Footprints in the sand
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For most of my boyhood, my mother and her mother—an old, Polish woman barely bigger than a sparrow and about as restless—ruled our home. Life might have been different, of course, had my father lived. As it was, when my brother and I were eight and six, he died one April night, suddenly and suspiciously. My mother, she barely 33 and a widow now, was left to raise her two sons. This was Chicago, 1970.

When I look back, I see my mother as a woman who was loving and full of wit and humor, but often, too, she would be filled with melancholy and silence, reduced to sitting at the kitchen table, dealing herself endless hands of solitaire. Some years ago, I asked her what she felt that first night she was alone, the night after my father died. She looked at me and said, "I sat down at the kitchen table. I had put you and your brother to bed. And I remember as I sat there, all I could think was that your father was gone and I had to take care of you and your brother. That it was all up to me to raise you two guys." She paused. "And I just thought to myself: 'Nothing is going to stop me.'"

And nothing did stop her. My brother and I finished school, started our own lives. Built families.

I would be less than honest, however, if I did not say that as I entered the world of work, of a life outside of my boyhood home and the matriarchy's orbit, I always felt something was stopping me. I always felt incomplete—weak?—because I came to feel in my bones and my heart that I did not know the ways of men. That I didn't "speak" men. For years, I felt alone. Isolated. Unable to belong. At the root of it, I always believed that having been raised by a single mother, I was not socialized in the ways of men (whatever that means).

Next: Growing up without a father
I see now that from the time I was in elementary school, I knew all I needed to know about that world. Boys—and men—are pack creatures. Whether on a playground or in a conference room, the rituals are the same. As a result, I have, many times, found myself on the margins. One of those mutts you see at the dog-run that paces tentatively on the sidelines, looking longingly as the other dogs carouse. I look back now and think about the feeling of being inadequate. And because I felt inadequate, I felt weak. Vulnerable. I saw my father's absence as a constant reminder of what was absent in me: manhood.

When I'd try to talk about these, well, "feelings" with some of my male friends, inevitably they'd give me that look and tell me, "Stop being so sensitive."

Only decades later, when I started to search for the truth about what happened to my father the night he died—when I set out on my journey—did I come to see that the values I was taught in that matriarchy were not vulnerabilities. They were—are—my strengths. My mother filled the absence that was my father with her strong self. But also her vulnerable self. What gifts did I get from my mother? She taught me compassion. To think of others first. Selflessness. Sensitivity and attunement to the feelings of others. Humility. How to speak about my emotions. The power of listening.

I have no doubt that many two-parent homes (and single-father homes) teach the same values. All I can tell you about is my home. And what I want to tell you mothers and sisters and spouses of men and boys out there reading this is this: Perhaps the greatest gift you can give a man is to teach him sensitivity. How to be open. Because here is another truth I learned as a boy, observing my mother: That which makes us vulnerable makes us stronger. Why? Because our vulnerabilities are our truths. And whenever we embrace our truths—when we share them with others and risk being truly known—we inevitably inspire others. Beginning with those closest to us.

Michael Hainey is the author of After Visiting Friends and deputy editor of GQ.

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