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Tall Silent Type
by Forrest Seymour
It was over four months ago that we learned our coming child was a boy. The high-tech ultrasound machine, in color, with sound, moved over and through the features of our fetal baby. Here it is in cross-section; here you see its heart beat. Here you see he's a boy. Fourteen weeks after conception and we not only know his gender, but that in profile he looks disturbingly like my late father-in-law. Unbelievable.
And perhaps I didn't really believe it. It is only a couple of weeks now, after all, until he's due, and still we haven't settled on a name. And this is not for lack of choice. Our fridge is plastered with thirty or forty candidates, from Adam to Zeke, but we just can't quite decide.
Now maybe this is because we need to see him first. This seems reasonable. It took us until three days after Emily was born before we knew what her name was. Why should it be any different with this boy? Yet I think there may be more to it than this.
Since months before our daughter was born, for the last five years, I've written here about the intimate intricacies of becoming and being a daughter's father, of struggles with career, parenthood, marriage, sex, and TV, if not video tape. Some might suggest I've been a bit too forthcoming. And yet the moment I learn that this next kid's to be a boy, I go all silent. I haven't written for these pages in months. What gives?
The other day I took a long walk with a good friend. We chatted about the coming birth of our son, and he described the birth of his, over twenty years ago. He spoke of regretting that the nursing staff had whisked his son away just after his wife's Caesarean, that he didn't do something to stop this. As events unfolded, he did not see his son again until several hours after his birth, and it is to this that he attributes at least some of the disconnection that he and his son have experienced in the ensuing decades.
I don't know how much my friend's alienation from his son has to do with those lost hours, or how much it has to do with a general quietness men have in certain realms. For many of us it is unbearably hard to plumb our emotional depths, to reveal their measure to our selves and our kin. There is this tall silent stoic thing that happens sometimes. We hold onto our pain, our loneliness, and this is evident in our higher rates of stress related illnesses.
Twenty years ago I went to college with a guy by the name of Mic Hunter, who has since gone on to write several books about the experience and treatment of men who were sexually abused as boys. He characterizes this as a silent epidemic, one our society is loath to look at. He cite's studies that suggest that one third of the male population may have experienced sexual abuse as boys. We may find these statistics hard to believe, but the idea that men tend to suffer in silence is far from surprising.
In the spirit of the season, Nancy and I got a babysitter the other night and joined in the revelries at a local advertising agency with whom we occasionally work. The day before, Nancy and I had been whittling our boy-name list down and had almost settled on one. She noted that her only hesitation with this name was the associations it had for her with a man she'd briefly dated years before we'd met, a man who she'd not seen since. It should surprise no-one who has faith in synchronisity that this old beau was there at the fancy holiday party we partook of that next day. Another unbelievable moment. For Nancy seeing this guy erased her misgivings about the name. For me it did just the opposite.
Forgive me for a Freudian moment, but isn't this just a bit too Oedipal: The son as a challenger for the wife/mother's affections. Or is it just me?
When Emily was born, when they held her up and said she was a she, my emotional reactions were clear: First surprise, then relief. It is not a boy, I won't have to deal with all of that. Later I sorted out that "all of that" meant reliving the most poignant parts of my own childhood, which I believed would not be evoked for me by watching my daughter work through her struggles for growth. Well, I was wrong. Much to my surprise, gender didn't matter; I've had to relive all those struggles anyway. So when we learned that number two would be a boy, I figured it would be no big deal, that I'd already done enough struggle reliving and again gender wouldn't matter. No special problems, no particular competition with this boy, nothing to write home about. Wrong again.
In fact my son will challenge me for Nancy's affection, just as Emily has. How could it be otherwise? But it seems like there is something particularly powerful for some fathers (read: me) about having to share their partner with their sons. I can't claim to understand this, but I did see some research recently that made an interesting link between fathers' mid-life crises and sons' adolescence. These researchers postulated that fathers don't go through mid-life crises because they reach mid-life, but because their sons start dating. The dynamics here are just too confusing for me to sort out right now, on the cusp of my meeting my own son, but I do sense that there is something significantly different about how having a son is going to feel.
It is easy to address these ambiguities and misgiving with silence. It is what I've done for the last few months. It's what many men do with emotional difficulties every day. But silence seems like a brief and inadequate remedy for a life-long struggle, this father-son thing. All along this road there'll be many a chance for me to let my son be whisked away. It is not so much that I need to prevent this, I don't think, as it is that I need to be ready to follow him along to where he is whisked. And to find the bravery in me to talk with him about it all.
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