Babies, Blood, and Power

“In fact, men often report feeling left out of family life and other things close to the life process. As Sam Keen recounts his experience as a father, for example, the birth of his children left him feeling not only awestruck but profoundly inadequate:

In that hour, all my accomplishments–books I had written, works of will and imagination, small monuments to my immortality–shrank into insignificance. Like men since the beginning of time I wondered: What can I ever create that will equal the magnificence of this new life?

… She gives birth to meaning out of her body. Biology alone assures her of a destiny, of making a contribution to the ongoing drama of life. A man responds to her challenge by simulating creation, by making, fabricating, and inventing artifacts. But while she creates naturally and literally, he creates only artificially and metaphorically.[4]

 

Sam Keen, c. 1990

Keen seems to see having babies as something that women do–like building a house or writing a book or sculpting a statue–rather than something that women experience, participate in, and become part of.[5] Keen feels challenged to do something equally “magnificent” and feels inadequate and left out because he cannot. He seems to believe that biology is the root of the problem, but in fact it has more to do with how patriarchy encourages men to organize their lives around control. When control is at the center, it is hard to settle for merely being part of something or witnessing someone else’s powerful experience. Everything comes down to gaining or losing status awarded according to the ability to control and do.

 

Since she can do this thing and he cannot, patriarchy offers three paths of least resistance: he can devalue what she does, he can find a way to control it, or he can feel bad about himself. It is easiest to devalue her and what she does–by being indifferent birth and babies–because devaluing women is a staple of patriarchal culture. Asserting control takes more effort: a man can become an obstetrician or a child care expert, or, more simply, come into the delivery room as a ‘coach.’ But the life process is far more than the mechanical process patriarchal medicine has turned it into. It is soul and body work, and it may be the lack of this that leaves many men feeling left out, diminished, and not up to the ‘challenge.’

When men feel left out, it’s not because they aren’t women. They feel left out because participating in patriarchy leaves them disconnected from their own sense of aliveness. We cannot practice a religion of control without alienating ourselves from everything we might seek to control. Inevitably, control becomes a standard for measuring our worth. As Keen puts it:

When men define themselves by power . . . they are able to feel their manhood only when they have the ability to make things happen, only when they can exert control over events, over themselves, over women. Therefore they are condemned to be forever measuring themselves by something exterior to themselves, by the effects of their actions, by how much change they can implement, how much novelty they can introduce into the slowly evolving history of nature. I did it; I made it happen; I exist.[6]

If men’s sense that they even exist depends on having control, then it takes very little to threaten their sense of identity and worth. Almost everything can trigger this–having to say, “I don’t know,” losing a job, not having an erection, or having to stand by and watch someone else ‘have’ a baby. To avoid feeling threatened, men may devalue or ignore whatever does not support the feeling of being in control and focus instead on what does. It is no surprise that men typically seem less interested in the uncontrollable emotional and spiritual aspects of life and are drawn to whatever enhances feeling of control, from sports to computers to business to carpentry to orgasms to arguing about politics to getting into the Guinness World Records book for doing something longer or faster or more times than anyone else. It’s also no surprise that men so often place a premium on presenting themselves as independent and self-sufficient in relation to women: “In Andalusia, as in Cyprus or Algeria, a man is expected to spend his free time outdoors, backslapping and glad-handing. This world is the street, the bar, the fields–public places where a man is seen. He must not give the impression of being under the spell of the home, a clinger to wife or mother.”[7]

This disconnected sense of standing alone and independent takes many forms. Men, for example, routinely diminished their connection to nature. They often ignore their own pain and mortality by pretending they are fine when they are not and acting as though they don’t need help when they do. They may put on a tough, stoic front and make a point of being able to ‘take it’ or do it on their own. Many live as though the body and its needs are repugnant (no smelly diapers for us), as though mind, spirit, and body can be separated into neat little compartments, as though the body were merely a machine, as though a life that denies or even punishes the body is superior to a fully embodied life. Nature, the body, and women become the other, objects of repressed desire and longing as well as fear–“a great swamp into which men slide when they forget to maintain control.”[8]

For men to feel inadequate because they cannot feel in control around life’s great mysteries is silly, but it also makes perfect sense in a patriarchal worldview that encourages men to think they are supposed to control everything worth anything and to feel connected to things through controlling them.”

Pp. 168-170 in Johnson, Allan G. 2014. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. From Chapter 8, “It Must Be Women,” pp. 167-191, section “Babies, Blood, and Power,” pp. 168-171. Emphasis added. Notes by Johnson below:

  1. Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 17, 18.
  2. For a powerful discussion of these and other issues related to motherhood, see Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976).
  3. Keen, Fire in the Belly, 103.
  4. David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 52.
  5. Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Men, Women, and Morals (New York: Summit Books, 1985), 113.

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