Commentary: The true meaning of manhood

The Miami HeraldFebruary 19, 2010 

"...And, which is more — you'll be a man, my son!" — from "If" by Rudyard Kipling

Lena had a fever.

It had spiked to 104 degrees and brought with it seizures, spasms of movement that terrified her parents. They called 911.

But paramedics could not reach their door; the epic blizzard raking greater Washington, had rendered their hillside street impassable. So Lena's parents bundled her up and walked her down. They rode with her in the ambulance through a city leached of color — no more vibrant reds, blues or greens, just the stark gray of the sky and the brilliant white of the snow.

Snow changes the world. It muffles sound, softens hard angles into graceful curves, drives people inside. Snow imposes a stillness. As they crossed this desolate new landscape, Lena's parents had plenty of time to worry.

Thankfully, doctors were able to bring the fever down. But then, Lena's parents realized a new problem; they were stranded at the hospital in a city that had ceased to move. Worse, they were stranded without diapers and baby food that, in their rush, they had left at home. Nor could they borrow any from the hospital, which said its own supplies were low. So Lena's father had just one option.

I happened to catch him on his cellphone a few minutes later. His breathing was ragged, and I asked him what was wrong. He said he was hiking through the storm — it was a mile or two to the nearest store, the snow drifts already up to his knees — hoping it would be open and that it would have diapers and baby food for his 11-month-old daughter.

I have seldom been prouder of any of my children than I was in that moment of my first-born son.

We — and here, I mean both he and I as father and son and you and I as a society — have talked a lot in recent years about the meaning of manhood in an era of women ascendant and cracked glass ceilings. Some of us insist that meaning is found in a man's toughness, his imperviousness to slings and arrows and feelings like pain or love. Some believe it is found in a man's violence, his capacity to hit and kick with force, to shield and defend what matters to him. Some argue that it is found in a man's strength, his ability to lift and carry, to push and to break.

I've always felt none of those things matters unless they are in service to something that matters more. Like going for diapers in a horizontal snow.

I don't mean to mythologize or overpraise something that is, after all, just a father's duty. But it is hard not to feel a certain satisfaction when I consider how many fathers fail that duty, having been liberated from obligation by social mores that exact no price from the man who plants a garden, then disappears before the first sprouts show.

And when I wonder how many women were slogging through that same snowstorm, having bought into the lie that holds fathers as optional parents who contribute nothing to the family a determined woman can't replicate.

And when I remember the times I preached exasperated sermons to that same son for posturing and preening like something he saw in a rap video, walking with an unearned swagger and acting as if this made him a man. Growing older has changed him. Lena, I think, has changed him more. Owning responsibility for that vulnerable little life has forced him to reconsider manhood itself.

We used to have a saying: It takes a man to make a baby. I'm beginning to think that, at least for some of us, the opposite is true: It takes a baby to make a man.

Lena, by the way, is doing fine. I saw her the other day and, as usual, she climbed on me like a jungle gym. Then my son walked into the room and held out his arms. Lena forgot all about me. She grinned, both teeth on full display, and reached up for her dad.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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