Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference
Family gathering at my grandfather’s funeral 1965. Was my jaunty pose a front and where were my male cousins?
My mum used to say she only ever wanted to be a mother (admitting in the same breath many could not afford to have a similar ambition). She believed parenting was an essential skill and a noble calling for the wider benefit of society. And who could argue with that?
She also said she felt her life’s work was to leave the world a better place than when she was born – so she didn’t limit her horizons to bringing up a family!
My mum’s maternal desires meant that I was one of four children – the youngest, and the only boy. I believe she would have gone on having children until a boy came along, so it’s just as well I appeared when I did (although I think my parents would have considered adoption if I’d been a fourth girl).
I know that in my early years I was spoilt. I was ‘the baby’ of the family (and feel I have remained so ever since) growing up with four mothers. At school, my friends would say how lucky I was to have three sisters at home to do the housework. I was lucky – I love them dearly – but it didn’t get me out of cleaning and tidying up; I had five family members making sure I did my fair share of the chores.
I’ll never know whether, if I’d spent my adolescent years at home with my sisters, my self-image as a boy and a man would now be different. I didn’t have the opportunity to find out as I went to a boy’s boarding school from 11 to 18 years, more about this in a later blog.
What I do know is that living for the first ten years of my life in a house filled with women – not just my mother and sisters, but all their school friends – gave me a pretty one-sided view of the ‘opposite’ sex. Or you could say it gave me an accurate view – of girls as people rather than objects of desire. Obviously I could never see what attracted boys to my sisters, but that’s probably the same for all siblings.
Not that my pre-boarding school life was entirely bereft of male company. My next-door neighbour – a friend until his untimely death aged 52 – was only slightly older than me and we did all the things pubescent boys do. We argued, bust up and made up on a regular basis, dabbled in girlie magazines, talked and watched football, went to see Mott the Hoople surprisingly often across the Mersey in Liverpool, made dens and climbed trees in the woods behind our house.
Of course, parents would never allow unaccompanied trips to the woods these days (I only had one dirty old man expose himself to me) but maybe the fact we often had our two elder sisters with us made it OK. Both those sisters were described at the time as ‘tom boys’ and only recently I read someone’s observation that there was never an equivalent description, that wasn’t derogatory, for boys who liked to do the same sorts of things as girls.
I know I was quite a sensitive young man. Before going to boarding school, I went dinghy sailing with another sister’s boyfriend. I don’t know how or why, but I read a love poem he’d written (someone suggested it might have been referring to my sister but that would be just too romantic…).
50 years on I can just about remember the poem – so touched was I by its sweet simplicity and his use of words
I remember her face (I think)
and a summer evening
standing on the shore
watching the Mersey
turning in its sleep
and the seagulls crying
sliding down the sky
like kids on banisters
while we wrote
I love you
in the sweaty summer sand
and skipped across rocks
and both held hands
to keep from falling
out of love
But we couldn’t
That sense of lost love must have struck a chord with me, even at that stage in my life, and yet if you’d asked me to describe love I would have been hard-pressed to do so (but maybe this would be the same for most boys of that age, if not for most girls as well).
I was surrounded by love – my ‘four mothers’ and a father whom I now realise has had a massive influence on my whole life – good more than bad (but more about that in a later blog). Maybe that’s why being ‘sent away’ to boarding school felt like rejection, even though it was done for what my parents considered to be all the right reasons and with my complete agreement.
To be continued…
For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land