me to remain steadfast and hope the world evolved.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.