By Bevan Morgan
While I didn’t seriously think I would ever become a father, I always knew I would prefer having a girl if the impossible came to be. Predominantly, this was because I remember what I was like as a boy. It was disgusting. Those teenage years, in particular, were a horrifying mess. The oils. The smells. The stains. The sheets. I still feel completely grossed out by the concept of that happening in our house.
So, of course, from the first instant that we saw two lines on the pregnancy test, we just knew in our hearts that we were going to be having a boy.
The foolproof logic behind our belief came from two irrefutable truths. Firstly, there are a lot of girls in our family. We have three nieces and no nephews. I have six second-cousins, and only two are boys. It felt like it was statistically impossible for our child to not be a boy.
Secondly, it just ‘felt’ like a male was growing in Gemma’s belly. Between us, we had this overwhelming conviction that a smaller version of me was on the cards. That might sound strange. But there is always so much emphasis on feelings when you start your pregnancy journey, that it seemed perfectly reasonable for us to trust our gut on this one.
Because a young boy was an absolute certainty for us, my thinking started to change a bit. Quicker than I would have ever anticipated, I began to become more comfortable with the idea of a little boy tearing up the house. As a man, this excitement should probably have stemmed from the potential to have a partner in crime who I could get up to fun shenanigans with. Popular culture and social media are absolutely lousy with images of lads and dads doing fun things together like kicking rugby balls and being absolute larrikins together.
Truth be told, I had little interest in any of that. Instead, I was excited by the idea of ensuring my son avoided some of the bad decisions I have made that are explicitly related to being a man.
For several years, I’ve felt that I have a good grasp on how abhorrent some of my past behaviours were. Through my teenage years and adulthood, I swung violently between being passive-aggressive, dishonest, manipulative, self-pitying, emotionally abusive, unreliable, emotionally distant, dismissive, cold, and clingy. Sometimes I was all at the same time.
I have ruined multiple relationships, both romantic and platonic, by generally being a toxic bastard. Lots of my dickishness came from me completely ignoring mental health red flags. Even more came from years of denial about substance abuse. But those twin pillars could not be built without a strong foundation of toxic masculinity (amongst others that we can touch upon later).
It’s difficult to talk about toxic masculinity without having people just roll their eyes. It sometimes feels like an internet buzz term, and by this point, it is a cliche for men to plea a mea culpa for their crappy behaviour. So, let’s get this out of the way immediately. My bad decisions in my life are mine, and mine alone. Nobody forced me to torpedo relationships through a mixture of entitlement, arrogance, and meanness. I may have simply had some natural tendencies to be an idiot entirely unrelated to toxic masculinity. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that being immersed in a culture where male entitlement is sewn into the fabric of our institutions greatly enhanced my perceived right to be an idiot.
Looking back, the mind-bogglingly simple notion that I was not entitled to relationships, sexual or otherwise, completely flew over my head.
This ignorance didn’t manifest itself in me expecting to go to markets to pick a girl or a friend off the shelves. Instead, it manifested itself in my refusal to change when things didn’t work out in any sort of relationship.
If I was passive-aggressive and cruel to a partner, and they had enough, I blamed them. When I flaked on friends and ignored their messages, I got frustrated with them for being too emotional. If colleagues got tired of me being an unreliable burden at work, it was the job’s fault. Everyone else was to blame for my screw-ups because they just were not contorting themselves to fit into my universe. To me, I was a misunderstood hero. To everyone else, I was a villain.
Even when frustrated and hurt family and friends reached out to support me, I wouldn’t take it. I didn’t want to hear people’s advice or feedback, because I was ludicrously thin-skinned. Alongside entitlement, this kind of extraordinary fragility is one of the most potent symptoms of toxic masculinity in places like New Zealand. Men here, so often see themselves as stoic and tough. Yet at the slightest hint of someone criticising us, we lash out in hysterical self-defence. Nothing scares us more than our own self-doubt, and if we sense others have that doubt, we attack them with unrestrained ferocity.
The patheticness of this would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous to everyone around us.
So much of this toxic entitlement and insecurity was utterly avoidable, had I just been honest with myself. I should have been grateful for the fact that people cared enough to want me around. I should also have been humble enough to pay attention to every single concern they had. Instead, I just hurt people and projected my own self-loathing on to them.
I have worked to make amends where I was brave enough to reach out. For those I have been too cowardly to contact, I lie awake and let intrusive thoughts treat my mind like an open bar at a wedding. That’s not helpful for anyone, but I feel like I owe them that much.
The thought of a son of mine repeating my mistakes gave me chills. The more I considered what it would be like having a boy, the more I thought about how I could possibly take some of these learnings and apply it to my parenting. That undoubtedly sounds pompous and obvious (‘hey, guy, we’re all trying to do this already – you are not special’). But it was a bit of a watershed moment for me. My flaws have led me to a place in my life where I am grateful and happy.
Perhaps, all that past toxicity and denial could help me be a better dad to a boy who is going to get mixed messages from the world around him. It was exciting and refreshing, and I had a bit of confidence in my ability to actually follow through on it.