When women get together to talk, the subject inevitably turns to men. Before long the complaints begin, and the recurring theme is “men are such boys!” Do men truly stay boys while women mature? Are men, with their tougher exteriors, protecting an ultra-tender, childlike vulnerability? Or, maybe the little boy is what women want to see — he is easier, less complicated to connect with and embrace. We can mother him.
For whatever reason, it has always been more heartbreaking for me to imagine a sad little boy than it is a girl. My daughters feel the same way. They can’t stand to hear “daddy’s sad stories” about his childhood. He doesn’t mean them to be sad. They are just stories he tells because he thinks they are either good lessons or simply amusing (like when he bought candy and offered some to a friend, and the friend pointed out that the candy was Tums.) But to my girls these anecdotes are unbearable. It pains them to imagine their dad experiencing the slightest shame or embarrassment. On the other hand, they can usually have a good laugh at mine.
When I was a kid, my sister and I used to agonize about a man we would often pass while driving with our mom. He always stood outside his shoe store, behind his rack of men’s shoes displayed along the sidewalk. We were certain that he was despondent, dejected, desperately waiting for customers. We would plead with mom to stop and buy shoes from him, and she could never convince us that he might just be enjoying the outdoor air. We knew we were a little irrational, but we couldn’t control the horrible, tragic feeling we got every time we saw him.
I don’t believe we would have worried like that about a woman. “Women” were our mom, and mom wore her emotions on her sleeve, her vulnerability out in the open for all to see. She cried often, even at phone company commercials. We saw that she had lots of painful feelings, and she survived them all. We sensed her strength. But boys and men seemed to be the opposite – they made every effort not to cry. I imagined them strong on the outside, but achingly sad within. They were brave soldiers, hiding their pain.
The other day I was entering Starbuck’s and noticed a homeless man sitting outside. I rarely give handouts to the homeless, and I’m not proud of the fact that I’m often scared of them, especially when my kids are with me. But for some reason I decided to ask if he wanted a coffee, and he said, ”Smam.” I realized after my second try he was saying, “Yes, Ma’am.” I brought him coffee and a yogurt parfait. He thanked me and continued smoking.
As I got in the car, I felt crushed. I thought of the little boy inside that man and wondered – did his mom take care of him? Did she love him? What unimaginable pain was he holding inside?
When I got home, my husband held me, and we talked about the way we go through life with blinders on, defending our sensitivity to the sorrows of everyone around us.
Later that night my eight year old son had a hard time falling asleep. He was too wound up from school, homework and not enough release for his physical energy. This is a boy who awakens every morning like a shot from a cannon and spends the majority of the day singing, dancing, and exuding pure joy. His exuberance can be unnerving before the caffeine kicks in, but he’s a godsend as balance to the three moody females in the house (four, if you count our whiney dog).
Finally, after getting out of his bed and sneaking in to my room several times while I was working, I offered to do what he wanted, to “sleep with him” as I did almost every night until he was seven, to lie in his bed with him until he (or both of us) fell asleep.
As we lay together I thought of the Valentines I want to give to boys I know — the first, to my brave and boyishly handsome husband, who fills me with hope each day. Second, to my dear friend Doug, who inspires me every moment. I pray for him. And the last, to the little man who still likes to fall asleep with his palm over my heart.