How Men Are and Aren't Surviving
A conversation with Shawn Taylor on masculinity, middle-age, fatherhood, feminism, humility and trauma
I have been wanting to publish a conversation with my friend, Shawn Taylor for a long time and when you read this interview you will know why. Shawn is a writer and university lecturer with a long professional history in behavioural therapy in the area of youth work. We became friends through our writing, when our daughters were little, and we were both grappling with this big feeling of wanting to do better for this next generation of women we were raising.
Since then, I have learned that Shawn is one of those people who can go wherever the conversation needs to go on something important.. no matter how dark and deep. He is fearless.
So, sit somewhere comfortable with a cup of coffee and eavesdrop on us…
Shawn, reflecting on your writing and video diaries on parenting, I see that a big part of the challenge you are focusing on is shedding ego, as a father. Can you tell me more about how you knew that was required in fatherhood?
Being a father is the most selfless thing I've done. More selfless than being a husband or a teacher. I know so many men who revel in the idea of fatherhood, without getting into the real heavy 'self work' that's involved.
Most people parent in accordance with, or in opposition to how they were parented.
I'm firmly in the latter as my parents weren't very good people. My grandfather was my only real role model for non-abusive parenting, but I didn't see him too much growing up, and he was long dead by the time my daughter was born. So I'm winging it. For a minute, I engaged in self-mythologizing. I inflated myself, painted myself as the paragon of fatherhood because I did not want to walk in the same crooked footsteps as my parents. Then, reality hit. My parenting isn't about me. I'm a conduit for love and safety. It is my job to decentralize myself and allow my daughter to grow in the way she needs to, not in the way I expect her to. This isn't meant to sound weird, but I'm my daughter's humble servant. This isn't to say that I am not the authority, but humility and being of service are the cornerstones of my parenting. It's not about me. One of the most ego-annihilating parenting lessons I've learned is that our children are born with their own operating systems. There are things they are primed for--things your influence cannot touch. As you know, I'm a huge music fan. Every Saturday morning is 'music time'. I play 2-3 albums for my daughter and we discuss her reactions and why I chose those particular albums. I've played her all my favorite hip-hop, ska (only first and second wave), Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Colour---She's heard my favorite music for her entire life. I figured it would have an influence. Wrong. She's into My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Meet Me at the Altar, Black Veil Brides. My baby, who I wanted to be a hip hop head, sits firmly at the intersection of emo and goth. Blindsided me. But I support her because forming culture, her own cultural aesthetic that serves her, is more important than my ego or wants.
Most people parent in accordance with, or in opposition to how they were parented.
This is so true, and it is such a reactive space to come from as a parent, where you are vulnerable to all sorts of unresolved triggers that can mess up hearing what is actually required by your child in any given moment. (It reminds me of this quote, and I embarrassingly can't recall who originally said it, but, you parent with the antidote to your parents when what your child really needs is the antidote to you).
You chose interesting words to describe how you see parenting, 'humility' and 'being of service', because of course we associate these words more with religion. But you can't underestimate the importance of these words to living a good life. And it made me think about a writer friend I have, who is a bit older than us, and she would often challenge me about how intensive I can get with my mothering. Like, she would say, your child is who they are and it is less about what you do, craft, inject into them, than about having the humility, as you say, to yield to the call to be gentle enough for them to unfold as who they are.
I laughed when you told me your daughter is disregarding all your music education, though I suspect she will come to be a fan of your taste when she gets a bit older, because when you say you are a 'huge music fan' you're almost downplaying your knowledge of and appreciation for music. People would pay to have Saturday morning music time with you.
So, tell us, what hip-hop should we be listening to right now?
Most of the hip-hop I've (we've) been listening to are old school favorites: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest. Mos Def, Digable Planets,; more contemporary hip-hop: Noname, Tierra Whack, but we've also been listening to a whole lot of UK hip-hop: Lady Leshurr, Ms. Dynamite, Kano, Roots Manuva, Wiley, Hawk House, Denise Chaila. Trying to show my daughter that Black culture is worldwide and not just situated in the States. It's not just the Diaspora that is global, so is the culture we produce.
How did you find your way to feminism/womanism?
I had wonderful aunties. They were hugely feminist, without labelling themselves as such. How they were this way, and my mother wasn't, is beyond me. My aunt, Rose, was so hardcore. Most Jamaican women are. But she was extra. Equality was never a conversation to be had. It was either there, in your dealings with her and other women in her presence, or it would be or you'd regret it. She was the first person I ever saw ask publicly, to the management of the restaurant she worked at at the time, why the male servers were allowed to keep more of their tips than the women servers. All the women walked out for three days until that was amended.
When I asked her how she got to be so brave, she said this: ' Yuh na respect women, yuh na respect life.' 40 years later, it still sticks with me.
I love that your anecdote about witnessing feminism in your early life also involved seeing it translate into fighting for labour rights. This part of feminism isn't talked about enough.
On the other hand, my wife is a more quiet (but still fierce and strong) feminist. She knows all the theory, but has an uncanny knack for translating it into something actionable.
Funny thing, my wife, at the time we met, was not the type of woman I'd ever go for. I was more into the tattooed, edgier women and my wife is an academic. But I think how I lived my life as anti-patriarchal as possible, and her accepting my being vulnerable worked for us. She was one of the very few people on this planet that I didn't have to present as someone I wasn't--holding back emotions I didn't dare share. She allowed/allows me to be my full, complete, vulnerable self. But she will check me if and when that latent patriarchy flares up. My aunties primed me for my wife.
This is an important connection that you have highlighted. It seems you are saying that because your wife is a feminist she also accepts you as fully human, in being a man? And by seeing you as fully human, more than that, by expecting you to be fully human, she has actually allowed you to be truly authentic with her? It reinforces for me, again, that argument we are often trying to make as feminists, that the patriarchy has hurt men, as well as women. Your thoughts on that?
I think you've nailed it. Patriarchy is killing our hearts, aging us prematurely, and distancing us from our friends. Thing is, everyone is complicit. Even women. Men haven't (don't) really have spaces to figure out just what the hell a man is supposed to be in our contemporary moment. We were stoic providers for a long time, and then we also had to be stoic, provide, and also be strong/tough enough to protect. Then, through some kind of miracle of psycho-emotional purging, we were expected to morph into sensitive and caring and non-aggressive men. And this is just within Gen X.
It feels like we've been constantly fluxing, but really haven't had a say in how we were expected to change--we've changed on other's terms. Of course we needed to be less hurtful and damaging and misogynist, but there was no pause button, no support, barely any guides to show us how to make these changes without damaging ourselves/our relationships or our self-conception.
Then, when we become our more emotionally available, emotionally honest, compassionate, empathic selves, there are quite a few women who question our manhood. Before I got married, I was dating a woman I thought I was going to marry. But as I was going through my metamorphosis, she routinely took shots at me for turning into "a pussy" and that she was afraid that if we got into any kind of trouble, I'd be "too soft" to do anything about it. I was like, "wasn't this what you wanted? You told me, demanded of me that I become more sensitive." Needless to say, that ended. But this isn't just anecdotal. I was working on a project, talking to men about how their journeys towards becoming more emotionally whole and to a one they all expressed stories like mine--just getting assailed on all sides by folks, men and women, family and friends, questioning their manhood. The ultimate goal is to not let the questions get to you, but that level of comfort is... a hard road to travel. It's worth it, but don't expect to get there without lumps and bruises. Then, in my case, when you add size, skin color, tattoos, and my level of education--nah, this is an entirely new conversation. The intersection of masculinity and race is like a dangerous side-question in a dungeon crawler video game.
Excellent description. And you are right that the ways in which questions of masculinity overlap with race are a whole other big conversation. And I’m definitely not qualified to have the conversation with you.
But, this comment about the men of Generation X, generally, and these men not having any guide posts for their transformation, nor even perhaps choosing their transformation resonates for me, from the perspective of a woman in your generation who has been in relationships with the men of this generation. I look at Gen X men as very much the wolves that first came down to the farmyard. They can go either way. They’re not all the way changed their sons might be.
I see it in the world of work, sometimes, when Gen X men are around the worst of the so-called alpha men of the Boomer Generation, and how easily they slip back to them into a kind of hostility towards change. And yet, when they are around their feminist wives and female friends they can lean into that better self.
I don’t mean to suggest that these men are being deliberately duplicitous, though some are, I think it is more that a lot of them, as you say, have a damaged concept of self and their work happened without real role models and without the scaffolding to give it stability. I suspect Gen X men are the first generation of men to actually give something up in the feminist revolution. The generation before us, our fathers, saw the gains of sexual freedom from feminist revolution without having to really give up power in the equation. And more so than younger generations of men, Gen X might not have particularly pursued their own evolution so much as had it called upon them by women, by their lovers and possibly less directly by their mothers.
What is your wisdom for younger fathers/husbands who fear middle-age and who they will become?
Lay the foundation early. I'd argue that all men should go to therapy before becoming fathers and/or partners. There is so much in parenting and partnership that will challenge who you are, and the social and cultural contexts you come from. Never in your life will you have to be more flexible and fluid than when you become a father. I'd also suggest curating an intergenerational cohort of fathers to surround yourself with. Not a bunch of 'yes' people, but a solid group of men who can give you multiple perspectives.
One of the things I never thought about was how lonely fatherhood can be.
All the attention, rightfully so, is focused on the mother and the child/children. Dads are routinely left out. I won't even get into how patriarchy plays a huge role in this. To summarize: address your trauma and shortcomings as early as possible and create a council of men you trust.
You're the first man I have heard describe fatherhood as a potentially lonely experience, and yet, looking at the men around me I realise now that that is what I am seeing. And this includes my husband, I think, stepfather to my two children and father to two daughters, as well. Not necessarily lonely as men, although many men are, but certainly lonely in their practice of fathering. But you're absolutely right about the role of the patriarchy in this - men who are unable to be vulnerable and who don't have the capacity to seek connection are not going to be good at building community with other men and self-reflecting on fathering.
I spent a whole lot of time and energy cultivating a group around me, with whom I didn't have to always be on guard.
I cannot explain to you how freeing it is to be in a group of men where no one is trying to outdo each other, one-up each other, or otherwise trying to dominate. To be able to ask for help/advice without the fear of judgement or ridicule is.. honestly, there aren't any words to accurately name that kind of liberation. And therapy.
I'd argue that all men should go to therapy before becoming fathers and/or partners.
My God, yes. One of the things that drew me to my husband, back when he was first asking me out, was when he mentioned going to therapy after his divorce and how much he valued that. And this was from a working class man from the north of England, where therapy is definitely not a regular part of life. (Now he's working in and studying social work, so it changed everything).
It's an extraordinary feeling, isn't it? Good therapy? Self-insight has to be one of the most satisfying and calming sensations in the world, however uncomfortable the truth is that one is facing.
Granted, my therapy was non-traditional. I worked at the intersection of adolescent mental health and juvenile justice for 20 years and I was pretty aware of the techniques of most therapeutic approaches. My ego told me I was immune. Then I met someone who mixed traditional therapy and hip-hop and drama and shamanic/folk practices that seriously remixed my entire being. I'll be forever grateful to them.
Parenting a teenager, I am seeing how powerful the drive to self-individuate is right now. And I have been thinking about how incredibly dangerous this stage is for Black kids in countries like America (and Australia), where Black kids are heavily and violently policed.
The fear can be almost crippling. I worked in adolescent mental health and juvenile justice for twenty years. I've worked with thousands of children and, without hyperbole, 98% of my clients were Black. 99% of the client funerals I attended were those of Black kids. My life, from 3-17yo, was incredibly violent. Stabbed multiple times, shot at 17. All around horror. My daughter has zero reference points for this. The only in-person violence she's ever witnessed or experienced was when I had to choke out a guy for stealing a purse at the mall. That's it. But with all of the extrajudicial killings a Black men and women, the rise of in-your-face racism, a former president who was directly responsible for stoking racial animus--it's been a lot. Too much, at times. My daughter is at the age where she should be hanging out with her friends, unsupervised--possibly even getting into a little bit of trouble.
But Black trouble gets metastisized to the point of absurdity.
We've given her the tools we can: she can fight. She can run. She's taken parkour classes so she can develop a suite of escape tools and options.
Our daughter has been pushing boundaries and we've had to be frank in that she and her non-Black friends live in two different worlds, no matter how "progressive" that Bay Area purports to be.
And the things her white friends say and do could get her killed by the police, or some random white person who has deputized themselves a la George Zimmerman. Thinking and strategizing about this occupies an enormous part of my day.
I want to acknowledge what you just said here. Because that is something to sit with, for white parents. That's big. And I don't want to compound the exhaustion and distress of that for Black parents, like yourself, by making you labour the points you raised.
But to white readers, I guess, I will note that the process of individuation is a critical developmental process for maturing into an integrated self. To rob certain kids, Black kids especially, of the complete expression of human experience and from unstoppable drives towards growth - which range all the way from the freedom to not cope with or act out in trauma, through to tasting and learning how to manage risk - could only happen in a society that dehumanises Black kids . And thinking about our mention of the benefits of therapy, I will share that quote1 about how privileged kids go to counselling, poor kids go to jail.
As we settle into middle-age I am finding it to be a surprisingly joyful time. How are you finding it?
I've never felt more alive, energetic, more willing to try new things and, frankly, sexy than I am right now. As cliched as it sounds, growing old/er is a privilege. I didn't think I'd make it past twenty. I grew up in a very violent household in a violent neighbourhood. Death and jail were the primary paths for so many. That I'm sitting here in a 19 year marriage, with a happy and healthy 13yo, in my own home, with a wall full of degrees is nothing short of a miracle.
I'm embracing every grey hair, coming to terms with the truth that I'm not as strong or as fast as I used to be. But I'm finally happy.
Never knew (understood) that I was traumatized until well into my 30s. I thought my state-of-being was just how things were. Once I recognized that my fair to partly cloudy countenance was the result of trauma, then getting help to work through said trauma, life has eased into something beautiful. And this sex is better, too.
We could keep talking forever, but I couldn’t pick a better place to end on than that one! The sex is better in middle age, yes.
Shawn Taylor has a new book coming out shortly - I'm a dad. WTF? 13 Years of Miracles and Mistakes.
Judge Charles Mathis