Children help men to become manly.

This is my column in this past Sunday’s Greenville News.|newswell|text|Opinion|s

I was talking with my wife Jan a few days ago about growing up.  More specifically, when does a man become…a man?  I suggested that for me,  it was sometime around the end of medical school and my time in residency that I transitioned from adolescence to adulthood.  After all, I was married, I had a job and I was a physician.  Seemed manly enough to me!

She countered.  She felt that it was fatherhood that transformed me fully into manhood.  And looking back, I agree.  Before then, for all I had achieved, it was still all about me: my identity, my success, my education, my career, my aspirations, my resume.  I was selfish and she was patient.

It made me think about modern manhood. Many bemoan the fact that modern men seem more and more trapped in extended adolescence.  I’m confident it isn’t true of all of them.  I know some very mature young men.  But too many don’t move forward. From the end of high school through their thirties (and sometimes beyond), they are far more concerned with themselves than anything else.

To some extent, this is appropriate for a young man. We come of age by discovering our strengths and weaknesses, by developing goals and skills.  But men need to move further.  ‘When I became a man, I put childish things behind me,’ St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13.  We usually associate that with toys and games, but it likely refers to selfish pursuits and the endless desire for pleasure.

The sexual behavior of several generations is ‘exhibit one’ of immaturity in our aspiring men. Sexuality is misplaced and twisted, so that their natural and reasonable desire for a sexual partner turns into a pattern of conquest and abandonment, leaving young women emotionally devastated and sometimes scarred by disease, or left with children to raise alone.  (After all, a man can’t be saddled with responsibility when he hasn’t ‘found the right one,’ or ‘found himself,’ can he?)

A vast harvest of fatherless children has sprung up from ‘sowing wild oats.’  Doubtless some of it is from generational wounds, as abandoned young men absorb the lesson that abandonment is normative.  And to be fair, the culture of womanhood has changed as well, and both are intertwined in cycles of dysfunction that lead to the same unfortunate ends.

I wonder, then, if we’ve done a disservice.  In pointing to education, career and pleasure as the sole goods for young men, we have made men unnatural.  Fatherhood is natural.  And by this, I don’t mean serial paternity or mere instinctual reproduction.  I mean the fatherhood in which a man loves and marries woman and together they produce and raise a child.

In that setting, something happens to a young man.  He truly leaves childhood behind.  He devotes himself to the safety and well-being of his wife and child.  I speak from experience when I say that, while I thought I understood love, nothing prepared me for the tidal waves of love that I experienced with the gift my wife gave me in each of our successive children.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that we have only scratched the surface of our knowledge of biology.  And also, that we as yet have very little idea of the confluence of mind, body and spirit.  But we do know that a young man’s brain doesn’t really mature until the mid twenties.  That’s when good decisions are formed and unreasonable risk averted.  Therefore it also seems likely to me that the immense chemical, emotional and spiritual stimulus of fatherhood further propels us from boys to men.  That’s not to say that one can’t be a man without a child.  But some event that requires absolute love, devotion and self-sacrifice seems to be necessary to the process.

It has been suggested that the ‘wild west’ was wild, in part, because there were many young, energetic and unconnected men with neither wife nor child.  I see a similar pattern at work today, in both rural and urban areas, as men produce children but are not transformed in the process.

But proper, committed fatherhood is an event that creates a man who will work for his loved ones, live for them and if necessary, die for them.  So as we remember Father’s Day, we should remember that as much as we fathers raise our children, they seem to raise us.  And take us from the children we were to the men we hoped to be.


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