It’s a peculiar thing to consider different aspects of sex differences and run into a wall of protestations by ideologues lamenting women’s purported weaker position in the world. This may be true in some cultures; however, in the west, I disagree with that view. I think women are the real power in most societies; moreover, in general, men are their proxies.
Maybe I just can’t get past my own experience. Call it confirmation bias and dismiss it. Know this though; I fully realize I’ve been working to make one woman or another happy most of my life. I don’t see signs of it letting up either. Canada is also one of the most multi-cultural places on the planet, and so I talk to a lot of men from all over. Seems to me these guys are all trying to keep their women-folk happy too.
From my mother and big sister in our family of eleven, crammed into a tiny bungalow in Ottawa’s south end, for me the pattern was set early. If ma wanted something done, I was all over it, grateful for the chance to score points and curry favour: a pat on the head, being able to lick a blender beater after she mixes icing. No doubt also to make up for my many shortcomings. I grew up from toilet training on knowing I was a disappointment, with the odd glimpse of glorious self-worth derived from getting lucky doing something right. A little redemption can breed a lot of hope.
Big sister was number two. We called her Dita, a contraction of her full name. At eight months old, the family did a five-year stint away from the capital to Halifax, following dad as he did his thing for the Navy. When I was about five, her status was made official one day after I’d teased her, calling her, “Di-ta Pi-ta, Di-ta Pi-ta,” taunting in common singsong. Well, ma descended upon me like a raptor after prey. Shaken and berated, I can remember it like it was yesterday, and I don’t think I gave my sister much trouble again. She, in turn, proved to be a good stand-in for ma, a tolerated and loved Little Mother, providing directions and explanations, a direct conduit of power from the top.
It was the same with moms who gave a little extra attention to the baby boom kids on the block. Ma once told me 62 children lived just on our part of Falcon Avenue. Mrs. Seward, across and a couple of doors up was as welcoming as her big doorstep, upon which kids would gather to bask in her attention. Kindly, loving, accepting, she could raise an army of children followers if needed.
Mrs. Rochon across the street was a French-Canadian, with long beautiful hair and movie star looks. Me, and my lawn-mowing, car-washing, snow-shovelling partners, would fall over each other at her beck and call. She’d toss us a few dollars, never quibble at our prices, and let us paint chairs and tables, fences, cut hedges and grass and whatever else she wanted. At ten or twelve years old, the sight of her sunbathing in a bikini in her backyard while we were on official business tending to some task, was like being humbled in the presence of a goddess.
Devotion to women was also true for the old gals for whom I’d do gardening and snow shovelling. Mrs. Adams had a super long driveway I’d shovel by hand for five bucks. In summer, she’d get me to cut her lawn, two bucks for the front, two bucks for the back. Afterwards, she’d insist I come upstairs to drink beer with her. She was a transplanted Newf and spent a lot of her day in housecoat, gray hair in curlers, and smoking furiously. When I’d go home smelling like booze and cigs, I’d report Mrs. Adam’s made me split a beer with her and my parents would just accept it with, “Is that right?” and nothing further.
Mrs. Forward across the street to the right was probably my best customer. My main partner, Graydon, lived next-door, straight across from me. We did everything for her. That lady didn’t plant a tulip without it being done by one of us, but preferred to do the weeding herself. She was tiny, wore glasses with gray hair, and had a big smile and a twinkle in her eyes. I can imagine as her younger self she was probably a real beauty. Her husband had some kind of respiratory problem and would spend twenty minutes at a time coughing so loudly from his upstairs porch, the whole neighbourhood knew it was he. Sickly and reclusive, he looked upon his wife’s little helpers with amusement, always kind but staying out of our way. It was she who was in charge.
My best teachers in school were women, where the tradition of pleasing women continued unabated. My early teachers were sometimes mean and sometimes kind, but always powerful. Some grades I had a Catholic nun as a teacher.
Probably the most beautiful face I can remember seeing to my mind was my grade three teacher, Sister something. She let me down that one. After tossing notes back and forth in class with Junior Lefevbre, she sent me home at lunchtime with a note for ma. I have the family record of hits with the hockey stick handle as a result of that incident, seventy-two or so whacks on my bare ass at eight years old. My brothers counted. I remember showing her my backside the next day at school, black and blue, my shirt still sticking to the bloody contusions, and reassuring her I’d learned my lesson. She recoiled momentarily at the sight, in what I assume was horror, composed herself, and then barely spoke to me for the rest of the year.
In grade five I had Mademoiselle Lapensee. She was there, and not there. She could smile at you one minute, and be somewhere else the next. Her lessons were from the book and little personality shone through her words and voice. It was all body language. She wore a mask. No. I mean it, a real mask of make-up so you could see the line under her jawline about where a man would shave a trimmed beard. Her face was completely painted, more than I’d ever seen. Weirder still, once she gave us something to do, she’d walk around the class in deep trance, looking off into the distance, a moving daydream vivid with scenes for she’d smile and chuckle and frown and arch her painted brows as if she was in a conversation elsewhere, which she was. Once every ten or fifteen minutes she’d return to earth, correct some errant classmate—sometimes me—and return to her revelry. It was intermittent reinforcement for children and you had to be on guard in case. She taught me, something.
Mrs. Stewart in grade six gave me a boost. I used to deliver the morning Globe and Mail by bike to her house three or four miles down Heron Road at 6AM for a while. I must have been nuts but she had singled me out as promising and I’d do anything for her. I was class president that year during the first Trudeau era and so I had male role models from afar, but worked for women in my daily orbit.
In grade seven, a new middle school opened up so those grades ceased to exist at Lamoureux, my little French school at the end of my parent’s street. This was a shock, being bused in with kids from all over the city to a place far from home. In one of my classes, my teacher asked what we wanted to do as careers. I said teacher—she talked me out of it. I said farmer—she talked me out of it. Said there was no money in either one and to abandon them. And yet, those yearnings still exist in me. I can’t blame her, who can predict the future? I teach lessons now and live in the country so: I’ve compromised.
There is little doubt in my mind I worked for my women during my three longest relationships too. One of five years, one just shy of twenty-five, and my current at thirteen or so. In each of these cases, making the missus happy has occupied an inordinate amount of my time and energies. Where at first I was so programmed to follow orders and please my gal, it took me many years to discover this was a mistaken approach.
I’m afraid I don’t buy the institutional gambit of women having lesser power. There’s even a book called, The Myth of Male Power, written by former feminist Warren Farrell, a male. I missed it when it came out in the early 1990s, perhaps because I was too busy working 60-hour weeks. I recently bought it to read on Kindle, so it’s on my list. But, I confess it’s not a priority because I suspect it’s going to be one of those reads confirming what I already know. Eventually, I’ll get to it.
But, men have likely always been, and are likely to be forever programmed from an early age to seek the approval of their mothers. There’s not a shrink anywhere who will discount the magnitude of family of origin influences. If pleasing mom is the order of the day while the very neuronal circuits of my brain were forming, those pathways don’t get paved over easily. I’d suggest these are permanent and indelible to such a degree as to become an almost drive-like force for men: eat, sleep, please women.
Look at Sherry Cohen’s Harvard research where she slapped fMRI on a hundred and sixty or so couples. She determined what makes men happy is this: notice what makes their partner happy and then attempt to recreate those circumstances. Happy Wife, Happy Life has a real basis in the male brain. You decide the nature/nurture bit; I just know it’s there without question.
And, since everyone has a mother, and every little boy’s first order of business in life is trying to please her—whatever the situation and without regard for her mental stability—you can bet it is women who hold the real power in most of the world. The tiny minority of men who head companies and countries, owe a lot of their success to this same drive to please their moms and gain status before the women around them.
Recently, for interests sake I sought to define what it meant to me to be a man. I started with some things I thought were essential. Things like: a man takes responsibility for his actions; is decisive and carries through on things; doesn’t play games with people and is a straight shooter in relationships; expects to work and carry a heavy burden most of his life, finding ways to make it meaningful while producing more than he consumes; cherishes family and protects them; abhors a bully and can defend against one, and most of all, recognizes himself as a man and doesn’t apologize for it.
To this my friends added more depth, mentioning a man elevates those around him; seeks the truth in all endeavours; shares stories about himself and how he came to his wisdom; embraces his male sexual essence in a healthy way; lives his life in service; and is a hero to his family because through sheer perseverance he is the guardian of their hopes for each other. Finally, a latecomer put it this way: “the definition of manly is anything women disproportionally reward in mating. There is no other definition.”
So there you have it.
And that brings me to my last point. It’s just that these forces have been with us from the beginning. It’s been a long time since we split from the great apes—something like 8 million years ago—and began the hominid line. These needs undoubtedly go back much further, maybe back as far as time itself.
And that’s the problem with this stuff. It’s the Lindy effect. A book published a hundred years ago and still in print will undoubtedly be in print in another hundred years. It’s likely we’ll still be reading from Twain to Nietzsche then, amongst the other greats of our literary past. But a book being published today has almost no chance of being read let alone published one hundred years from now.
I think we need to see a much bigger picture. These forces acting upon men for women are not going to change unless we force it, unnaturally. What we really need is awe. Just to realize the sun heats up to 27 million degrees Fahrenheit and one day will turn into a red giant, swell up and engulf the earth. The same force creating that made us. It took a long time for women to get men to stay connected to one partner and live a life in service of them and their children. Don’t mess it up now. Adjust, sure, make corrections, but be careful you don’t undermine the whole system. We need to look up at the stars and see ourselves as tiny, infinitesimally small before the universe.
Less well-intentioned but mistaken idealism.
Less hubris, more awe.