Clementine Ford is a writer, feminist and reality television obsessive. She is the author of the best-selling books "Fight Like A Girl" and "Boys Will Be Boys". She lives in Naarm (Melbourne) with her son and his ever-increasing collection of plastic dinosaurs.
I’m a lifetime feminist and mother of two boys. I worry about the impact toxic expectations of masculinity will have on them, especially when I consider it alongside the rates of suicide for young men. I know that these behaviours are insidious, but I was shocked recently to hear my own husband refer to our 3 year old son as a “pussy”. As if that weren’t bad enough, minutes later I heard my 3 year old then use the same word against his 2 year old brother.
I’ve tried to discuss the broader issues of toxic masculinity with my husband, but he just glazes over. I feel furious that it’s entered my home in such a casual way, and I worry about the long term impact on my sons’ emotional growth if they are surrounded by this kind of language.
What should I do?
Firstly, let me just validate your anger by offering to share the weight of it with you. I am also furious on your sons’ behalf. I cannot help but think of my own son (who is also 3) and how he would react to being mocked in such a cruel and vicious way. At 3, your son may be too little to fully comprehend his father’s exact meaning but he will almost certainly glean the intent. So the very first thing I would advise you to do is to spend some time with both of your boys, creating a space in which they can feel fully safe and protected from judgment, and in which they are reminded of the fact that they can always trust you to be this person for them.
Then I would file for divorce.
I’m kidding, mostly. I know that dissolving a partnership is extremely complicated, and it probably seems like a huge overreaction to what could ultimately lead to a good learning opportunity. But you should also consider what it might mean for you and your sons if the future if is going to be filled with more of these specific kinds of teachable moments.
Because I want to strongly impress on you the fact that this isn’t just about a single word or action on your husband’s part - this is about the environment that’s being created in your home, which is where your children should be able to feel completely accepted and fiercely loved, by people who will always offer them refuge from precisely the kind of shaming mechanisms your husband has introduced them to at such an early age. These are your children. Their well being has to be nurtured and if there is any perceptible threat to that - even if just via the casually sexist attitudes of their father - you have to be the one to intervene.
It concerns me that your husband has married a feminist woman, yet as you say ‘glazes over’ whenever you try to discuss these matters with him. Unfortunately, it’s a commonly cited frustration among a lot of feminist women I encounter: that their husbands, who they maintain are ‘really great in lots of ways’, are still men who lack an essential curiosity about the political and personal interests of their wives. Perhaps even worse than this is the lack of interest these same men show in fostering healthy confidence in their children and creating gender equal environments for them to be raised in. Today, it’s your husband calling your toddler a pussy. But what will it be in a few years time? What attitudes about women and men will your sons absorb from their father, and how will they be shaped by their fear of inhabiting a manhood in which shame is defined not be how good they are but how stoic?
Toxic masculinity expresses its violence against men in a multitude of ways, but one of the most common is its use of shame to undermine and destabilise the confidence of boys and men. This is typically achieved through emasculation and the negative application of femininity and other traits considered to be ‘weak’. To call a 3 year old a ‘pussy’ is to define from the get-go that this is a house in which boys must be boys, or else risk being humiliated.
Your husband is the most senior male figure your sons have right now. When he derides their behaviour as being weak and ‘girly’, he’s sending them a clear message that they cannot trust the most senior man in their life to love and support them unconditionally and with pride regardless of what kind of men they turn out to be. It’s not just about a single word, but about how all of these actions and insults will, if they continue, chip away at your sons’ confidence and self esteem.
I’m sorry! I wish there were an easy answer that didn’t involve asking deeply serious and confronting questions about your marriage, but there isn’t. If your husband can’t or won’t educate himself on this issue, you need to make a decision for the well-being of your children. When it comes to their health and emotional well-being, your boys need you to advocate for them, not compromise.
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